UNITED NATIONS (WOMENSENEWS)–The new U.N. superagency for women is preparing for a June vote by its country executive board on its strategic plan.

Preparations for this kick-off positioning statement have been long and global.

Under the guidance of Executive Director Michele Bachelet, the former president of Chile, the group has conducted about 70 consultative sessions in 71 countries from January to early April this year.

One session–representing Mexico, Central America, the Dominican Republic and Cuba– linked up with a meeting of indigenous women of the Americas at the beginning of March. Their message: keep the group financially accountable.

In her own information-gathering efforts, Bachelet has traveled to Liberia, Panama, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Kenya and several European countries.

Regional directors have surveyed 3,700 partner organizations. Among them, 31 percent were government representatives; 47 percent were civil-society and academic groups; and 22 percent were U.N. system members, including staffers from the four groups being combined under UN Women.

In a meeting for the Andean region, Bachelet made sure that indigenous women’s views were sought out and prioritized, said Lucia Salamea-Palacios, UN Women’s representative for Ecuador and Colombia.

"These women didn’t see themselves in the initial structure of UN Women, but Bachelet is stressing that they need to be involved," Salamea-Palacios said in a phone interview.

Many participants saw a key role for UN Women in ensuring that gender equality is factored into national governments’ policies and programs, said Salamea-Palacios. They also want UN Women to provide a "knowledge hub" for gender-equality efforts.

The strategic plan is likely to increase staff placements in high-priority countries, such as Colombia and Guatemala, which has a large population of indigenous women and the highest femicide rate in Latin America.

Priorities Funding-Dependant

Implementing strategic priorities will depend on fundraising. UN Women budgeted for a base annual budget of $500 million. Bachelet arrived in office in January with $300 million in combined money from UNIFEM and three other offices. By the end of April 2011, UN Women had received more than $103 million from U.N. member nations for the years 2010 and 2011.

UN Women’s fundraising is a key matter for Nighat Khan, founder and president of the advocacy group Institute for Women’s Studies in Lahore, Pakistan.

"There’s been the tendency that U.N. offices solicit funds from their host countries and become direct competitors to the women’s movement," said Khan. "I heard Bachelet speak with grassroots women and her first sentence was, ‘I hear it loud and clear that UN Women must not be a threat to the women’s movement.’ Now that she has made that open statement, we have to see where it goes from there."

Esther Mwaura is founder of GROOTS Kenya, a grassroots coalition of 2,000 women’s groups working on such goals as curbing HIV/AIDS and strengthening women’s property rights. She said the consultative sessions offered a unique opportunity to voice their opinions in a public forum.

"We had three grassroots women attend the session and there was lots of excitement–which is not a measure of the quality of the event but rather comes out when women like them get a chance to speak, which is really never gotten," she said.

The women went to the session with the message that UN Women needs to continue to engage grassroots women and to focus on economic empowerment of disadvantaged women as well.

Feeling Left Out

Procedural arguments have arisen along the way. And despite the vast effort to gather feedback and input, some women feel left out.

One such woman is Sosan Aziz, a leader of the rural grassroots organization Himawanti, which is based in Gilgit, a northeastern city in Pakistan, and is comprised of women working in agriculture. In a phone interview, she said she was only one of 10 people in a 100-person-plus consultative session in Islamabad, Pakistan, in February who represented grassroots organizations.

She came away disappointed that more attention hadn’t been paid to the role grassroots women could have in guiding UN Women to focus on women’s land rights, and "that kind of stuff we can’t normally talk about because it is a male-dominated society." Instead, the session was dominated by discussions of UN Women’s future role in Pakistan and how it will work to avoid overlap with other operating UN agencies.

Some countries were skipped over altogether.

In the Balkans, for instance, Damira Sartbaeva, UN Women’s program director for the sub-regional office for Eastern Europe and Central Asia, says programming occurs in 12 countries but "given distances and very modest funding for this sub-region" UN Women organized consultations in only seven countries.

That meant Kristina Kosatikova, executive director of the Prague-based International Generational Policy Network, a coalition of 24 member organizations from the Balkans focused on women’s political participation and leadership, attended no consultative sessions.

Kosatikova says representatives of UNIFEM–one of the four agencies coming together under UN Women–have informed colleagues in the Balkan countries that UN Women would continue conducting programs and that the new organization’s structure would make "no difference" in its work there.

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Amy Lieberman is a correspondent at the United Nations headquarters and a freelance writer in New York City.

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