A Powerful Women's Agency: will the UN deliver?

As the UN moves to create a strong women's agency led by an Under Secretary General, Charlotte Bunch argues that leadership and funding will determine the real success of the new unit and how powerful it will be.

Charlotte Bunch
27 October 2009

After three years of debate, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution on September 14th that will lead to the creation of a stronger unified women's rights and gender equality entity led by an Under Secretary General.   It will combine the four  existing women's units at the UN:  the Division for the Advancement of Women (DAW)  the Office of the Secretary General's Special Adviser on Gender Issues (OSAGI) the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) and the International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women  (INSTRAW). 

The vision for this new body is for it to be much more than just a combination of what exists now.  The goal is to have a powerful agency with the heft of UNICEF that can raise the global profile of women's rights and escalate efforts to realize them locally, both through strategic programming on the ground and by driving forward gender mainstreaming in the rest of the UN's work in areas from development and health, to human rights, peace and security.  As the 15th anniversary of the UN's Fourth World Conference on Women (Beijing+15) approaches with many of its promises still unfulfilled, advocates are demanding that progress on forming the agency be visible by the time of the its review by the UN Commission on the Status of Women in New York in March, 2010. 

Advocacy by civil society for this new agency began in 2006, when women's rights organizations began questioning how UN reform processes would impact gender equality issues. They called upon former Secretary General Kofi Annan's high level panel on system wide coherence  which was looking at UN development and humanitarian work on the ground, to address the structural inadequacies and fragmentation of UN work on women's rights.  After hearing from governments and women around the world, the panel recommended consolidating and strengthening the gender equality architecture of the UN.   

Women's rights and civil society organizations have been working for the creation of a new entity primarily through the Gender Equality Architecture Reform Campaign (GEAR), a coalition of over 300 organizations in 80 countries worldwide, with global and regional focal points. A number of structural options have been discussed as models for the new UN agency, and the prevailing consensus is now to create a composite, or hybrid, entity that explicitly merges country level operations with global policy making and monitoring functions that are often separated in UN structures.

In arguing for this model, supporters have campaigned for the new agency to have substantial resources (both human and financial), high-level leadership and an extensive field presence, in order to steer the gender equality and women's empowerment agenda and effectively deliver results for women on the ground.    

A key demand of the GEAR Campaign now is that Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, initiates a transparent global search process in the next three months for the new Under Secretary General position, in consultation with member states and civil society.  The Campaign has developed criteria for the post that call for the appointment of a strong leader with significant stature, competence, credibility and experience in gender equality and women's human rights, including work at the country level, as well as a track record in management and fundraising. 

Together with finding the right leadership, a key challenge is getting the UN, member states, and other funders to commit to providing the robust and stable resources needed for this effort to succeed. Currently, UNICEF has a budget of about $3 billion annually while the four women's units combined only muster some $221 million - less than 1% of the $27 billion that the UN and all its agencies currently spend per year.  An early budget of at least $1 billion is seen as crucial to the success of the new agency; the expansion of an effective country level operation to address the situation of women globally must come from core funding (as opposed to funding that is project specific) to ensure that the agency can work with a high degree of predictability. 

This new agency is the result of the campaigning work of civil society - led by women's groups working with human rights and development organizations. In order to deliver for women everywhere, there must be systematic and meaningful participation of civil society representatives in the governance structure as well as in the operations of the new women's agency. It is critical to tap into this expertise, and the Campaign has proposed the creation of Civil Society Advisory bodies at global, regional and national levels, as well as development a mechanism for on-going input from NGOs into the governance of the body. 

The UN has been an important arena in women's pursuit of equality, justice and human rights over the past 35 years since the first UN International Women's Year in 1975.  The UN has provided a venue for standard setting around gender equality and the human rights of women from the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) to the recent gains on issues of women and peace-keeping in the Security Council. Progress globally has repercussions nationally, especially in the arena of legal changes around women's rights over the past two decades. The challenge now is how to implement these standards and goals in the everyday lives of women and girls.

How effectively the UN and governments move forward on the creation of a powerful women's agency will indicate much about how far they are willing to go toward fulfilling their commitments and promises to women.  

This is the first in a series of articles by Charlotte Bunch on how the reform of the UN to create a powerful women's agency is progressing

With assistance from Margot Baruch

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