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.”

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