June Zeitlin

(WOMENSENEWS)–A United Nations panel’s recommendation to bolster the worldwide promotion of women’s rights is getting a renewed push by advocates gathered in New York for the U.N.’s annual Commission on the Status of Women meeting, which ends March 7, the eve of International Women’s Day.

Through what they call the "gender equality architecture reform" campaign–unveiled on Feb. 26 and supported by over 180 organizations in around 75 countries–the advocates are demanding a strong, centralized U.N. women’s agency to provide an international beacon of leadership on women’s human rights.

Among other benefits, they say an expanded and centralized agency will help cut lag time in U.N. efforts on behalf of women.

As an example, Charlotte Bunch, executive director of the Center for Women’s Global Leadership at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, pointed to a campaign against gender violence launched Feb. 25 by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that is spurring a gush of commitment statements from U.N. agencies and officials this week.

Bunch said the outpour comes 16 months after a U.N. study called for urgent action against gender violence around the world.

"If there was a stronger gender entity, the U.N. would have been able to take decisive action and coordinate an institutional response more quickly," Bunch said.

In its 2006 recommendations, a U.N. panel on system-wide coherence said a consolidated agency would improve efforts on behalf of women across the organization and be more able to provide technical assistance to member states.

Mergers and Expansion

Campaigners are calling for existing groups with different functions–the U.N. Development Fund for Women, the Division for the Advancement for Women and the Office of the Special Advisor on Gender Issues–to be merged, expanded and put under the leadership of an undersecretary-general who can give voice and visibility to women’s issues.

Agencies such as the U.N. Population Fund, the World Food Program and the Joint U.N. Program on HIV/AIDS are all headed by undersecretary-generals, who report directly to the secretary-general. The secretary-general, in turn, is appointed by and reports to the General Assembly.

"We are promoting this campaign to let governments know that women need this and won’t be a political football," said June Zeitlin, executive director of the Women’s Environment and Development Organization in New York, one of the groups spearheading the initiative. "There is no systemic, institutional mechanism at the United Nations that can advance women’s rights."

According to Polly Truscott, an advisor in Amnesty International’s U.N. office in New York, a women’s agency with an extensive presence on the ground would ensure women are included in decision-making processes, particularly in countries coming out of conflict.

"Often in peace negotiations, involving women is not a priority, but a stronger U.N. voice for women would make sure governments listen to and address women’s concerns," she said. "In general, it would give local women greater access to governments and the U.N. system."

Each year the Commission on the Status of Women brings together government officials and experts to evaluate progress on gender equality.

This year’s theme is financing. With that in mind, champions of an expanded women’s agency are targeting an annual budget of at least $500 million. "It’s the amount that’s needed for the entity to deliver results at all levels and have a strong field presence," said Zeitlin.

Small Slice of Funding Pie

In 2006, the total money allocated for all existing U.N. women’s entities was $65 million. Although UNIFEM’s budget was doubled, to $115 million from $57 million, in 2007, it is still a fraction of the budget of UNICEF, the U.N. Children’s Fund, which in 2006 was over $2 billion.

Other groups behind the campaign include London-based Amnesty International, the African Women’s Development and Communication Network in Nairobi, Kenya, and the Center for Women’s Global Leadership.

Ban, who came into office in January 2007, has supported the creation of a new women’s agency. But it is up to the 192 members of the General Assembly, which oversees the budget of the United Nations and regularly meets between September and December, to give the go-ahead to the reforms and approve the funding levels.

No timeline has been set for this process.

The architecture reform initiative puts organizers into a direct clash with a bloc of less-developed nations that in June opposed speeding up these reforms during informal debates at the General Assembly. Discussion over other institutional reforms, however, was held in early February.

During the informal consultation in the General Assembly last June, developed and less-developed countries failed to reach a consensus that could have then led to a formal resolution on a bigger, more cohesive women’s agency.

The European Union, the Scandinavian countries, Canada, Chile and Liberia, among others, strongly favored quick action on overhauling the gender equality infrastructure.

India, however, argued that the current fragmented system is necessary to take action on multiple fronts and should be kept, a position also supported by the United States.

‘Group of 77’ Balked

The Group of 77, a coalition of developing countries, opposed putting gender-related reforms on a fast track, preferring to prioritize development and governance efforts, which are currently being tested in "One United Nations" pilot projects in eight countries, including Tanzania, Pakistan and Vietnam. These initiatives are consolidating the programs, budgets and administration of different U.N. agencies working in the same country.

Organizers of the gender-equality architecture reform are encouraging women’s groups in the pilot countries to go to public hearings and show how the lack of a U.N. agency focused on women’s rights hurts their work.

"Developed countries decided not to push on gender in order to move forward with the One U.N. projects," said Jonas von Freiesleben, a research analyst with the Center for U.N. Reform Education in New York. "The developing countries that are vocal have largely resisted addressing gender equality in the reform process before development issues have been resolved. They see it as a luxury issue and primarily a Western concern."

Zeitlin said the effort to restructure and expand the U.N.’s women’s rights push has also been hindered by extended U.N. negotiations over issues unrelated to gender, such as financing for development and which countries have seats on the Security Council, whose members are appointed by the general membership to address international threats to peace and security.

Bunch, of the Rutgers center, said it is typical for women’s rights to lose ground when the U.N. sets its priorities. "There is rhetorical acceptance of women’s rights, but something is always more important than women, even though women’s lives hang in the balance," she said. "Governments need to feel pressure from women before they will act."

Bojana Stoparic is a freelance writer based in New York.

For more information:

Center for Women’s Global Leadership:

Women’s Environment and Development Organization:

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