Noeleen Heyzer in East Timor

(WOMENSENEWS)–If the United Nations heeds the recommendations of a recent high-level panel, women’s international advocacy will gain a more centralized headquarters and higher, broader podium.

The new agency would be headed by an undersecretary-general, giving it increased stature within the U.N. system, including a seat at all decision-making tables.

It will be up to the U.N. General Assembly to implement the panel’s recommendations and determine funding levels. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan will most likely ask member states to adopt the reforms before his term ends on Dec. 31.

Currently, women’s programs are divisions of other departments, such as the U.N. Development Program, and are scattered throughout the system. The recommendations call for most of them to be merged into an independent body.

"We found a strong sense among governments and civil society that the U.N. has a unique ability to deal with politically and socially sensitive issues affecting women, but it is not living up to its potential," Robert Greenhill, president of the Canadian International Development Agency and a panel member, told Women’s eNews last week.

The recommendations were part of an overall report on institutional coherence released earlier this month.

The need for the U.N. to better address women’s rights issues was also highlighted in another study issued in October by the secretary-general that found violence against women pervades both developed and developing countries and requires an urgent global response.

"Women’s units at the U.N. have taken leadership on the issue, but the study shows that there is a need for greater resources and coordination if we are to eradicate gender violence," said Charlotte Bunch, executive director of the Center for Women’s Global Leadership at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey.

No Funding Guidelines

The coherence panel did not offer funding guidelines for the new women’s agency. According to Greenhill, $200 million was discussed by panel members, but a figure was left out of the report for fear it would be seen as a "ceiling rather than a launching pad."

Last year, the U.N. Development Fund for Women, or UNIFEM, had a budget of $54 million. By contrast, the U.N. Children’s Fund budget was $2.7 billion and the U.N. Population Fund’s was $565 million.

UNIFEM provides technical and financial assistance to programs run by governments and non-governmental organizations that advance women’s rights.

In 2005, the Trust Fund to Eliminate Violence Against Women, which is managed by UNIFEM, provided grants of $25,000 to $100,000 to 24 projects worldwide, disbursing $1.8 million in total. In 2006, the trust fund will increase that grant funding to $3.5 million, the highest disbursement in its history. Most grants will be directed toward groups that work on legal frameworks to address violence against women.

International policy-making for women is currently handled at the U.N. by the Division for the Advancement of Women and the Office of the Special Advisor on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women. Among other things, they organize world conferences on women and monitor governments’ compliance with the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, known as CEDAW.

Representatives of current U.N. women’s programs, professional women’s rights advocates and human rights groups such as the Center for Women’s Global Leadership and London-based Amnesty International, have endorsed the idea of a single agency.

‘Fragmented’ Approach

"A strong women’s presence on the country level would allow us to ensure that whatever commitments are made at the inter-governmental level get translated on the ground," Noeleen Heyzer, executive director of UNIFEM said in an interview earlier this month. "Work on gender equality at the U.N. is fragmented and does not have enough status or resources to achieve a world that is free of violence and poverty for women."

Currently, U.N. teams–composed of development, health and human rights agencies–operate in more than 130 countries worldwide. Working closely with national officials, they provide crucial input into how governments spend their money and set priorities.

Gender experts from the new women’s agency would be part of consolidated U.N. country teams where deemed necessary.

"We would be able to influence the whole country team, and make certain whoever is working on rule of law or security sector reform is also addressing violence against women," said Heyzer.

"A stronger women’s voice at the U.N. means that there will be more support for what women’s groups are doing on the ground to implement the commitments that governments have made, including commitments to end violence against women," said Bunch.

The U.N. gender violence study from October found that women encounter violence in settings as varied as the family, the workplace, schools and police custody. Domestic violence is most common, and 1 in 3 women worldwide will be physically abused by an intimate partner at some point in her life.

Mutilation, Rape and Violence

About 130 million girls have been subjected to genital mutilation. And sexual violence continues to be a weapon of war; thousands of women and girls have been raped in the ongoing conflict in the Darfur region of Sudan, the latest example where extensive rape has been a prominent feature of conflict.

A number of international agreements call on governments to work toward eradicating violence against women, including CEDAW and action plans that came out of the 1995 World Conference on Women in Beijing and the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna.

Yet, the study also found that government efforts to implement those international norms have been inadequate and inconsistent due to a lack of political will, resources and expertise.

A recent Amnesty International report, for example, found that more than 2,700 women in Belarus were victims of domestic abuse in 2005 and lacked protection from police officers, judges and medical staff even though the country has signed CEDAW, which obliges signatories to provide legal and medical services to victims of violence and prosecute perpetrators.

The Center for Women’s Global Leadership, which promotes women’s leadership in policy-making worldwide, is encouraging women’s groups to use the U.N. violence study as an advocacy tool during the international 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence campaign, which begins Nov. 25 and runs through Dec. 10.

"The study empowers women because it asserts that the state has a responsibility to prevent and punish violence against women," said Bunch. "Governments have not prioritized the issue. They may have laws on violence against women, but they are not implemented."

Bojana Stoparic is a freelance writer based in New York.


For more information:

The United Nations Trust Fund to Eliminate Violence Against Women:

16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence:

UN Secretary General’s In-Depth Study on Violence Against Women:

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