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RIGHTS: U.N. Approves Long-Awaited New Women’s Agency

Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS, Sep 14 2009 (IPS) - After more than three years of political foot-dragging, the 192-member General Assembly adopted a historic resolution Monday aimed at creating a new U.N. agency for women.

Charlotte Bunch, director of the Centre for Women's Global Leadership and a vocal proponent of the new agency, called it a "great victory for women's rights". Credit: UN Photo/Paulo Filgueiras

Charlotte Bunch, director of the Centre for Women's Global Leadership and a vocal proponent of the new agency, called it a "great victory for women's rights". Credit: UN Photo/Paulo Filgueiras

The decision to create a separate powerful body to deal exclusively with gender-related activities comes years – or decades – after the United Nations created specialised agencies to deal with specific issues, including children, population, refugees, food, environment, education, health and tourism, among many others.

Currently, there are four existing women’s U.N. entities in the world body: the U.N. Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM); the Office of the Special Adviser on Gender Issues; the U.N. Division for the Advancement of Women; and the International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women (INSTRAW).

But none of them is as politically powerful and financially stable as full-fledged U.N. agencies.

When the new women’s agency is created, perhaps by the middle of next year, it will be headed by an under-secretary-general (USG), the third highest ranking position in the U.N. system, after the secretary-general and the deputy secretary-general.

The four existing women’s entities are not headed by USGs, while all agencies such as the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) and the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) are.

The resolution adopted Monday “strongly supports the consolidation” of the four bodies currently dealing with women “into a composite entity, taking into account the existing mandates”.

The Assembly also requested Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to produce a comprehensive proposal specifying details of the proposed composite entity; an organsational chart; funding for the new body; and the composition of the executive board to oversee its operational activities.

Charlotte Bunch, executive director of the Centre for Women’s Global Leadership at Rutgers University, told IPS: “We are very relieved that the General Assembly has finally taken decisive action to create the new gender equality entity on the eve of the 15th anniversary of the Beijing women’s conference.”

“We consider this a great victory for women’s rights as well as for the coalition of women’s and other civil society organisations that have worked hard for over three years to bring this entity into being,” she added.

Daniela Rosche, head of Oxfam’s gender campaign, said that while it welcomes the principle on this much-needed women’s agency, “The attitude of some member states to weaken its mandate at the last minute is deplorable”.

This decision to have a new women’s rights entity in place will mean absolutely nothing if member states fail to give it a clear mission, she added.

The good news is that the new agency has the potential to streamline decision-making and programming related to women’s rights under one overarching agency, Rosche said in a statement released Monday.

“This body doesn’t add another layer to the already heavy U.N. bureaucracy. The potential to have an impact on women’s lives through education, organising and empowerment is very real and exciting,” Rosche said.

In the resolution adopted Monday, she pointed out, any reference to the agency’s future mandate has been deleted. But it’s not too late to turn things around.

The leadership of Secretary-General Ban is urgently needed to ensure that the momentum is not lost and women’s rights get the political backing they deserve.

The swift appointment of an under-secretary-general will help ensure an effective conclusion of this process by next year, she added.

A coalition of over 300 international non-governmental organisations, which has been pursuing a global campaign for Gender Equality Architecture Reform (GEAR) in the U.N. system, said it was pleased that the General Assembly expressed strong and unanimous support in adopting a resolution that will enable the creation of the new gender equality entity to be headed by a new USG.

In a statement released Monday, GEAR said: “We urge Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to immediately begin the recruitment process for appointing a strong leader grounded in women’s rights and gender equality as the USG who will lead this process of consolidating the four existing entities”.

“We expect a broad, open search process to start promptly so that the USG is in place and the entity can be operational by the time of the Beijing + 15 Review at the Commission on the Status of Women in March of 2010.”

The coalition also said that member states must address in a timely fashion all the outstanding issues required for the entity to begin operations, including the mechanisms for governance and oversight.

Donor countries need to pledge the substantial funding (about one billion dollars) to support the proposed strong field operation that the entity must have to be successful in fulfilling the promises made by governments and the U.N. to the world’s women.

“As civil society has always played a vital role in the U.N.’s work on women’s rights, we urge member states and the Secretary General to commit to systematic and on-going participation of civil society, particularly women’s organisations, in every state of the process at global, regional, national, and local levels including in the governing board,” the coalition said.

Women around the world have waited a long time for the United Nations and member states to fulfill the promises made since the first International Women’s Year in 1975, the adoption of the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) 30 years ago, as well as the U.N. World Conferences in Nairobi (1985) and Beijing (1995).

“This is an important and crucial step forward now it must be made operational without further delay,” the coalition declared.

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