A New Era Begins at UN Women

Some might call it Extreme Makeover. The UN episode. On January 1, 2011 a new uber-agency for women officially opened for business at the United Nations—UN Women—with an ambitious agenda to not only reform the “old boys club” of the UN, but to push national governments to be more responsive to the needs and voices of the world's women. Led by Michelle Bachelet, Chile's dynamic ex-president, UN Women has a smart, well-respected leader, a more powerful position within the UN hierarchy, and a new hybrid structure that unites the talents of four UN women's agencies into one. It's no wonder feminists are cheering.

As UN Women takes its first steps, World Pulse set out to ask several feminist leaders and longtime advocates for UN reform what they feel about this historic step—and the agency's promise. What are their own hopes and dreams for UN Women? Do they believe a gender revolution is truly afoot—or could be? And given how long it's taken the feminist movement to get this far in the door, what kind of change is realistic to expect in these early days?

“We are thrilled that five years' worth of tenacious policy advocacy culminated in a new agency,” say Paula Donovan and Stephen Lewis of AIDS-Free World, both ex-UN agency directors who pushed hard for UN Women to be born. “On the surface, it may seem that it took the UN an inordinately long time to move from acknowledging that it was operating in the dark ages, to passing a resolution to put the system on the right track. But when measured in UN-time, the transformation occurred at lightning speed.”

Add the duo, “While the amalgamation of the UN's four existing women-focused entities into one may seem cosmetic, we're confident that, in retrospect, 2011 will be seen as the start of a new era for the UN.” At the one-month mark, they report: “We're entirely optimistic about the future, and not at all frustrated. There's nowhere to go but forward.”

Such words represent a positive shift in attitude from what Lewis—arguably the world's most vocal male feminist—long-branded the UN's “abysmal failure” on women's issues.

“I'm definitely excited because I think there's a real possibility for momentum now on the question of making a difference on gender equality for the institution as a whole,” concurs Kavita Ramdas, Senior Advisor and the former CEO of the Global Fund for Women. “People are always cynical of the UN and doubt it can achieve much. But the UN is as close to a cross-national effort—something really seeking to be an example for people cooperating together across boundaries and countries—as we have. It's not perfect, but it's the outcome of real, genuine movements across the globe, so I see a lot of potential.”

A Long Road

The move to seriously pink the UN didn't start yesterday and won't end with UN Women. It dates back to 1948, three years after the UN's creation, when a few bold women managed to insert the critical words 'and women' after the phrase 'equality for men' in seminal charter documents. From then on, the fight to make women's voices more visible and powerful at the UN has never stopped. In the 1970s, as the women's movement gained power, UNIFEM (the United Nations Development Fund for Women) was born as a small, independent agency to fund women's projects under the umbrella of the larger United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). A slew of women-focused agencies later followed—each helping to document, set standards, implement, and monitor progress on global women's issues. But their impact was sharply limited by small budgets and staffs—reflecting an ongoing deep lack of commitment to women's issues.


In 2006, the GEAR campaign (Gender Equality Architecture Reform) was created to push for major reform at the UN. That year, a UN coherence panel charged with consolidating and strengthening the gender equality architecture in the UN included a key recommendation of "ambitiously funding the new organization." Charlotte Bunch, feminist leader and co-facilitator of the GEAR campaign, says "exposing the gap between rhetoric and reality of what the UN was doing [for women]" helped convince the men on the coherence panel to back a serious reform." We were able to get to people who were used to thinking in millions of dollars and who were surprised to see how little was going to women," she explains.

But words didn't amount to action. Three years later, Bunch reported that women occupied less than 30% of high-level professional posts at the UN—a figure that drops as one rises in position—despite a UN internal mandate of a 50/50 male-female ratio by the year 2000. The European GEAR focal point also found that funding for the four women's units that today make up UN Women was roughly $221 million—less than 1% of the $27 billion that the UN and all its agencies were then spending. By comparison, UNICEF had a budget of over $3 billion.

Today, UN Women begins its work with more money: $77 million in new funding has been committed. That's still $200 million short of a minimum $500 million initial operating budget—and way below the hoped-for $1 billion. “UN Women needs money—period,” stresses Ritu Sharma, Co-Founder and President of Women Thrive Worldwide, pointing out an immediate line in the sand. “We have excellent leadership. President Bachelet is the best; she is smart, focused, and powerful. But she can't do anything without money. The planned US contribution to UN Women is less than $20 million. That's pathetic. Yes, budgets are tight everywhere in the world, including in the US. But this is not a moment to let women down.”

“Everything hinges on funding,” assert Donovan and Lewis. “Now that member states have taken the first steps to revolutionize the UN—and it's time to put their money where their mouths are—they can't backslide. They can't revert to the status quo, pretending that they meant for UN Women simply to be a sum of its parts—a very slightly enhanced version of the 'gender architecture' that has not been serving the world's women or the UN up to now.”

Choosing Among Battles

The budget battle is one of a number of looming challenges facing UN Women. One of its first tasks is to smoothly integrate and coordinate the work of four separate agencies that—like all UN agencies—compete for turf and funds. While gender advocates within the UN agreed on the UN's failures, some resisted the call for a new umbrella agency, fearful of losing their power or jobs.

