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RIGHTS: NGOs Campaign for New U.N. Women’s Agency

Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS, Feb 14 2007 (IPS) - When the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) holds a two-week session beginning Feb. 26, a coalition of over 150 international non-governmental organisations will use it as a platform to urge Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to help implement a proposal for the creation of a new U.N. women’s agency.

“We are hoping that when women from around the world are present in New York for the CSW, we will have an opportunity for the secretary-general to hear firsthand how critical this reform is, not only for improving women’s lives, but also for achieving the Millennium Development Goals (which includes the eradication of poverty and hunger) and improving the well-being of all,” says June Zeitlin of the Women’s Environment and Development Organisation (WEDO).

“There is a clear consensus that the current structure is insufficient to meet the needs of women around the world or to fulfill the commitments governments have made at (the 1995 Women’s Conference in) Beijing and other U.N. world conferences,” Zeitlin told IPS.

The proposal for the creation of a “new gender architecture” included the consolidation of three existing U.N. entities – the U.N. Development Fund for Women, the Office of the Special Adviser on Gender Issues and the U.N. Division for the Advancement of Women – under a single new U.N. agency to be headed by an under-secretary-general, the third highest ranking post in the world body.

The 15-member High-Level Panel of U.N. System-Wide Coherence – which recommended the “establishment of one dynamic U.N. entity focused on gender equality and women’s empowerment” – comprised heads of government, former world political leaders and senior government and U.N. officials.

Charlotte Bunch of the Centre for Women’s Global Leadership (CWGL) said the proposal for an enhanced women’s agency with both more resources and an under-secretary-general as its head is a good step forward for advancing efforts for implementation of women’s rights at the United Nations, “but it can only do so if it is well resourced and also operational at the country level.”

“As the 150 organisations that signed our statement in support of the coherence panel recommendations pointed out, the United Nations can no longer pronounce good words on women’s rights and not put greater resources behind them at all levels or it will lose its legitimacy on this issue,” she told IPS.

The letter signed by 157 international non-governmental organisations says it is time to show support for a reformed and strengthened women’s entity at the United Nations.

“Women’s groups urge governments to demonstrate their political will during the General Assembly sessions by endorsing the coherence panel’s recommendations on creating a stronger gender equality architecture at the United Nations, and by establishing and adhering to a process and time-frame for implementation,” the letter adds.

Besides WEDO and CWGL, the coalition also includes African Women’s Development Fund, Amnesty International, Asia Pacific Women’s Watch, Equality Now, Global Fund for Women, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, International Gender Policy Network, Human Rights Watch, Nobel Women’s Initiative, the Open Society Institute and Sisters Beyond Boundaries.

“We understand that the new secretary-general has said he will meet with women’s groups about this proposal and give it serious consideration,” Bunch said.

“I am hopeful, but we also recognise that progress for women is always dependent on NGOs continuing to demand attention and we will continue to do that,” she added.

In its recommendations, the panel also said “the commitment to gender equality is and should remain the mandate of the entire U.N. system.” The (proposed) gender entity, it added, must also “be fully and ambitiously funded.”

Zeitlin said the three existing women’s units have a total budget of about 65 million dollars, compared to 450 million dollars for the U.N. Population Fund and about two billion dollars for the U.N. children’s agency, UNICEF.

“These recommendations present the best opportunity to reduce the gap between the rhetoric on gender equality at the United Nations and the reality of women’s lives,” she added.

She also pointed out that the panel had recommended an initial target of some 200 million dollars for the proposed new women’s agency.

“We understand this number was taken out (of the panel’s report) because some panel members believed it was far below what was needed for the United Nations to deliver on gender equality and women’s empowerment.”

She said the coalition agrees that 200 million dollars is only a beginning. “Therefore, women groups around the world will be undertaking a campaign, particularly among donor countries, to commit far more than 200 million dollars for the work of the consolidate agency,” she declared.

Meanwhile, a group of African women leaders said last year the new women’s organisation will really need a hefty annual budget of about a billion dollars.

“This will make up for lost time, and also turn rhetoric into reality,” they said. And a joint statement by Liberian President Ellen Johson-Sirleaf; Graca Machel, president of the Foundation for Community Development in Mozambique; and ministers of health of Botswana and Kenya, said they want to put the billion dollars in its right perspective.

“Last year, UNICEF had a budget of over two billion dollars for children. Surely, half of that would not be excessive for the world’s women. And, surely, ameliorating the lives of half the global population is worth one billion dollars a year – for a start.”

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