News / Africa

UN Agency for Women the Culmination of Years of Effort

How UN Women navigated bureaucratic roadblocks and went from far-fetched idea to nascent entity

Jessica Stahl
This is Part 2 of a 5-part series on UN Women
Go to Part:  1 / 2 / 3 / 4 / 5


“Diplomats erupted in rousing applause,” reported a United Nations press release when the resolution passed to create a new body dedicated to women’s rights and gender equality. After four years, two General Assembly resolutions and much negotiating, UN Women was finally becoming a reality.

The U.N. Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, called UN Women for short, brings together the U.N.’s four units dedicated to women’s issues into one larger, higher-level entity.  Supporters hope the new agency, which became operational January 1, will bring a change in how the U.N. approaches gender issues.

UN Women Executive Director Michelle Bachelet visits Liberia to commemorate the 100th anniversary of International Women's Day.
UN Women Executive Director Michelle Bachelet visits Liberia to commemorate the 100th anniversary of International Women's Day.
Creating a brand new agency marks a rare change for a bureaucratic system like the U.N.  And although the work of creating the new agency is far from done - funding goals haven’t been reached and priorities are still being formalized – the launch of UN Women is a victory for those who fought for it inside and outside the U.N.

So what does it actually take to create a new U.N. agency? Just ask those who have been involved since the beginning.

1) Get the Issue on the Agenda

The U.N. embarked on a process of reform in 2005, appointing the Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on U.N. System-wide Coherence to look at ways to streamline the U.N. and improve its effectiveness. Advocates for women’s rights saw it as an opportunity to advance proposals for strengthening the U.N.’s approach to gender issues.

Timeline: The Creation of U.N. Women

  • June 2006: Office of the U.N. Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa puts out a report supporting the creation of a new agency for women’s issues
  • November 2006: U.N. high-level panel on reform includes the new agency in its recommendations
  • February 2008: The GEAR campaign is unveiled to demand women’s agency
  • September 2009: The General Assembly adopts a resolution supporting the creation of U.N. Women
  • July 2010: The General Assembly votes unanimously to create a new entity
  • September 2010: Michelle Bachelet is appointed head of U.N. Women
  • November 2010: Executive Board members are elected. Iran is denied a seat but other controversial states win seats
  • January 2011: U.N. Women becomes operational and lays out its 100-day plan
  • June 2011: U.N. Women’s strategic plan is set to be presented
Activists discussed two possibilities – expanding the largest existing unit, UNIFEM, or creating a new agency that would merge the existing units. But the spirit of consolidation and reform encouraged them to lobby for the option of creating something new, according to Charlotte Bunch, the co-director of the GEAR campaign.

The GEAR campaign is a coalition of NGOs created to support the creation of U.N. Women.  It grew out of the work NGOs did early on to lobby for the new agency.

A push for reform also came from within the U.N. itself, from the office of the Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa. Senior Advisor Paula Donovan put out a report chastising the U.N. for its record on women’s rights and pushing for change.

“Other members of the U.N. were offended and agitated as we expected them to be and wanted them to be,” said Stephen Lewis, who was the Special Envoy at the time and is now co-director of AIDS-Free World with Donovan. “We had no sympathy for their excuses and their apologies, because in fact women had not been well served over the decades and there was no use pretending otherwise.”

Gender issues were not initially on the panel’s agenda, said Lewis, but when the final recommendations for reform came out, the creation of a new women’s agency was on the list. And the high-level panel seemed to agree with Lewis’ characterization of the existing system, calling it “incoherent, under-resourced and fragmented.”

2) Win Support

Once the recommendation was made, the next step was to get buy-in from the U.N. General Assembly. The process of getting on the reform panel’s agenda meant that the agency already had some high-level supporters among member governments, but many actors still needed convincing.

Among the constituencies that had concerns were the pre-existing women’s units, said Lewis, which “didn’t want to be usurped in power and authority.”

According to Bunch, opposition from member states in the General Assembly fell into two camps:

“There were lots of questions from the developed countries, from Japan, from Germany, from the U.S. – the countries that pay the most dues to the United Nations – about the cost of doing this,” she said.

United Nations General Assembly
United Nations General Assembly
“And then there were other countries that might be considered less friendly to women’s rights.  [They] were concerned that this would not become an agency that would go into their countries and tell them what to do,” she added.