The new hybrid architecture of the agency addresses its need to do multiple things at once: support women-focused progams like those UNIFEM has long supported, set policy standards, and monitor implementation. This all falls under the broad concept of gender mainstreaming: a cross-cutting, integrative process that applies a gender rights lens to institutional policy and programs.

Kavita Ramdas says that UN Women must define a new role and agenda at the UN—taking gender demands into new spheres. Up to now, she feels, the creation of women's agencies has somewhat siloed them—and allowed other agencies off the hook for gender reform. UN Women should continue building upon the bricks put in place by UNIFEM and its sister agencies to support women's programs, but it needs to redefine the problems. “It's not, 'Oh, here is your money to fund a few nice women's projects,'” she says. UN Women, especially with powerhouse Bachelet in charge, “has the chance to engage in a different way.”

She points to sexual violence as an example. “I think one of the things the women's movement is trying to show are the deep links of sexual violence to structures of militarism and violence institutionally, on a wide society level, and what is directed against women.” She wants UN Women to “sit in on Security Council decisions on war and peace. It's very important for agencies to take part in deliberations when you are negotiating peace settlements.” Whenever there are major critical political questions or crises like Sudan, nuclear stand-down in North or South Korea”—she ticks off examples—“this agency is at the table. That is a very different role for the agency.”


Bunch has a similar view: “Our hope is not just that it will support women's project work," she says. She sees a role for UN Women as an auto-entity at the same level as other agencies like UNDP and UNICEF. "Michelle Bachelet will sit at all the decision-making tables of the UN, and so everybody underneath her then sits at a higher level.”

War, peace, migration, disasters, global warming—these may not be thought of as 'women's issues', but UN Women can bring analysis of how these issues overlap and run along gender lines to the negotiating table; how war may impact women differently, leading to mass rape in the Congo, for example. It can build on powerful policy tools like Security Council Resolution 1325, which was adopted to strengthen women's roles in the UN's peace and security efforts. It can tackle thorny social issues like reproductive rights and the gaps between religious laws and international laws. And it can help reframe a national, political reponse to gender crimes.

Stepping Forward

Looking ahead, there's clearly no shortage of issues UN Women might tackle. But advocates suggest, it's critical to pick and choose carefully. “My concern is that because 'women' is a cross-cutting issue, and is everywhere, it can be a little overwhelming to figure out what are the concrete things you can do, because you can't do everything,” says Bunch. “They need to figure out where UN Women is going to focus.”

“I believe the guiding principle ought to be women’s empowerment, especially in areas where governments have been less extensively, directly, or successfully engaged—such as women’s economic empowerment, violence against women, and women’s participation in domestic and international peacekeeping process,” says Mahnaz Afkhami of the Learning Partnership. She also has a suggestion for UN Women. “Given that many of the problems our world faces today … are either closely related to or a consequence of patriarchy as a system that governs the way human relationships are structured, it would be useful if UN Women convened a group of thinkers and experts—men and women—from a variety of fields to think about the existing global challenges and solutions holistically, and from the vantage point of foundational changes in patriarchal arrangements of power.”

Ritu Sharma is eyeing more concrete goals that would spell immediate improvement in women's lives. On her wish-list: “Getting every woman and girl child a birth certificate. Without that, [they] do not exist, have no rights, and can't get many services like education.”

Women Aboard

Longtime activists also see new partnerships for UN Women and grassroots women's groups. “The UN is a latecomer to the feminist movement,” say Donovan and Lewis. “It needs to learn from and engage with those advocates in order to play its role—not assuming the lead, not making decisions on behalf of women, certainly not speaking for women... but supporting women's self-defined struggle to end gender discrimination.” Meanwhile, feminists also have work to do to mainstream this fight. The GEAR campaign includes large, mainstream human rights organizations who, Bunch notes, “have more power and influence within the UN.”

“It's hugely important for women's institutions to demand performance from it [UN Women] and demand through various forums that the UN isn't allowed to go back to business as usual,” stresses Ramdas.

That leaves a critical group to reach—and change. Here, Stephen Lewis, ever the outspoken feminist, minces no words: “Men have one role above all others in the pursuit of gender equality and the empowerment of women,” he says, “and that is to relinquish our power so that women can assume the share that is rightfully theirs.” If they do, Ramdas feels, they will gain, too. “I hope it will be a new decade for gender equality and I hope it not be narrowly defined, but a world in which men will be free too. Ideally this should be an agency that is passionate and that shows by liberating women, you liberate men too.”

“It's remarkably hard to make changes at the UN, especially big changes,” says Sharma. “But when women around the world put their hearts and minds to a common good, we are unstoppable.”

“You know, 'never ventured—never dared,'" says Ramdas, who shares the cautious optimism of many feminists about UN Women's mandate. “Honestly, this is the moment. We're at the beginning of a new year and decade.”

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Comment on this Editorial


Women's efforts are mostly limited to pilots projects and limited budgets. Opportunities are far limited for us to see our dreams come true, not only as individuals but the masses of grassroots women we give hope as the fore bearers. The birth of the UN WOMEN is indeed felt in my organization. Lets not give up.


she is a chilean as me, and also as me, suffered violence in her life, but she transformed it in something powerful.

One's life has value so long as one attributes value to the life of others, by means of love, friendship, indignation and compassion

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