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Q&A: “U.S. Should Invest in New U.N. Women’s Agency”

Christine Ahn interviews CHARLOTTE BUNCH, Founder of the Center for Global Women's Leadership

SAN FRANCISCO, Jan 25 2010 (IPS) - One year after U.S. President Barack Obama’s inauguration, how has his administration fared in terms of advancing an agenda for women’s rights around the world?

Charlotte Bunch Credit: Nick Romanenko

Charlotte Bunch Credit: Nick Romanenko

Charlotte Bunch, founding director of the Center for Global Women’s Leadership at Rutgers University and a longtime feminist scholar activist, as well as a board member of the Global Fund for Women, spoke with Christine Ahn about her assessment of the U.S. president’s achievements, and what remains to be done.

Q: Now that we’re one year into the Obama presidency, how is the administration faring on advancing women’s rights around the world? A: So far the Obama administration has done pretty well in advancing women’s rights through their foreign policy. The most substantial evidence of this is the increase in money that the State Department is now allocating to women’s concerns.

According to a recent report by Women Thrive Worldwide, the budget for women’s rights has dramatically increased from the Bush years. Their analysis of the State, Foreign Operations budget for FY10 found an increase of 1.66 billion dollars more than FY09 to the tune of nearly 8.0 billion dollars for global development.

Also important to note is the focus on women’s empowerment and gender integration across the foreign aid programmes which will be applied to 16.5 billion dollars in funding. The Congressional bill also included 3.1 million dollars for the newly created Office for Global Women’s Issues at the State Department.

Of course, the State Department budget still pales in comparison to the Defence Department, but the allocation of more dollars does signal clear intention of U.S. foreign policy to empower women and improve their rights.

Within the first few weeks of taking office, President Obama implemented some very important and symbolic policies. On his first day in office, he overturned the global gag rule, which the Bush administration had reinstated preventing U.S. government dollars from supporting any form of reproductive healthcare or family planning overseas.

The administration also immediately restored funding to the United Nations Population Fund and later pushed for the “gender architecture” reform that will create a new super women’s agency at the United Nations. President Obama also created the White House Council on Women and Girls to coordinate at the federal level all Cabinet and Cabinet-level agencies to consider how their policies and programmes impact women and families.

There was some discussion about whether this would be a commission, similar to what President [John F.] Kennedy set up in 1963. The difference is that the commission was public and included the perspective of civil society as a major component. Granted, in the 1960s there were few women in high level appointed federal positions so women in civil society played a big role, whereas today there are many.

Certainly times are different, but it still would have been good to have representation from civil society perspectives shaping the agenda of the White House Council. And most recently, Secretary of State Clinton renewed the U.S. government’s support for the program coming out of the U.N. International Conference on Population and Development, in 1994 in Cairo that linked women’s empowerment and reproductive rights with development goals.

Q: Do you see any negative moves? A: As for disappointment, escalating the war in Afghanistan isn’t improving the situation for Afghan women, men or children. And although they have made development in Afghanistan a priority, it still doesn’t balance the damage and destruction that will be wrought from more militarised violence. Similar questions could be raised about continuing U.S. military activity in Iraq and other places.

Another moment of disappointment for women was Obama’s speech to the Muslim world in Cairo last year. Although it was heralded in many parts of the world for its cross-cultural outreach from a women’s rights perspective, it was a low point. In that speech, he stressed the need to reach out to Muslims, but he didn’t give much attention to the state of women’s rights in that part of the world beyond the need to improve women’s access to education.

He missed an important opportunity to challenge the discriminatory practices of all religions in subjugating women by calling upon all Christians, Muslims and people of all faiths everywhere to improve women’s human rights.

President Obama could have borrowed a few words from The Elders, a council of retired leaders including Nelson Mandela, Mary Robinson, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Ela Bhatt, and Jimmy Carter who are calling on religious leaders of all faiths to change discriminatory practices and traditions that oppress women.

Whether or not the Obama administration views women’s rights as a priority in a larger geopolitical and military context is questionable. For example, the White House has talked of working with “moderate” Taliban-despite its abhorrent record of abusing and oppressing women-as acceptable to achieving their objectives in Afghanistan.

I’m not as cynical as during the [George W.] Bush administration when all efforts for women’s rights seemed manipulative. I do believe that there is a genuine concern for advancing a women’s rights agenda, but when that comes into conflict with their broader goals, I doubt that it will not trump other priorities.

Another measure of how much political capital the Obama administration is going to wage on advancing women’s rights will be whether they are going to pursue the ratification of the Convention the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). There are 186 signatories to the international treaty, but the United States, along with Sudan and Iran, are among the very few countries that have not ratified it.

The ratification of CEDAW will certainly improve the status of women in the United States, but it is also an important symbol of the United States commitment to being part of this historic women’s rights convention and the international human rights regime.

Q: Can you talk about U.N. Security Council Resolution 1888 and its significance? A: UNSC 1888 builds upon two previous resolutions: UNSC 1325 on women, peace and security, which was passed ten years ago and UNSC 1820 passed in 2008. The Bush administration built upon 1325 by promoting UNSC 1820 which advocated for more protection of women facing sexual violence in conflict zones.

Last September, the UNSC passed 1888 which put real teeth into implementing1820 by authorising a U.N. special representative of the secretary general to monitor it and report to the Security Council.

During the Bush administration, women rights advocates very ambivalent about the U.S. proposing 1820 because we felt like it was a cover for their clearly egregious anti-women’s rights agenda (as seen in their objection to family planning and reproductive rights and promotion of abstinence-only programmes).

The Obama administration deserves credit for getting 1888 passed, which will enable more reporting and put pressure for more progress on the protection of women in conflict areas.

Q: Why was restructuring the U.N. women’s units into one larger agency so important? A: Work on women’s rights at the U.N. has been important, but its structures have been fragmented and under-resourced and its leadership has lacked access to key decision- making. In 2006, women’s civil society groups initiated a campaign to demand a stronger U.N. agency and this became the Gender Equality Architecture Reform (GEAR), a coalition of over 300 organisations from 80 countries.

Last September, the U.N. General Assembly adopted a resolution to create a stronger women’s rights and gender equality agency that is to be led by an under secretary general. The four existing women’s units at the United Nations will be combined to create this new agency and the goal is for it to have the heft of UNICEF and be able to raise the profile of women’s rights globally and advance their implementation.

UNICEF has an approximately three-billion-dollar annual budget, whereas the four women’s units collectively have only 221 million dollars, less than one percent of the 27-billion-dollar budget of the United Nations and all its agencies. Our goal is to double or triple or quadruple the money put into gender equality.

The Obama administration has become very supportive of gender architecture reform at the United Nations, whereas the Bush administration was an obstacle or indifferent at best. The real test will come with what kind of money the U.S. will invest in this new agency in the coming years.

*Christine Ahn is the Policy and Communications Analyst at the Global Fund for Women.

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