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UN Women Head Unveils Empowerment Agenda

UNITED NATIONS, Jan 26 2011 (IPS) - Despite birthing 100 percent of the world’s children, growing 70 percent of the world’s food and performing 60 percent of the world’s labour, women only receive a fraction – a mere 10 percent – of the world’s income.

Michelle Bachelet, Executive Director of UN Women, holds a press conference on her organisation's priorities for 2011. Credit: UN Photo/Paulo Filgueiras

Michelle Bachelet, Executive Director of UN Women, holds a press conference on her organisation

Speaking at United Nations headquarters on Tuesday to present her Vision and 100 Day Action Plan, Michelle Bachelet, executive director of the newly launched UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women), stressed that the time for action in the realm of women’s empowerment was way past due.

“It is not acceptable that 75 percent of women and girls experience violence or sexual abuse in their lifetimes, or that of the 192 members of the U.N., only 19 heads of state are women,” Bachelet told reporters, stressing that the prevailing gaps of 41 percent disparity in economic participation and 82 percent in political empowerment were huge causes for concern.

The creation of UN Women was the result of years of negotiations, strategic planning and a fierce pursuit of funds. It was formally established in July 2010, collapsing and consolidating four formally distinct bodies: the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), the Division for the Advancement of Women (DAW), the Office of the Special Adviser on Gender Issues, and the UN International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women (UN- INSTRAW).

In her detailed plan for the coming months, Bachelet emphasised UN Women’s core priorities, which include seriously tackling violence against women, enhancing and improving women’s voices, leadership and participation at national and international levels, prioritising women’s role in the peace and security agenda, empowering women economically and making gender inequalities central in national and international budgetary planning.

Higher Expectations

Amidst all these high-level plans and discussions, a small group of women believe that more radical change is not only possible, but also essential to ending structural oppression and discrimination worldwide.

Vision News, a database that tracks best practices of Security Council Resolution 1325 (which was designed to address the disproportionate impact of war on women), recently reported that a coalition of women advocates, organisers and Nobel Prize winners had come together to demand a more comprehensive plan than that proposed by UN Women.

In a memorandum entitled "Happiness 2.1", these women are presenting conclusive scientific evidence proving that the future is heading either towards the destruction of the planet or a creation of a unique eco-social economy.

According to Ute Scheub, coordinator of '1000 Peacewomen Across the Globe' for Western Europe, "There will be a disastrous lose-lose situation if patriarchy plus climate crisis plus militarism plus financial capitalism continue in the same vein, but there will be a win-win situation if women and men set a joint course for disarmament and a Green New Deal."

Contradictions, Controversies and Crisis

Despite Bachelet’s enthusiasm and ambition, many women organisers, advocates, activists and academics remain concerned, fretful and often cynical about the competence and capability of the new body.

From its very inception, UN Women has been mired in controversy, particularly after the highly disputed election of Saudi Arabia onto the Executive Board in November 2010.

At the time, Philippe Bolopion, the U.N. advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, expressed dismay that a member state with such an abysmal track record of systematically violating women’s rights and flouting international law was able to “buy a seat” in the new agency with a generous contribution.

In interviews with the BBC, Bolopian stressed that Saudi Arabia’s presence sent a “horrible signal to women around the world who had looked with hope towards the new agency.”

Bolopian also condemned the presence of a Congolese representative on the board, given the “shocking levels of sexual violence against women in the Democratic Republic of Congo”.

These initial contentions exposed the structural inequalities within the U.N. system itself, which privilege the big donor states over mere membership.

According to Kathy Peach, head of external affairs at Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) UK, political games could seriously undermine the critical work of UN Women.

“I sincerely hope that nationalist politics aren’t going to have a significant impact on what UN Women does, how it operates or where it operates,” Peach told IPS. “This is such a historic opportunity that the UN simply cannot afford to let it slip through their fingers.”

She added, “From the civil society’s perspective we really can’t bear to watch more women die while member states play politics. There shouldn’t be one or two voices that are able to significantly influence or form obstacles to the aspirations of UN Women.”

A Fund Famine

VSO UK, the world’s leading independent international development organisation, has been consistently outspoken about its fear that slow commitment of substantial funds has deformed the birth of UN Women, making it incredibly vulnerable in its embryonic stages to the afflictions of inadequate resources.

“I’m personally very anxious about the fact that UN Women is already seeing a shortfall of 300 million dollars on the initial target set by member states,” Peach told IPS.

“Even the ultimate target of 500 million isn’t realistic, by our standards, to achieve the changes that are absolutely needed to tackle the entrenched discrimination and inequality that women face worldwide,” she added.

For the last few years, VSO UK has been calling for an annual budget of one billion dollars, an amount that should increase gradually over time.

“When you look at the funding that comparable U.N. agencies like UNICEF are getting – in 2008 they had a budget of over 3 billion USD – even one billion is fairly modest,” Peach said.

In response to the “snail-pace” acquisition of a substantial budget, VSO launched the ‘Godmothers’ campaign in January, to support and sustain the goals of UN Women.

Drawing immense popular support from the UK public, the campaign involves a group of volunteers who will ensure that project stays on track and fulfills its promise of delivering to the women of the world.

Since VSO has a huge partnership base in developing countries around the world, it is well placed to both police and buttress UN Women.

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