UN Women is in trouble. The newest agency in the United Nations system, widely hailed as the best hope for significant action globally on women’s rights, is falling short of both money and power as it limps toward its first anniversary in January.
Despite years of statements, campaigns and even Security Council resolutions, the situation of women around the world remains difficult for many millions of them and mortally dangerous for hundreds of thousands who die in civil conflict, gender violence, curable diseases and preventable complications of pregnancy.
Women in many countries lack access to legal systems and may in fact be forced to live under discriminatory laws that deprive them of property ownership, rights over their children, an education or freedom to travel. Hundreds of millions have no access to family planning or are prohibited from seeking contraception when the size of their families becomes a burden too heavy, physically and psychologically, to bear. At least 10 million girls are estimated to be living in forced childhood marriages in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, not a few of them younger than 10, when they should be going to school.
When four underfunded and largely powerless programs for women were abolished or folded into UN Women in 2010, the assumption among its advocates was that, finally, a new agency with much higher rank in the UN system—and a seat in the secretary-general’s cabinet—would put some meaning into decades of pious declarations, rousing international conferences that often produced little more than paper plans of action and hypocritical promises of “gender mainstreaming” in UN work globally. Early signs are that these challenges will take a very long time to be met—if they ever are.
The two crippling factors getting in the way of this important new agency are largely beyond its control: miserly financial contributions from nations on which UN Women’s operating expenses were designed to depend, and some petty turf games inside the UN system. These internal jealousies are compounded by the tepid support bordering on neglect among some of the organization’s highest officials, according to people who have followed very closely the struggles of UN Women in its inaugural year.
The problem is not in its leadership. Its high-powered executive director, Michelle Bachelet, a former Socialist president of Chile who now holds the rank of under secretary-general in the UN, has worked hard to put the agency on the international map, assisted by two very able and experienced deputies who know how the UN works, John Hendra of Canada and Lakshmi Puri of India.
The financial picture, however, is truly bleak, undermining UN Women’s work and forcing Bachelet, with her strong record of action on social issues in Chile, to devote much of her time at UN Women to fundraising. “UN Women has benefited from Bachelet’s international standing, though she spent too much time at the outset looking for additional resources,” said Anwarul Chowdhury, a diplomat from Bangladesh and former UN under secretary-general representing the least developed countries, who was an early advocate for the creation of the agency. He believes this preoccupation with fund shortages has dimmed the image of an agency that needed to establish a high profile right from the start.