It was to rousing applause on Tuesday that UN Women Executive Director, Michelle Bachelet addressed a full capacity audience in Britain’s House of Commons on her first visit to the nation since her appointment as the new UN body’s leader.
But as British Secretary of State for International Development, Andrew Mitchell reminded the audience of about 150 attendees (mostly women), women would have had to sit in silence behind steel grills to watch parliamentary proceedings in the same building, as recently as 1917. Women would also not have been allowed to document any activity.
Indeed,a century has made a world of difference to women’s rights. But as Bachelet noted, more work needs to be done.
“I recognise that many of you have organised and campaigned for years so that UN Women would come into being and now that it has, how much you want us to succeed,” noted Bachelet of men and women’s activism during the five years of deliberation within the UN that finally led to the setting up of the new entity. “And when I say us, I am saying all of us because as I have said before, we are all UN Women.”
Bachelet highlighted four thematic areas that UN Women will be focusing on in its rollout of services, namely women’s economic empowerment, women’s political participation and leadership, peace-building and conflict resolution and ending violence against women and girls. She added these action points will not only focus on women in developing nations, but also women residing in developed countries who also suffer many of the consequences of gender discrimination.
Furthermore, she added that UN Women will be working closely with men and boys to engage them in understanding the role that they have to play in bringing about positive outcomes for UN Women’s work.
“Expectations are huge, not only in this room, but also worldwide,” observed Bachelet who added that currently, UN Women is only operating in 78 countries. She also stated that it was important for women’s rights issues to be mainstreamed across all national ministries and highlighted the need for greater collaborations with Ministries of Finance who she said would be UN Women’s “best champions” in ensuring that enough money is allocated to gender and women’s issues.
In response to Bachelet’s address, Minister Mitchell stated that UN Women could be guaranteed the support of the British government, noting that MDGs 4 and 5 – addressing equitable access to education and improved maternal health – were particular focus areas for British Prime Minister, David Cameron. Mitchell also highlighted the following commitments of the British government:
- to save the lives of 50 000 women in childbirth
- to save the lives of 250 000 children
- to try to guarantee access to contraceptives to 10 million more couples within the Commonwealth
- to see 11 million children in school
He also added that the government will be playing a role in boosting the role of microfinance schemes in women’s development. No time lines or names of target nations for these endeavours were provided, however. Mitchell further added that once UN Women finalises its strategic plan of action, the British government will be one of its foremost supporters in terms of provision of funding and technical and staffing expertise, a role that it is provisionally fulfilling already. Volunteer Services Overseas (VSO), conveners of this meeting, has noted in the past that UN Women’s projected budget of about US$500 million annually, will not be enough to sustain the entity’s proposed global activities. VSO believes instead that a more plausible budget would yield US$1 billion every year. The issue was not discussed, however.
Shadow Secretary of State, Harriet Harman also registered support for UN Women stating that her party, the Labour Party, will hold Prime Minister Cameron to his promise to ensure that by 2013, Britain’s aid budget will be 0.7% of Gross National Income (GNI).
Harman further called for greater female participation within important decision-making bodies in Britain’s government. “For women and girls to be empowered, men have to share power with women and it’s not good enough that the foreign office of ministers is all male,” stated Harman who observed that there were many competent female politicians already supporting international development. She then addressed Mitchell directly stating, “Andrew, please lose one of your male ministers and get one of those good women in!”
And once more, the audience broke out into applause that rang with approval.
The Q and A section of the proceedings was very brief - only two questions were taken - but I was fortunate to have one of my burning questions addressed directly by all three esteemed guests. Below is a brief summary:
With the panel emphasising the importance of women’s role in political leadership, I gave an example of how nominal achievement of women’s presence in governments does not necessarily equate to better outcomes for gender justice and equality. Zimbabwe has a female vice president and yet in the 2008 election violence of rape and sexual assault perpetrated against women supporting the opposition party, she never spoke up on behalf of their rights. Does having numbers of women mean anything if those numbers are not committed to speaking up on behalf of women?
In response, Michelle Bachelet noted that not every woman is gender-sensitive and that some believe that they will be perceived to be weak if they support women’s issues. She noted that when she was elected as Chile’s first female president, she was perceived to be weak because she retained much of her feminine character but she added that this did not deter her as Chileans had elected her because they believed in her. She added that what is needed is not merely numbers of women in parliament, but rather women who have ideas about how to reform institutions that have underserved women’s rights over the years. “We need to convince women, not just men,” she added of the need to show that women’s issues are important.
Harman added that some women, in order to fit in, behave more like men than men themselves. She said that when she was first elected into parliament in 1982, only 3% of representatives were female. She recalled how she was warned against speaking up about women’s issues lest she be stereotyped as a women’s rights mouthpiece. She said that she chose to pay such advice no heed and realised that if she did not speak, no one would champion the cause of women. She however concluded that numbers of women were not enough and that was needed was women in enough numbers to be able to support each other against male-dominated patterns of politics.
Mitchell spoke of the British government’s work in ensuring that Zimbabwe’s coalition government operates smoothly and in supporting the mediation taking place among the country’s main parties – a process being overseen by South Africa president, Jacob Zuma.