Lewis cited Egypt, Pakistan and Sudan as examples of countries that fell into this latter camp, but said eventually “they were simply overwhelmed by the determination of the rest of the U.N.”

3) Get a General Assembly resolution

Even winning the necessary support didn’t guarantee progress. From 2006 until 2009, U.N. representatives and members of civil society told the press there was no opposition to the idea from member states, but still it failed to get on the agenda.

This was the result of political bargaining between states, according to Bunch. Governments were negotiating with each other on a whole range of U.N. reforms, including the women’s agency.

“At a certain point we had this ironic situation where most governments said it was a good idea but because it was part of this package of reforms that were being negotiated together, it felt like the women’s agency was becoming a bargaining chip in a larger game,” said Bunch.

The General Assembly did pass a resolution in 2009 that advocated creating UN Women, but the resolution failed to give it a mandate.

Advocacy group Oxfam at the time called the failure “deplorable.”

But Lewis said it’s all part of the process.

“The way the U.N. works is that it always inevitably goes through the process of coming to a conclusion by lurching from point A to point B. It’s never a smooth road.”

In July 2010, the General Assembly voted unanimously to create U.N. Women.

4) Set it Up

Since the resolution passed, UN Women has been working to bring the vision to fruition.

Michelle Bachelet is greeted by young children at Monrovia's Roberts International Airport on her first visit to Liberia in her new position.
Michelle Bachelet is greeted by young children at Monrovia's Roberts International Airport on her first visit to Liberia in her new position.
Former Chilean President Michele Bachelet was appointed head of the new entity. Lewis said he is confident in her abilities to overcome the bureaucratic hurdles of melding four units into one body.

U.N. Women also named its executive board, and although it has received criticism for the inclusion of states like Saudi Arabia and Congo, Bunch said she is not concerned that this will derail the agency’s progress.

“The executive board is going to be inevitably a political representation of the governments of the world.  That’s what any board of any U.N. agency is,” she said. “So I think the important thing is that they are not allowed to stop anything from going forward.  And that really requires holding the executive board and the governments accountable to all the standards they’ve already set.”

5) Prepare for the Future

The real challenge going forward, according to both Bunch and Lewis, will be getting the necessary funding. The resolution funds UN Women at $500 million to $1 billion per year, but it hasn’t yet received nearly that commitment from member states.

“The money is everything,” said Lewis. “So if Madame Bachelet is not able to get the money then UN Women will not work, but if she can get the money on the force of her own charismatic personality and the legitimacy of gender equality and women’s empowerment then this will be an agency to conjure with.”

UN Women is currently finalizing its strategic plan, set to be released in June.

Almost five years after the idea of a UN women’s agency was made a priority, it’s finally moving forward. It may seem like a long time to create one new agency, but Bunch and Lewis say the process has been comparatively fast.

“We knew that this was a process that would not happen overnight, that if it only took three, four or five years it would be extraordinary and that’s just the way the U.N. works,” said Lewis.

Even so, anyone hoping to follow these steps and create their own agency at the U.N. may be in for a long wait. He added, “I doubt there will be another agency created for another 50 years.”

You May Like

Tired of Waiting, South Africans Demand Change ‘Now’

With chronic poverty and lack of basic services largely fueling recent xenophobic attacks, many in Rainbow Nation say it’s time for government to act More

Challenges Ahead for China's Development Plans in Pakistan

Planned $46 billion in energy and infrastructure investments in Pakistan are aimed at transforming the country into a regional hub for trade and investment More

Audio 'Forbidden City' Revisits Little Known Era of Asian-American Entertainment

Little-known chapter of entertainment history captured in 80s documentary is revisited in new digitally remastered format and book More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Study: Insecticide Damaging Wild Bee Populationsi
X
April 24, 2015 10:13 PM
A popular but controversial type of insecticide is damaging important wild bee populations, according to a new study. VOA’s Steve Baragona has more.
Video

Video Study: Insecticide Damaging Wild Bee Populations

A popular but controversial type of insecticide is damaging important wild bee populations, according to a new study. VOA’s Steve Baragona has more.
Video

Video Data Servers Could Heat Private Homes

As every computer owner knows, when their machines run a complex program they get pretty hot. In fact, cooling the processors can be expensive, especially when you're dealing with huge banks of computer servers. But what if that energy could heat private homes? VOA’s George Putic reports that a Dutch energy firm aims to do just that.
Video

