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RIGHTS: U.N. Flunking on Gender Empowerment, Women Say

Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS, Feb 26 2009 (IPS) - The United Nations is coming under heavy fire for the lack of vibrant leadership and the continued absence of adequate structures to advance the long-touted cause of gender empowerment worldwide.

The criticisms come on the eve of a crucial two-week session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), Mar. 2-13, which will take stock of the successes and failures in implementing commitments made at the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing.

“The women specific units (at the United Nations) are splintered, small and shamefully underfunded for the tasks they are asked to take up, while the coordination of the U.N. system’s gender mainstreaming work is weak,” Charlotte Bunch, executive director of the Centre for Women’s Global Leadership at the U.S.-based Rutgers University, told IPS.

Bunch, who has been closely monitoring gender mainstreaming in the U.N. system, said that both at headquarters in New York and at the country level, the United Nations – and governments – need to raise the level of the leadership and provide much greater resources for this work.

When the big decisions are made about programming in Headquarters and in the field, “no one from the women’s units is present because they are not at a high enough level to be included,” she noted.

In a submission to the CSW, the Gender Equality Architecture Reform (GEAR) Campaign says it strongly supports the creation of a new consolidated and stronger U.N. entity for women that will greatly advance not only gender equality but also the empowerment of women and women’s human rights worldwide.

A longstanding proposal for the creation of a separate U.N. agency for women has been kicked around at the United Nations for several years now.

The proposal calls for a new “gender architecture,” including the consolidation of three existing U.N. entities – the U.N. Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), 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. But progress has been painfully slow.

The GEAR campaign, which represents over 275 organisations in more than 50 countries, pointedly says: “The United Nations still lacks a strong driver at the leadership level, both at headquarters and at the country level, as well as a systematic and effective mechanism to delivery on many of the essentials commitments made.”

These include the equal sharing of responsibilities between women and men and care giving in the context of HIV/AIDS.

The organisations endorsing the GEAR Campaign include the African Women’s Development and Communication Network, Amnesty International, Asia Pacific Women’s Watch, International Planned Parenthood Association, Centre for Women’s Global Leadership and the Women’s Environment and Development Organisation.

A new U.N. agency, headed by an under-secretary-general, the third highest ranking job, “would provide higher level leadership in executive decisions, than exists at present, to be more effectively drive the gender equality and women’s empowerment agenda,” GEAR said.

The proposed agency, it pointed out, must be funded initially at a minimum level of one billion dollars, with increases over time.

Taina Bien-Aim, executive director of the New York-based Equality Now, told IPS that “while Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has publicly and repeatedly formulated his commitment to address women’s rights, the outcome of such pledges is negligible at best, and alarmingly weak, at worse, considering the urgency before us.”

The U.N.’s rhetoric on empowering women within the U.N. and around the world is not matched by the required resources and resolve to achieve its stated goals on gender, she added.

For instance, the primary agency focusing on women, UNIFEM, has consistently had limited resources and no access to highest-level meetings in which policy is formulated and implemented.

The 50/50 gender ratio within the U.N. system is not yet met. And from the perspective of those working on the ground every day to protect and promote the rights of women and girls, the U.N.’s lack of political will to invest in the advancement of women is glaring, Bien-Aim added.

“Rhetoric with no teeth will shamefully perpetuate slow progress in ending gender-based violence and inequalities,” she said.

Bunch, of the Centre for Women’s Global Leadership, told IPS: “As those of us advocating for a strengthened gender equality entity in the U.N. have pointed out, the U.N. does not have adequate structures in place to move the many commitments it has made to advancing women’s rights and equality.”

She also said that progress on gender equality is then dependent on individual commitment of other leaders, which means that it advances at a very erratic pace; there are not adequate mechanisms of accountability for this work in the United Nations.

“What is needed is stronger leadership with the status and resources to back it up. Therefore the GEAR campaign sees progress on the U.N. reform of the Gender Equality Architecture as crucial to filling this gap and advancing the U.N.’s many commitments to women.”

Asked how confident she was that the new U.S. administration of President Barack Obama would take a more positive lead in gender issues after eight years of regression, Bunch said: “There are very good signals from the Obama administration and the (Hillary) Clinton-led State Department that they will take a strong lead on gender equality in their international work.”

A good start has been made in reversing the regression of the past eight years with the U.S. commitment to funding the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) again, she pointed out.

Another positive move, she said, would be for the U.S. Senate to ratify the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), and for the Obama administration to support Gender Equality Architecture reform and pledge U.S. resources to this new entity once created.

“This can have a spillover effect with other nations, both because they will not have to waste time responding to negative moves from the U.S., and also governments who have used the U.S. as an excuse to hide their own reservations or inaction on gender equality will now have to show their real views,” Bunch said.

This CSW session, Bunch argued, is a critical place for the U.S. to make its commitment to women’s human rights concrete and visible and for the U.N. and all governments to move this agenda forward more boldly.

“Women from around the world will be working for and expecting to see delivery on these issues in the next two weeks.”

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