On July 2nd, the U.N. General Assembly voted unanimously to create a new agency dedicated to promoting the rights and needs of women and girls around the world.
The U.N. Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women is more commonly known as UN Women. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called it a “major step forward.”
It’s got potential
Among those supporting the creation of UN Women is Paula Donovan, co-director of AIDS Free World, who says creation of the agency is just a first step.
“So far it doesn’t really differ from what we’ve had in the past. It has more potential. But it is at present, at its very beginnings, an amalgamation of what existed in the past,” she says.
One major difference, she says, is that governments have informally agreed it should have a budget of $500 million. That’s about double what U.N. agencies dealing with women combined have had before. Another difference is that the head of UN Women will be an undersecretary-general – a much higher rank than the head of UNIFEM, the current, smaller entity for women.
“An undersecretary-general is at the same level as the heads of UNICEF and the United Nations Development Program. And it’s on a par now with the other heads of agencies,” says Donovan.
“Our great hope is that around the world women will be able to rely on UN Women, not just for advice and not just for sort of representation at meetings, but for real programs that can make effective changes in their lives…. We’re hoping that UN Women will be able to do with women what an agency like UNICEF is able to do for children.”
She says it’s “critically important” that the new agency recognize that “women …have been operating with very few resources and very little power, but excellent ideas, for all the decades when the U.N. wasn’t working on women’s issues.”
The success of UN Women’s will depend in part on partnering with long-time women’s advocates around the world, says Donovan.
Who’s in charge?
The head of UN Women is expected to be named by September, and the agency is due to begin operations by next January. Donovan says a strong leader is vital to fulfilling its mission and having an equal say at the bargaining table.
She says she assumes a woman will be picked for the undersecretary-general’s job, but that person must have proven leadership skills to lead the United Nations “out of the 20th Century and into the 21st Century“ on women’s issues.
“If a terrific, dynamic leader, who can really bring in all the women’s organizations and women’s advocates, who’ve been struggling from outside the U.N. for decades, and can also rein in the funds and support that are required, is appointed, then we have a really good shot,” she says.
Asked if there are any leading candidates, Donovan says, “Your guess is as good as mine.” However, she’s concerned about the selection process. She says the secretary-general and others have promised the process will be fair, open and transparent.
“They’ve now changed that to open, rigorous and transparent. And somehow fairness has slipped off of the agenda. But so far it’s the same old business as usual,” she says.
Governments can nominate candidates, but Donovan says many qualified women may be passed over for consideration. She says women outside of the U.N. structure or not a favored choice of a head of state “have absolutely no information about how they can apply, what the qualifications are. And I haven’t seen anything that resembles fairness or openness and certainly not transparency.”
The co-founder of AIDS Free World says there’s much work to be done after UN Women begins operations. “We have now the shell of a U.N. women’s agency that can truly be effective for women. We have the legal premise,” she says. But the amount of funding she believes will reflect donor commitment.
“Certainly the governments have made almost embarrassing financial commitments - $500 million for all the world’s women is mortifying. And those aren’t commitments. Those are simply suggestions,” she says.
The United Nations calls the creation of UN Women “historic.” The secretary-general says the agency “will significantly boost U.N. efforts to promote gender equality, expand opportunity and tackle discrimination around the globe.”