Michelle Bachelet UNITED NATIONS (WOMENSENEWS)–The new United Nations gender agency, known as U.N. Women, quietly opened on Jan. 3 without any publicity or announcements.

The superagency’s midtown Manhattan headquarters remain unoccupied, said U.N. Women spokesperson Gretchen Luchsinger. Employees from the four U.N. gender agencies and offices that this new entity is uniting continue to work out of their own, scattered offices around the U.N. Secretariat building.

"Maybe because of the U.N. bureaucracy we have experienced a slow process to seeing U.N. Women become operational," said Margot Baruch, spokesperson for the Gender Equality Architecture Reform, a civil society coalition with offices in New Brunswick, N.J., that campaigned for U.N. Women’s creation.

U.N. Women activity is likely to remain low-key until the public ceremonial launch on Feb. 24–pushed back from Jan. 20–at the U.N. Secretariat, according to Baruch. The evening event will coincide with the start of the annual month-long session of the Commission on the Status of Women, which typically brings in thousands of women’s rights activists from around the world.

Concerns raised in the fall about the agency’s financing–a minimum annual $500 million budget is deemed necessary to scale up programming and see any impact–have continued into the new year.

Budget Discussions Pending

U.N. Women’s budget is going to be part of the first regular session of U.N. Women’s executive board, running Jan. 24-26, said Luchsinger in an email interview.

On its new Web site, U.N. Women says it so far has received nearly $77 million in country pledges, which will become a part of the budget that aims to scale up to $500 million by the end of 2011.

Seven high-level staff positions are still open. Two assistant secretary-general jobs are slated to be filled by the end of February, according to a budget presentation by the new agency’s executive board on Tuesday. The same group said all seven members of the senior management team will be in place by the end of April.

Luchsinger said U.N. Women couldn’t provide numbers on the entire staff size, including high-level positions, until after the budget is approved.

"U.N. Women is going through a process of transition and assessment to understand what else is needed and will be filling positions accordingly," she said.

UNIFEM country programs continue to operate as they were, according to Luchsinger, but now under the U.N. Women name.

Bachelet Leads Superagency

The U.N. General Assembly voted to create U.N. Women in July 2010. Two months later, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appointed former Chilean president Michelle Bachelet as its executive director and as an under-secretary general in a widely celebrated move.

Paula Donovan, co-director of the New York City-based nongovernmental group AIDS Free World, described Bachelet as a "realist." Donovan and her co-director Stephen Lewis –both of whom helped launch debate on the need for the superagency in 2005–recently met with Bachelet in New York.

"She understands the expectations are extraordinarily high and there are so many people who have been waiting so long for real progress on these issues," Donovan said. "She will do absolutely everything she can to fulfill her vision of a strong U.N. Women agency, but she wants to make it clear to people that it is a process and she can’t do it alone. She can’t suddenly change the U.N. system."

A shadow fell on the new agency in November, when Saudi Arabia–which has made significant reforms but also restricts women’s freedom of movement by, for example, prohibiting them from driving and requiring a male guardian to give permission to travel, work or study–was among the countries elected to its executive country board, a body of 41 charged with overseeing general policy.

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Amy Lieberman is a correspondent at the United Nations Secretariat.

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