Later this year the UN will vote on establishing a Women's Agency with a budget of a billion dollars. What would we like them to do? Read why Lesley Abdela thinks its important:
Finally, a UN agency for women
By Lesley Abdela, The Guardian
Wednesday, 27 May 2009
The UN system has failed the world's 3 billion-plus women - but a new 'super-agency' may bring welcome change.
This autumn the UN general assembly will vote yes or no to a new "super-agency for women"; $1bn is being discussed as the starter annual budget.
Just like the House of Commons, the UN has finally been shamed into reforming itself. The UN sets global standards for human rights, but has no single agency with the resources and clout to work globally to improve the lives of women. As a result, the UN system has badly and unforgivably let down the world's 3 billion-plus women. In 2006 a UN high-level panel set up to recommend reforms in the wake of the 2005 world summit gave the UN nul points for services to women. The panel found the way the UN system works for women "incoherent, fragmented, and under-resourced". Many of us have been saying for years the UN system is a son of the 1950s, patriarchal and hierarchical, so it is good to see it's official.
More than 300 NGOs have united under the acronym Gear (Gender Equality Architecture Reform) to push for governments and the UN secretary general to set up the new super-agency. Britain's Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO), AIDS-Free World and Action for Southern Africa (Actsa) are the "Joanna Lumleys" in the van of the Gear campaign.
The UN high-level panel calls for the new agency to be "fully and ambitiously funded", with greater authority and real operational capacity on the ground. Campaign groups welcome Dfid's open support for a super-agency. The British government is expected to announce in the next few weeks how much they will invest, though given the overwhelming challenge, the rumoured UK commitment of $100m is just not enough. It's peanuts by contrast with the trillions the UK prime minister, with the wave of a magic wand, promised the IMF and wayward banks.
A major role for the new agency's work will be to close the gap between rhetoric and reality on existing international resolutions on sex discrimination and women's human rights. The priorities cover a lot of ground – to help women earn increased income, stay in education longer, have access to proper health care, and have an equal say in decisions that affect their lives and the future of the planet.
Despite generations of international agreements on women's equality, responsibility for improving the lives of the world's women is spread thinner than Marmite across four poorly co-ordinated UN entities – Unifem, DAW, Osagi, and Instraw. Their senior staff are not part of the UN's main decision-making fora. All have minuscule budgets, little power or influence in the UN system and virtually no operational capacity on the ground. Unifem, the largest of the four, has 47 staff and a budget of $129m to serve the world's three and a half billion women.
All organisations within the UN system are officially mandated to address gender and women's rights. Most treat women's rights and priorities as optional extras, or entirely ignore their responsibilities to half the world's population. A few UN agencies and UN missions in some countries do important work on gender equality and women's rights, but it's patchy and often depends on an individual champion to push for it.
At a Gear campaign meeting hosted by the Canadian high commission and the VSO in London on 19 May, Stephen Lewis, co-director of AIDS-Free World and a former UN special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, said: "On HIV/AIDS the area in which we made least progress was for women. This new super-agency is needed because of the UN's abysmal record on women. When it comes to women, there has been criminal negligence by the international community for decades, particularly by the UN." He added: "The UN is full of sophistry and misogyny. I do not understand how women are made so readily expendable." VSO's chief executive, Marg Mayne, said: "The further value for the new agency would be to ensure governments keep their promises about treating women equally."
Over the decades important advances have been made for women, but governments and the UN have failed overall to implement the commitments to women's rights they made in the convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women, the UN Beijing platform for action, security council resolutions 1325 and 1820 on women in peace and conflict, and in agreements from many UN world conferences, including those on human rights, population and development, sustainable development, HIV/AIDS, the millennium summit and millennium goals.
Lewis noted: "What you need is an agency that is staffed with committed activists and never lets go of issues such as rape and sexual violence. There are 12 UN agencies and 17,000 UN peacekeepers in Congo, yet it was only when activist Eve Ensler, author of The Vagina Monologues, came back and reported to the American media that 'I have just returned from hell', that the UN humanitarian chief went to visit the country."