All over the world , women have cause for celebrations as the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution on July 2, 2010 creating the UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women.
UN Women, as it is now named, is the result of years of negotiations between member states, and advocacy by the global women's movement. It is also part of the UN reform agenda that aims to bring together resources and mandates for greater impact and efficiency. More specifically, it is the response to challenges faced by the UN in its efforts to promote gender equality globally, including inadequate funding and the absence of a single driver recognised to direct all UN activities on gender equality issues.
It consolidates the efforts of four UN bodies that focus exclusively on gender equality and women's empowerment-- Division for the Advancement of Women (DAW), International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women (INSTRAW), Office of the Special Adviser on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women (OSAGI), and United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM).
The consolidation of these four bodies will, according to Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, “significantly boost efforts to promote gender equality, expand opportunity and tackle discrimination around the globe.”
UN Women is envisioned to be effective machinery to support intergovernmental bodies, such as the Commission on the Status of Women in the formulation of policies, global standards and norms; help member states to implement these standards by providing suitable technical and financial support to countries that request it; forge effective partnerships with civil society; and help the UN system to be accountable for its own commitments on gender equality.
Yet while this is a celebrated milestone, women's rights advocates remain at the edge of their seats. Charlotte Bunch, former director of the Center for Women's Global Leadership at Rutgers University and founding member of the Gender Equality Architecture Reform (GEAR) campaign said, “We have high expectations for this new agency to be a solid foundation for advancing the human rights of women as central to global policy efforts to reduce poverty and move toward greater realisation of peace and democracy in the world. The coalition of women's groups and other social justice, human rights and development organisations that played a pivotal role in this effort will now turn its focus towards ensuring that the new body has the human and financial resources necessary to succeed.”
For Gigi Francisco, General Coordinator of Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era (DAWN) which has also been one of the global networks in the GEAR campaign, she is “cautiously optimistic,” as she brings to light some issues that are likely to pose challenges for UN Women.
“Much remains to be seen. True, we are celebrating something that we [women's organisations] have worked hard for through more than two years. We went through enormous discussions to reach unities on lobbying around the new gender entity. It wasn't easy but it has been a positive process,” she said during an interview with Isis International.
According to Francisco, while UN Women can provide an opportunity for the UN to interlink previous initiatives and efforts on women's rights and gender quality both at the the policy and operational levels, this systematisation and streamlining also presents new challenges and risks.
“In the past, there was no central body that consolidated the different efforts of the UN in a holistic and integrated plan. While this posed a challenge, it also created various opportunities. Now, a UN Women consolidates all initiatives by the various UN bodies and interlinks all efforts both at the normative framework and operational levels. This is good for systematisation and organisation but it also means that we lose the diversity and variety of opportunities that were once accessible to a large range of women's organisations.”
Funding remains to be a stark reality. As GEAR envisions UN Women to operate with stable and predictable resources aimed at 1 billion dollars in the next few years, and while member states have already recognised that a minimum investment of 500 million dollars is needed for operations, available funding will largely depend of the voluntary contributions made by governments. To this end, UN Women, according to Francisco, will have “to generate respect and political support from within the UN system and among its member states to gain the financial support in needs to function effectively.”
Aside from funding, there is also the issue of governance of UN Women. GEAR has repeatedly said that it seeks “strong leadership at the top with an Undersecretary General who combines a global vision with gender equality expertise on the ground.” Like many women, the GEAR campaign is optimistic that UN Women will bring greater representation from the global south. However as Francisco pointed out, while greater representation from the global south in the governance structure of UN Women is promising, it is also very important to be reminded that not all governments of the G-77 are supportive of women's rights.
“While we [at DAWN] are happy that the governance board will be reflective of the proportional share of developing countries in the UN General Assembly, we are also conscious that there may need to be a stronger lobbying and advocacy effort on our part to make sure that governments that will sit in the governing body will have women's rights and gender equality in their agenda and the interests of the women's movement in their mandate,” she said.
Though the creation of UN Women will certainly strengthen efforts towards gender quality, it does not mean there is less work. On the contrary, it merely underlines how much work there still needs to be done.
“This is only the beginning. We must continue to ensure that we are building a United Nations that really works for all women on the ground,” according to Rachel Harris of Women's Environment and Development Organisation (WEDO) which has also active in the GEAR campaign. Truly, “Implementation requires active engagement of all stakeholders to get the entity up and running successfully,” Harris said.
UN Women is definitely a reason to be happy and excited, yet also—as Gigi Francisco put it—“cautiously optimistic.
Interview with Gigi Francisco, General Coordinator of DAWN
UN Women Born: Civil Society Celebrates Creation of Gender Equality Entity After Four Years of Advocacy, Press Statement by the Gender Equality Architecture Reform Campaign, 30 June 2010
UN creates new structure for empowerment of women, UN Press Release, 2 July 2010