The mandate of UN Women is large, and some supporters are concerned that its starting budget of $500 million is not enough to promote women and gender equality around the world, especially at the country level.
Activists compare the funding with the nearly $3 billion annually for UNICEF and $4 billion for the U.N. Development Program. Funding for UN Women is less than 1% of the nearly $5 billion U.N. budget.
In comparison, the World Bank says it would cost $83 billion to reach the U.N. Millennium Development Goal of achieving gender equality in low income countries by 2015.
Daniela Rosche, a policy advisor for Oxfam in Amsterdam, is concerned about the failure of many governments to announce how much they will contribute to the new agency. She also says UN Women will likely need a larger annual budget.
"We are not satisfied with $500 million and we do not think it is enough," said Rosche. "We know that working at the country level and given the ambition, hopes and expectations of U.N. Women, $500 million is really little money."
"We know one thing: gender equality has always been underfunded in the system," she said. "It would be a shame if it didn’t have the resources that everyone agrees women’s rights and gender equality need for progress."
In the past, budgetary constraints meant the agency’s predecessors, including UNIFEM (U.N. Development Fund for Women), had a limited presence, with efforts often confined to pilot projects with minimal reach. UNIFEM also lacked the status, power and staff to promote its agenda.
"The key challenge for previous gender equality bodies before UN Women is they did not have the seniority and global authority they needed," said Zohra Moosa, the women’s rights advisor for ActionAid in London. "At a very basic level, for example, their staff wasn’t senior enough to sit at important decision-making tables. So they couldn’t be in the room when decisions were being made and they couldn’t influence those agendas that impacted on women and girls’ rights."
"An example is how UNAIDS operated in the past. UNIFEM was simply not consulted when UNAIDS was developing its work and that hasmeant that women and girls continued to bear an increasing share of the burden of HIV/AIDS around the world," added Moosa.
But the new agency, U.N. Women and its executive director, Michelle Bachelet, are expected to have a strong influence on U.N. policy. Among its duties is “gender mainstreaming,” or trying to ensure that women’s issues are taken into consideration by all agencies of the international body.
Moosa says the new agency must be accountable to the women of the world, not just to member states. Her organization, ActionAid, is encouraging U.N. Women to find new ways of allowing individuals and non-governmental organizations to report the failure of governments or institutions to protect their rights.
She says such a mechanism already exists in the protocol of CEDAW, the (U.N.) Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.
"CEDAW provides mechanisms for civil society to report [to a committee monitoring compliance to the convention] on how their governments are doing on women and girls’ rights," explained Moosa. "There’s also the annual meeting of the [U.N.] Commission on the Status of Women, where civil society, if they can get to New York, can talk about their countries’ results on women and girls rights."
"What we are looking for is similar mechanisms where, in addition to the official state process, women can also make claims on UN Women and can... voice their concerns directly," she added.
Some activists are concerned about the agency’s 41-member executive board, which includes countries that sometimes differ from the industrialized world in their views of women’s rights.
But Charlotte Bunch says the executive board is not a policymaking body, and not likely to publicly comment on issues before it. She is the founding director of the Center for Women’s Global Leadership at Rutgers University and was a major voice in the campaign to establish UN Women.
"I think the important thing is that they are not allowed to stop anything from going forward," said Bunche. "And that really requires holding the executive board and the governments accountable to all the standards they’ve already set."
"So if a country like Saudi Arabia proposes wanting to change the strategic plan," she added, "we have to remind them that the strategic plan is implementing the Beijing Declaration on Women from the 1995 world conference, it has to be in line with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women’s rights (CEDAW), with the standards that the U.N. has been setting for the last 50 years around women’s rights. It’s that kind of a discussion."
Bunch says women’s rights are a complex and deep seated issue in many societies, particularly those where women are excluded from decision-making.
"It’s not like a peacekeeping mediation," she said, "where the U.N. can come in and bring the mediators and you sit people in a room for a few hours and you come out with a plan to end patriarchy. In the case of women’s rights of course you have multiple institutions in society that are a part of the change that needs to happen."
Bunch says the challenges are enormous. She says UN Women must decide where it can make a difference in moving governments and social and cultural forces forward.
Local NGOs are ready. A recent Oxfam survey of 100 civil society programs in 75 countries showed their interest in working closely with the new U.N. agency, because of its ability to open doors at the national level.
UN Women has responded by consulting closely with civil society groups covering 72 countries in five regions from January to April. The results of those discussions will influence the agency’s Strategic Plan which is expected to be presented to the executive board in late June. UN Women’s Undersecretary-general Michelle Bachelet, who meets with local NGOs in every she visits, is also working to include civil society in the agency’s advisory board.
The hope, says Daniela Rosche, is that the new agency can bring women’s voices to the decision-making table. “It’s essential,” she says, “because in a democracy, without having as many women stakeholders at the table as possible, you can’t speak of good governance.”