UN Women Limps Toward Its First Anniversary

UN Women Limps Toward Its First Anniversary

UN Women Limps Toward Its First Anniversary

The newest UN agency, once hailed as the best hope for action on women’s rights, fell short of money and power this year.


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.

When UN Women was created by the General Assembly in July 2010 after years of haggling over its status and powers, it was named officially, clumsily and cautiously the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women—“entity” being a safer word than agency or department among the opponents of the move. The plan was that there would be money from the UN Secretariat budget for setting up offices and providing salaries. That allocation would be augmented many times over by $500 million in voluntary contributions annually from the UN’s 193 member nations, added to donations from corporations, organizations and individuals. Those contributions would fund active programs around the world, filling the gaps left by UN Women’s predecessors.

As late as August of this year, Puri, who handles the management and budget side of the agency, was still hopeful, in an interview with the Inter Press news service, of raising $300 million in 2011, $400 million in 2012 and that goal of $500 million in 2013.

Here’s the reality: at the end of October this year, the total funds pledged to the agency amounted to $131.4 million—and only $58.2 million of that had actually been received. The largest payments came from Canada, Australia, Britain and the United States—in that order. The US contribution, despite loud and clear messages of support for the agency from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, was just under $6 million, with a promise of more later.

Last year the US government gave more than $132 million to Unicef, the UN Children’s Fund. Add to that the $435 million raised among private donors to the nongovernmental US Fund for Unicef—$70 million of it for Haiti alone following the January 2010 earthquake.

Bachelet’s own country, Chile, now under a conservative government, has managed to find only $ 23,000 for UN Women.

The list of donors says a lot about how much or how little the nations of the world want a powerful women’s agency to succeed. No important developing nations—except India, with $1 million already paid—are among the major donors. China could find only $60,000. Iraq, with its resurgent oil wealth, pledged $100, and had not paid up by the end of October. (For the full list of donors, see www.unwomen.org.)

“The lack of funding is a symptom of what’s going on,” said Paula Donovan, co-director with the Canadian diplomat Stephen Lewis of AIDS-Free World, a nongovernmental organization that also fights for LGBT rights and was at the forefront of promoting a strong UN unit for women. “I think the problem is the lack of support for a new agency from within the United Nations.”

“Just one example is that UN Women is not yet one of the official co-sponsoring agencies of UNAIDS,” Donovan said in an interview. “That’s preposterous.” UN Women is trapped by a bureaucratic paperwork process for membership in UNAIDS even though the epidemic has become a woman’s disease in parts of Africa and Asia and the new agency would seem to be a welcome partner.

“This has nothing to do with addressing and focusing on a subset of the population that desperately needs to be represented around the table when the UN’s talking about the global response to AIDS,” Donovan said, noting that Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has not used his power to shoehorn the new agency into UNAIDS, cutting through the sclerotic procedures.

Donovan added that the exclusion from UNAIDS is part of a broader picture of “internal rivalries, jealousy and fear” that UN Women under Bachelet will gain too much popularity or influence within the UN system, since women are meant to factor in every area of development. There is concern that funding for other agencies might suffer. The rivalry is particularly strong with the UN Development Program, Donovan said.

Within UN Women itself there are organizational turf lines, caused by the amalgamation of the four separate and occasionally mutually hostile programs for women in the UN system: the Division for the Advancement of Women, the International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women, the Office of the Special Advisor on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women, and the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM). None of these bodies had the organizational stature or budget that UN Women was promised.

From the beginning, it was decided that staff from these four would be absorbed into UN Women. There would have been disruptive labor challenges had that not happened. UNIFEM—which operated under the auspices of the UN Development Program—was the biggest winner in the merger. Much of its staff, all of its programs and its largely powerless and underfunded offices in the field simply moved over to UN Women, as even a cursory look at the new agency’s Web site confirms.

This situation has been a damper on UN Women’s ability to be a truly new and more powerful part of the system, said Chowdhury of Bangladesh, a country that has defied substantial odds to promote girls and women, particularly in education and reproductive health.

“So far, UN Women’s efforts to carve out its own independent image had to depend on the staff of its component offices that merged in the new entity,” he said. “The separate streams seem to exist even now as undercurrents.”

Chowdhury, who has also been active in peace projects and in promoting the protection of women in conflict areas, suggests that among fresh campaigns that UN Women could undertake would be to demand more action on a resolution passed by the Security Council in 2000 (and subsequent other resolutions on the subject that followed) calling for not only the protection of women in conflict and post-conflict but also their direct involvement in peacemaking.

Moreover, Chowdhury added: “Despite a wide-ranging sense that a fifth UN world conference on women is long overdue and should be convened latest by 2015, twenty years after the landmark Beijing conference, UN Women has given the idea a cold shoulder instead of seizing the opportunity for leadership that we expect of it to give the women’s agenda the standing it deserves.”

While there is little doubt that a big conference to review and advance progress on women’s rights would attract a lot of attention, not all of that attention would be positive, as anti-feminist forces would work to use the occasion to roll back earlier gains. Practically speaking, UN Women does not yet have the staff strength, the huge amount of money or a partner nation to host such a conference, which is an event on an enormous scale requiring years of preparation. At a time of global financial crises, there would be little international support. A similar set of obstacles has apparently led to a decision in the United Nations Population Fund to shy away from a twentieth-anniversary event on the 1994 Conference on Population and Development, held in Cairo, when nations essentially signed on to a pledge to give women control of their reproductive lives.

UN Women did produce a substantial report in July, Progress of the World’s Women: In Pursuit of Justice, which drew attention to the hundreds of millions of women around the world who suffer under discriminatory laws and illegal harmful practices, an issue that Obama administration has put on the agenda of the UN Human Rights Council. But UN Women still lacks the authority to intervene with governments in any meaningful way beyond asking them to fix their sexist laws. At the UN only the Security Council can compel nations to act, with the threat of enforceable sanctions.

Leaders of numerous nongovernmental organizations and foundations working with the UN lament the slow start to UN Women, saying that while the upper echelons of the UN administration understand the problem they appear to be unwilling to challenge either UN agencies or member nations, some of which were very much opposed to the agency’s creation.

Bachelet has other options; she may return to Chile and reassemble her political team to run for the presidency again in 2013,as the Chilean constitution permits, after a term’s break. A physician by training and the daughter of an air force officer who died in prison under the rule of Augusto Pinochet, she survived tragedy to build a reputation after Pinochet’s fall that made her the most popular politician in the country. Should she decide to leave UN Women, it might never recover from the loss.

This week in Busan, Korea, Bachelet issued a pointed call to action on gender at an international conference on development aid. When Secretary of State Clinton spoke later, she remarked: “I was standing listening to Michelle, who is her usual effective and strong way was making the case, but I could sense in her voice the same frustration that I feel from time to time, which is, How much longer to we have to make this case?”

Paula Donovan also emphasizes the importance of a strong UN women’s agency in all the UN’s work. “The heads of agencies of the UN, and really the secretary-general and the UN secretariat should have made this the big cause,” she said. “All the heads of agencies should have been pounding the pavement, going with Michelle Bachelet to some of those fundraising meetings, saying that in order for UNICEF to do its job well UN Women will have to be up and funded. For UNDP, the same thing. But that’s not happening. No one inside the UN is taking the big view of what’s best for women.”

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