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Wrangling Continues over New U.N. Women’s Entity

Beatrice Paez

UNITED NATIONS, Jun 27 2010 (IPS) - Ahead of a week-long meeting on gender equality starting Monday at the United Nations, women’s rights activists have been pushing for concrete progress on a pledge made last September by the world body to create a new, better-funded U.N. agency for women.

After the Gender Equality Reform (GEAR) Campaign, a leading advocate of the new entity, sent a petition to the General Assembly, the president of the GA, Dr. Ali Abdussalam Treki, said he hoped it would be established by the end of July. However, as of Friday, negotiations had stalled over staffing issues and review of countries’ domestic gender policies, among other things.

The decision to create a separate powerful body to deal exclusively with gender-related activities came years – in some cases, 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.

Its implementation has been bogged down by political wrangling on issues such as geographical representation on the board, and an effort by some countries to use “the gender architecture as a bargaining chip to advance their still undisclosed agenda”, as one activist told IPS in March.

Still, women’s groups have high hopes for the new entity’s mandate. Its head – a position yet to be appointed – will have the rank of an under-secretary-general, the third- highest rank in the U.N. system. The entity will also have greater funding and a more holistic approach to gender issues.

Responding to questions about the new agency’s inception, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon gave few specifics, but said, “We hope soon to have a dynamic entity for gender equality and women’s empowerment within the U.N. system, that would provide more coherent programming and a stronger voice for women.”

Next week, delegates will gather here for the Annual Ministerial Review from Jul. 28 to Jul. 1. This year’s focus is on gender empowerment and equality. The session is drawing participants from civil society, academia, private sector and other key U.N. stakeholders. It is expected to adopt a declaration on the implementation of goals and commitments to advance efforts in this area.

Roundtable discussions will assess developments in achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and highlight breakthroughs and challenges in the implementing Security Council Resolution 1325. Adopted unanimously in 2000, that resolution is intended to increase the presence of women and their concerns during peace dialogues.

The AMR has a comprehensive agenda but “the way it is addressing [these] is separate from the way the Security Council is pressing states to address women’s concerns in conflict situations,” Pollyanna Truscot, Amnesty International’s deputy representative to the U.N., told IPS. “The new women’s agency is more important. It will be assisting governments and U.N. agencies and will adopt a more comprehensive approach.”

Truscot stressed that whether women were living in conflict areas or not, resolution 1325 is also of relevance to those living in favelas and slums, and other circumstances where violence is rampant.

“They are just as exposed to all sorts of violence…they need to be involved in the design of development programmes,” she said.

She attributed the significant lag in progress in achieving MDG 3, empowerment of women and achieving gender equality, to “a huge human rights gap… The MDGs aren’t going to tackle abuses on women that are holding progress back.”

“The actual indicators are not the best because they don’t measure the underlying human rights abuses,” she added.

The MDG Report 2010 tracks progress in relation to Goal 3 by measuring the enrolment of girls compared to boys in primary school, employment opportunities for women, and their political representation. The report adopts a regional perspective and does not conduct a separate assessment of women living in war-torn areas or those embroiled in conflict.

In Afghanistan, which has been ravaged by war for the last two decades, the target date for the achievement of the MDGs is 2020, using 2002 to 2005 as the baseline.

“When countries are in especially difficult situations, the priorities are national – the national budget and planning processes, it sort of ignores these direct targets. There have to be special interventions that even in countries in conflict these will be protected,” Nikhil Seth, director of the Office for ECOSOC Support and Coordination, told IPS.

Afghanistan has made some steps toward national reconciliation, with the launch of a Peace Jirga – a dialogue among leaders in May – but women remain drastically underrepresented in the process. Out of 1,400 delegates, less than 50 were women.

Asked by IPS about the link between political representation and representation at peace negotiations, Sarah Taylor, executive coordinator of the NGO Working Group on Women, Peace and Security, said, “It is not a matter of causality.”

She added, “What we need is a shift in perspective on what the qualifications are…This expertise does not necessarily come from being elected into office, but often from women doing peacebuilding work within their community.”

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