Video Cinema That Crosses Borders Showcased at Tribeca Film Festival

Among the nearly 100 feature length films being shown at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York City are more than 20 documentaries and features with international appeal, from a film about a Congolese businessman in China, to documentaries shot in Pakistan and diaspora communities in the U.S., to a poetic look at disaffected South African youth. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more.
Video

Video UN Confronts Threat of Young Radicals

The radicalization and recruitment of young people into Islamist extremist groups has become a growing challenge for governments worldwide. On Thursday, the U.N. Security Council heard from experts on the issue, which has become a potent threat to international peace and security. VOA’s Margaret Besheer reports.
Video

Video Growing Numbers of Turks Discover Armenian Ancestry

In a climate of improved tolerance, growing numbers of people in Turkey are discovering their grandmothers were Armenian. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians escaped the mass deportations and slaughter of the early 1900's by forced conversion to Islam. Or, Armenian children were taken in by Turkish families and assimilated. Now their stories are increasingly being heard. Dorian Jones reports from Istanbul that the revelations are viewed as an important step.
Video

Video Migrants Trek Through Western Balkans to Reach EU

Migrants from Africa and other places are finding different routes into the European Union in search of a better life. The Associated Press followed one clandestine group to document their trek through the western Balkans to Hungary. Zlatica Hoke reports that the migrants started using that route about four years ago. Since then, it has become the second-most popular path into Western Europe, after the option of sailing from North Africa to Italy.
Video

Video TIME Magazine Honors Activists, Pioneers Seen as Influential

TIME Magazine has released its list of celebrities, leaders and activists, whom it deems the world’s “most influential” in 2015. VOA's Ramon Taylor reports from New York.
Video

Video US Businesses See Cuba as New Frontier

The Obama administration's opening toward Cuba is giving U.S. companies hope they'll be able to do business in Cuba despite the continuation of the U.S. economic embargo against the communist nation. Some American companies have been able to export some products to Cuba, but the recent lifting of Cuba's terrorism designation could relax other restrictions. As VOA's Daniela Schrier reports, corporate heavy hitters are lining up to head across the Florida Straits - though experts urge caution.
Video

Video Kenya Launches Police Recruitment Drive After Terror Attacks

Kenya launched a major police recruitment drive this week as part of a large-scale effort to boost security following a recent spate of terror attacks. VOA’s Gabe Joselow reports that allegations of corruption in the process are raising old concerns about the integrity of Kenya’s security forces.
Video

Video Japan, China in Race for Asia High-Speed Rail Projects

A lucrative competition is underway in Asia for billions of dollars in high-speed rail projects. Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia Thailand and Vietnam are among the countries planning to move onto the fast track. They are negotiating with Japan and the upstart Chinese who are locked in a duel to revolutionize transportation across Asia. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman in Bangkok has details.
Video

Video Scientists: Mosquitoes Attracted By Our Genes

Some people always seem to get bitten by mosquitoes more than others. Now, scientists have proved that is really the case - and they say it’s all because of genes. It’s hoped the research might lead to new preventative treatments for diseases like malaria, as Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Bible Museum Coming to Washington DC

Washington is the center of American political power and also home to some of the nation’s most visited museums. A new one that will showcase the Bible has skeptics questioning the motives of its conservative Christian funders. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Armenia and Politics of Word 'Genocide'

A century ago this April, hundreds of thousands of Armenians of the Turkish Ottoman empire were deported and massacred, and their culture erased from their traditional lands. While broadly accepted by the U.N. and at least 20 countries as “genocide”, the United States and Turkey have resisted using that word to describe the atrocities that stretched from 1915 to 1923. But Armenians have never forgotten.
Video

Video Afghan First Lady Pledges No Roll Back on Women's Rights

Afghan First Lady Rula Ghani, named one of Time's 100 Most Influential, says women should take part in talks with Taliban. VOA's Rokhsar Azamee has more from Kabul.
Video

Video New Brain Mapping Techniques Could Ease Chronic Pain

From Boulder, Colorado, Shelley Schlender reports that new methods for mapping pain in the brain are providing validation for chronic pain and might someday guide better treatment.

VOA Blogs