GLOBAL: New UN agency for women – first battle won

The new UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women will pump the bulk of its projected US$500 million annual budget into programming to directly benefit the world’s most vulnerable women, but this unprecedented boost may still leave the agency lacking influence and impact, civil society advocates say.

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The base funding for this entity, known as UN Women, more than doubles all the resources now available to the four UN gender agencies – UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), the Office of the Special Adviser on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women, the Division for the Advancement of Women, and the International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women (INSTRAW). UN Women will formally come into being in January 2011.

UNIFEM Deputy Executive Director Moez Doraid says $500 million is still “miniscule, compared to our needs, and those are enormous needs.”

“The purpose [of UN Women] is to expand and strengthen UNIFEM’s activities, to broaden them so that they may benefit more women in more countries,” Doraid told IRIN. “It gives us so much hope that it will help overcome these weaknesses that have plagued our work for so long, including problems of under-sourcing, a lack of authority and positioning within the UN system, and a need to achieve key coordination as a whole.”

UN Women’s creation marks a watershed in gender mainstreaming at an internal UN level, but it is unclear how this achievement will ultimately translate into a safer, better life for vulnerable women: globally more than six out of 10 women experience physical violence, including sexual violence, during their lifetime.

“Of course, actions are louder than words and UN Women remains very much a promise of action,” said Elisabeth Roesch, gender-based violence advocacy director of the International Rescue Committee (IRC). “The coming months and years will be a crucial period to see if this agency lives up to that promise and is able to make a difference. Two things that will certainly be essential are strong leadership and resources.”


UN Women’s proposed $500 million annual budget is intended to increase within five years to $1 billion – an amount the Gender Equality Architectural Reform (GEAR) campaign, an international civil society movement that has been advocating UN Women’s creation since 2006, says is required to sufficiently scale up programming and resources for women.

“In 2008 we found that the existing gender equality bodies at the UN had $221 million, and compare that to $27 billion, the expenditure of the entire UN that year, and it’s less than even one percent,” said Daniela Rosech, the leading gender justice policy adviser for Oxfam International. “This $500 million is still too little, and with the UN’s own working group proposing that by 2015, 15 percent of overall development assistance will be allocated toward gender, why is that not happening?”

Doraid says UN Women’s budget increase will be dependent on member-nation contributions. Several UN countries, including the UK and Norway, have expressed commitments to “double or considerably increase their contributions” to UNIFEM, soon to be morphed into UN Women, in the past few years. Spain donated about $42 million to UN Women on 2 July, the day the General Assembly approved its creation, marking the “largest single” contribution any UN gender entity has received.

As it stands, however, UN Women will still absorb UNIFEM’s country programme offices, which will be better resourced, staffed and widespread than UNIFEM’s were, said Charlotte Bunch, one the GEAR campaign’s co-founders.

“Long term programming comes with a kind of funding that allows you to not have one gender equality programme office with someone in the back of the building, as we see now, but expert staff that can travel the country,” said Oxfam’s Rosech.

UNIFEM’s largest programme in Afghanistan is “generally well funded”, Doraid says, but its capacity has remained limited in other conflict and post-conflict zones, like the Democratic Republic of Congo, where “a crucial missing link in the chain has been the [functioning] instruments that allow persecution of perpetrators of rape.”

“This has not materialized and it would be a high priority to ensure such tools and instruments are there when they are needed,” he said.

Better laws

Working to enact gender-based violence laws is another major goal for UN Women, Doraid says, noting that more than 100 countries lack specific legislation prohibiting and protecting women from domestic violence.

UN Women’s leadership by an under-secretary general to be appointed this autumn, will “certainly contribute to the status and positioning of this organization” in and out of the Secretariat, Doraid said. Its chief’s “very senior level” will elevate UN Women’s status, granting gender equality programmes and issues an unparalleled level of visibility.

UN Women offices’ many facets “are still being worked out,” said Bunch, who noted that their influence will also expand to UNICEF offices and to the UN Population Fund (UNFPA).

As UN Women solidifies within the next five months, it will ideally bridge the gap between abstract dialogue at the UN Secretariat about fostering a “global voice” for women, and action on the ground, says Rosech.

“We do need a global voice but it’s not just a question of that, because a global voice can be limited to the Secretariat and that isn’t where our main challenges are,” she said. “We also need a strong country-by-country presence and it’s a question of how do we get that done.”


There’s also the risk of a “fragile and difficult political dynamic” that contributed to the four-year lag in UN Women’s creation, weakening its charter’s wording on sexual violence and on reproductive and sexual health, Rosech said. That could make some leading donor countries less willing to support an agency they see as compromised.

“We aren’t naïve enough to think that a women’s structure is going to be free of the pressures that all the UN agencies work with vis-à-vis donors,” Bunch echoed. “The first obstacle will be getting the money and the second will be facing governments with a limited commitment for this entity.”

“Things don’t just happen because it’s a good idea. They happen because people keep putting pressure and monitoring so structures like these can have legs.”


[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]