Noeleen Heyzer

UNITED NATIONS (WOMENSENEWS)–The United Nations Development Fund for Women, or UNIFEM, has been at the forefront of women’s activism in the international development community since it was founded in 1976. The fund was established in response to calls from women at the 1975 First World Conference on Women in Mexico City to help ensure that women’s needs and concerns are incorporated in development programs and policies.

Besides working with other U.N. agencies and governments to promote women’s rights, UNIFEM also provides financial and technical assistance to groups and programs worldwide that foster women’s empowerment and gender equality.

In Senegal, for instance, UNIFEM supported an analysis of taxation that found women were taxed at a higher rate because men were considered the primary breadwinners; afterwards, the fund assisted local women’s organizations in advocating for a change in the country’s family code so that both parents are recognized equally. Meanwhile, as a result of UNIFEM’s advocacy, female migrant workers in Nepal began receiving information from their government on their rights and on the resources available to them in the countries where they work.

This year, UNIFEM will lose funding from its second-largest donor, the Netherlands.

A long-time supporter of the organization, the Netherlands contributed almost $3.2 million to the fund–nearly 15 percent of its core budget–in 2003. The Dutch Minister for Development Cooperation Agnes van Ardenne, however, announced last year that–in order to promote efficiency and avoid “fragmentation” of resources–Dutch development aid would focus on a fewer number of organizations.

Esther van Damme, press officer for the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, says Minister van Ardenne considered the effectiveness of small organizations such as UNIFEM and judged that women in developing countries would be better served if large development organizations such as the U.N. Development Programme and the World Bank were themselves expected to take full responsibility for defending and promoting women’s rights. Consequently, funding to UNIFEM was cut after a final contribution of $1 million in 2004.

UNIFEM, however, was not left entirely in the lurch. The 2005 spending bill passed by Congress last fall doubles the annual U.S. contribution to the organization, from $1 million to $2 million, the result of efforts by four female members of the House–Representatives Louise Slaughter (D-NY), Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), Judy Biggert (R-IL), and Nita Lowey (D-NY). It also provides another $1 million to the UNIFEM Trust Fund to Support Actions to Eliminate Violence Against Women.

Even with the anticipated U.S. funding increase, UNIFEM’s budget will still be running at a loss of over a million dollars. As a result, UNIFEM has reduced its support to projects in the African Great Lakes region that work to protect women caught in the region’s conflicts and including them in peace-building processes. Another program that has been scaled back is the effort to fight HIV/AIDS among women.

The Dutch withdrawal of support for UNIFEM raises a perennial policy discussion about how to promote women’s rights. Should they be promoted by special advocacy groups such as UNIFEM? Can and should they be left up to humanitarian organizations? Or should there be a mix of both approaches?

By shifting its funds to the U.N.’s main development program, the Dutch are taking the so-called “gender mainstreaming” approach, which shifts the responsibility for women’s issues from gender specialists to all personnel in an organization.

Support for gender mainstreaming emerged in the 1980s and was championed by women’s advocates, including UNIFEM, as a concept that recognized the gendered nature of development and institutions, and consequently emphasized that it was not enough for women to just be added to already existing programs and activities–they also had to have the opportunity to shape those projects.

Gender mainstreaming was adopted as the primary tool for promoting gender equality worldwide at the 1995 the U.N. Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. Since then, major development institutions such as the World Bank and Oxfam International have made some changes. Oxfam reduced its central gender unit and dispersed gender experts throughout the organization and its programs, while the World Bank has sought to identify and tackle the specific barriers that might prevent women from benefiting from the organization’s poverty reduction and development projects.

Double Identity

UNIFEM, meanwhile, has managed, in a sense, to straddle the whole debate by having a double identity. While functioning as a specialized advocate for women, it is also supposed to mainstream gender rights within the U.N. system, working closely with the U.N. Development Programme and partnering with the Joint U.N. Programme on HIV/AIDS, the International Labour Organization, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and the U.N. Population Fund, among others.

The Dutch Development Minister believes that UNIFEM’s gender-mainstreaming mandate provides an excuse for these larger development agencies to not take gender mainstreaming seriously. Increasing pressure on them “will be more effective than maintaining a small separate organization,” van Damme told Women’s eNews.

Noeleen Heyzer, UNIFEM’s executive director, disagrees, arguing that gender-mainstreaming initiatives–though valuable–cannot succeed on their own. They can only work, she says, if there’s a strong women’s advocate, such as UNIFEM, to raise awareness about new issues impacting women and make sure these issues and concerns remain on the agenda of governments and policymakers.

Without a group whose primary commitment is to women’s rights, Heyzer fears that there would not be enough resolve and dedication to keep the momentum going on issues important to women, and they would quickly fall by the wayside. A world where everyone working in development and government is equally concerned with women’s equality, and everyone knows how to work towards achieving that goal, is far away, according to Heyzer.

Heyzer says UNIFEM’s partnerships with other U.N. agencies have resulted in some of the most successful instances of gender mainstreaming in the U.N. system, particularly in the area of peace and security. Collaborating with experts from other U.N. agencies, UNIFEM, for example, helped organize the first All Party Burundi Women’s Peace Conference during the country’s peace negotiations in 2000; 19 of the women’s recommendations were included in the final peace accord.

Work Being ‘Cut Off at Roots’

At a time when the gains women around the world have made since the 1970s are being threatened by war, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and religious fundamentalism in various forms, Heyzer claims that the work of women’s human and economic rights advocates is being “cut off at its roots and its base.” Despite some of the lost funds being regained from other contributors, at least for this year, Heyzer worries about what kind of message the Dutch decision will send to other governments and to women’s groups.

Women’s development organizations, for their part, see the funding cut as undermining their own work.

“UNIFEM is a critical agency for projects that are developed and implemented by women’s groups both [globally] and within the U.N. system,” says Nadia Johnson, who works on social and economic justice issues at the Women’s Environment and Development Organization in New York. “Lessening UNIFEM’s capacity serves to do the same for women’s organizations that depend on it.”

Karen Mason, director of the World Bank Gender Unit, which has acted in partnership with UNIFEM and the Dutch government in the past, believes that UNIFEM “has been important for raising international awareness of important gender equality issues, such as the value of gender-based budgeting and the seriousness of violence against women.”

Raising that awareness has proven to be key to UNIFEM’s work. After a three-year advocacy campaign by the organization in the Commonwealth of Independent states, over 34,000 signatures were collected in Kyrgyzstan in support of a bill on domestic violence, which was then made into law in 2003.

It is these kinds of successes that show why UNIFEM is needed, argues Heyzer. “At the end of the day, gender mainstreaming is not an end, but a means to make sure that women can live lives free of poverty, violence and discrimination. The only way to do that is to invest in women’s agencies.”

Van Damme, though, insists that “if all big U.N. organizations take their gender commitments seriously . . . they could have an enormous impact on policies.”

Bojana Stoparic is a freelance writer based in New York.

For more information:

United Nations Development Fund for Women–
UNIFEM in the UN:

Office of the Special Adviser on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women–
Gender Mainstreaming at the United Nations:

Dutch Development Cooperation–
Mutual Interests, Mutual Responsibilities – Dutch Development Co-operation en route to 2015:

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