UN Women vs WE, the Women

In July 2010, The United Nations general Assembly created UN Women, a United Nations agency aiming at Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment. UN Women has been created after an important mobilisation of various organisations to have a UN Agency dedicated to the advancement of women’s rights (gathered under the umbrella of the GEAR Campaign), rather than the four previous agencies that were tackling the issue, namely the Division for the Advancement of Women (DAW), the International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women (INSTRAW), the Office of the Special Adviser on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women (OSAGI) and United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM). The main roles of UN Women are:

  • To support inter-governmental bodies, such as the Commission on the Status of Women, in their formulation of policies, global standards and norms.
  • To help Member States to implement these standards, standing ready to provide suitable technical and financial support to those countries that request it, and to forge effective partnerships with civil society.
  • To hold the UN system accountable for its own commitments on gender equality, including regular monitoring of system-wide progress.
While the world has been celebrating the creation of the agency, it seems nevertheless important to assess the organisation on the basis of what it aims at doing, along with its mechanisms and internal politics. Do women run the risk of being once more bargaining tools in the global political game?  Or is the creation of UN Women a true milestone in the advancement of women’s rights?
The first criticism the newly born agency faced was with regards to the representation on the board, and even before that, on the very electoral process of this board. While Iran and Saudi Arabia were potential candidates to be running for Board, the United States, the European Union and diplomats form Canada lobbied and exerted pressure for Iran not to even be a candidate, and congratulated themselves when this latter was indeed displaced, when no one really emitted so much as a judgement when Saudi Arabia got through as a candidate[i] . Saudi Arabia is now a member of the Executive Board as a “contributing country” (please understand here: Big Money Donor)[ii], along with countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Libya, Pakistan and Nigeria, countries who have received much criticism on their women’s rights record. The hypocrisy of the whole process is a pure reflection of what is taking place at the global political level and doesn’t bode well for the future of UN Women as an agency working for women’s rights. As much as the situation of women’s rights in Iran is appalling, it is not as catastrophic as in Saudi Arabia: women in Iran do have the right to vote and to drive, which is not the case in Saudi Arabia. If we’re eliminating countries on the basis of their women’s rights records, the treatment should be the same for all if the intention is clearly the advancement of women’s rights. Board seats could be held as bargaining tools and pressure tools to encourage countries to tackle issues. The elections processes in this instance clearly shows that we’re already deriving from the main initial goal of gender equality and drifting into politics, where women are once more used, as Mona Eltahawy puts it “as the cheapest bargaining chips”[iii]. Besides, having governments on the Board that are reluctant to grant gender equality will only weaken the mission UN Women is supposed to fulfil.
The other criticism with regards to the Board is in terms of representation, with entire regions falling off the radar, such as the Pacific. On the 41 seats on the Executive Board, not even one was allocated to a Pacific country, which caused uproar at the time the composition of the Board was revealed[iv]. The election of the Board was hence highly political, the result not being the best Board possible for the realisation of women’s rights, but rather a political game between government who did not want to entity in the first place, those who want to direct the agenda of the entity and the big donors.
Another criticism that is has arisen and that translates into an important impediment for the achievement of the organisation’s goals is the issue of the budget. While Ban Ki Moon assessed the need to have around 500 million USD as an annual budget, therefore asking for between 1 and 1.2 billion USD to carry the two year Strategic Plan (2011-2013), the contributions from governments have been so slow that they’re now, over six months into the institution, at a painful 80 million USD[v], which is less than what the frou previous entities working on women’s rights had.  This lack of investment in women and girls show a clear disinterest in the actual achievement of gender equality. Member states seem to have resources to spend on the race to Board eligibility and presence, but do not seem to actively work towards the implementation of the agency’s mission, as clearly shown by the low investments and lack of funding. As an example, the US have given a pathetic 6 million USD while Germany and India have given 1 million each and the UK 10 million[vi].  Commitment to the advancement of women’s rights worldwide clearly doesn’t translate into making resources available for governments.
Faced with this obvious lack of interest except when it comes to securing political positions, one can wonder about the actual necessity and usefulness of UN Women to advance women’s rights. With the lack of funding preventing the full implementation of the strategic plan, governments that did not want the entity in the first place to come and meddle into their laws can lay back and rest as the lack of global commitment is doing their job for them. Even if, and when, UN Women will get the necessary funds, its actions will be directed by political goals, something that will impact on the agency own funding and support to civil society and government. To what extent funding that comes with strings attached are empowering and not imperialists? If we’re truly talking about empowering women and girls, shouldn’t we ask them before giving out conditions on the programmes they have to carry?
Don’t get me wrong: there absolutely needs to be people putting women’s rights at the forefront of the global agenda, endlessly advocating for the empowerment of women and the realisation of their rights, and for that perhaps we need a UN agency for women, but the much too political (in the worst possible sense) direction that the agency is taking and the lack of resources available for the actual implementation of the mission seem to indicate that the international community is no really committed to anything except gaining more power and that the creation of the entity, well, was just a pose. Good luck, Michelle Bachelet, if you need most women, they’ll be organising themselves in committees and collectives, trying to be self-sufficient, asking their government for change, and not awaiting UN Women

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