KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (WOMENSENEWS)–When Michelle Bachelet resigned from her post as the first under-secretary-general and executive director of UN Women in March of this year, Lakshmi Puri stepped in.

While the secretary general’s search for Bachelet’s replacement continues, Puri is serving as the acting head of the U.N.’s gender agency.

Bachelet had led UN Women since its inception, taking office in September 2010, until she left her four-year position early to launch her campaign for a second term as president of her native Chile, said Puri. Bachelet was the first female president of the country from 2006 to 2010, before joining UN Women. There is no deadline for filling the position, Puri said.

Puri joined the U.N. in 2002 after a 28-year career with the Indian Foreign Service, where she held various posts in political and economic policymaking and bilateral and multilateral diplomacy. She came on board at UN Women in March 2011.

She talked with Women’s eNews at the Women Deliver conference, a major global forum on the health of women and girls held herelast week, about her agenda and the challenges she faces while at the helm of the superagency, which consolidated four previous U.N. women’s rights agencies.

What will your priorities be as acting head of UN Women?

My priority is to power on. We have built a great institution in these two years and in every area of our functioning, whether it is intergovernmental normative [processes] or whether it is advocacy and communication, whether it is coordination of the U.N. system to deliver on gender equality and women’s empowerment, whether it is our programmatic work on the ground, putting in place the regional architecture, strengthening our field presence . . . I think we have made tremendous progress and in fact leaps in some ways, and that has to continue.

We had this tremendous and historic outcome at this year’s Commission on the Status of Women on [the agreed conclusions for] ending violence against women, so we have to make sure we implement it and work with governments to implement it.

The institution-building phase [of UN Women] is almost over and at the same time that we’ve been building institutions we’ve been delivering as well, so now we also have to not only deliver but make our results more visible. We also have to continue to raise resources because we’re almost 98 percent dependent on voluntary government contributions, and also diversify our resource base, including through resource mobilization from private sector, nontraditional donors and foundations.

Budget Challenges

When UN Women started the budget wasn’t as much as you were hoping for. What is the budget situation now?

We still have challenges, particularly this economic and financial crisis has affected some of our biggest donors and that deficit has then to be filled by others. So what we have been telling our donors and all our partner countries (by the way we have between 113 and 117 countries contributing, at different levels of course, to UN Women) is that you have to prioritize UN Women for the next four years because we have to build a strong foundation and we must have a critical mass of resources to be able to be effective and deliver and meet the high expectations that the international community has of us, and that women and girls around the world have of us.

Has the number of member states providing funding gone up or is it about the same?

It’s been steadily going up and also nontraditional, developing country donors have come in. We now have the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia; and India had been giving right from the beginning. Our biggest donors are United Kingdom, Norway, Australia, Switzerland, Finland, Denmark, Sweden. Spain was very big at one time. In fact, some of them have doubled, tripled, quadrupled, but from a low base. The previous gender architecture suffered from underinvestment so now that leap has to be made by our partners.

What is the budget?

Three hundred million dollars is the budget for this year, the target for this year . . . We hope it will be reached.

How do you compare the one larger structure of UN Women to the previous system? Do you feel it’s been more effective having one entity vs. multiple smaller gender-related agencies?

Absolutely, there’s no question. I gave you the example of how at the Commission on the Status of Women we delivered as one and brought to bear the comparative advantage of being able to link the intergovernmental normative [processes] at the global level with the operational at the national level and regional level . . . We have fused together quite strongly.

Rapid Institution Building

What’s your evaluation of what UN Women has done since it started? Are there things that the agency was hoping to accomplish by this point that haven’t happened?

We have really telescoped in these two years so much in terms of institution building. Few institutions have come together so fast and have been able to at the same time deliver on so many different fronts and establish processes that are going to be making the qualitative and quantitative leaps. But what we really need are the resources, that’s where we need strength. It’s not that we haven’t been doing enough, it’s matter of commitment, political commitment to be matched by financial commitment.

Is there a plan to get that commitment?

We are using every opportunity to seek that commitment and to obtain that commitment . . . Investment is the key. But by the way one of our positives is also our private-sector partnerships. We’ve been able to mobilize the private sector around gender equality and women’s empowerment through WEPs [Women’s Empowerment Principles] and also through partnerships such as with Coca Cola and Tag Heuer, foundations such as Rockfeller and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. We are also in partnership with Microsoft and so many others, including Avon and L’Oreal. Again there is always a gestation period, there’s lots of relationship building involved and then you start reaping the benefits.

There has been some concern that the larger structure of UN Women has meant the agency has had to absorb conservative members’ positions and turn away from issues such as abortion rights. What do you think?

To the contrary, far from true. UN Women has been resolute and absolutely clear about its total commitment and conviction I would say, even beyond commitment, that sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights are central to gender equality and women’s empowerment and its achievement. Just as in this conference, we have been affirming that you have to address gender equality and women’s empowerment in other dimensions–economic empowerment, political participation, education, all those other aspects–to achieve more effectively sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights. The central thread for me is this, it’s been one of my key messages.

Juhie Bhatia,¬†managing editor at Women’s eNews, recently participated in Women Deliver 2013, a conference focused on the health of women and girls that took place May 28 to 30 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.