Thursday, July 1, 2010

U.N. Clears Final Hurdle to Create New Gender Entity

After several rounds of intense eleventh-hour negotiations last week over the structure and composition of a proposed new "gender entity" and its executive board, the United Nations has cleared the last of the remaining political hurdles towards the creation of a separate and distinct U.N. agency for women.

The new body will be simply called 'U.N. Women' with its extended subtitle reading: the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women.

The 192-member General Assembly Friday will authorise Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to launch the new entity under the leadership of a yet-to-be-named under-secretary-general (USG), most certainly a woman, holding a third-ranking job in the U.N. hierarchy.

A developing country diplomat described the composition of the executive board as "precedent-setting" in that it uses a hybrid formula based on geographical distribution of seats by member states, but with a second category reserved for donor countries, made up of the four top contributors to the core budget and two from developing nations.

Overall, the board will consist of 41 countries with seats distributed as follows: Africa: 10; Asia: 10; Eastern Europe: four; Latin America and the Caribbean: six; Western Europe and Other Groups (WEOG): five; plus contributing donors: six.

A coalition of over 300 international non-governmental organisations (NGOs), which has been relentlessly pursuing a global campaign for 'Gender Equality Architecture Reform' (GEAR) in the U.N. system, was quick to praise the outcome of the negotiations.

"We are extremely pleased that governments finally reached agreement on the most difficult points in order to move this long discussed goal forward," said GEAR in a statement issued Thursday.

The decision to create a separate powerful body to deal exclusively with gender-related activities comes years - or decades - after the United Nations created specialised agencies to deal with specific issues, including children, population, refugees, food, environment, education, health and tourism, among many others.

A key issue, said the coalition, has been defining the institutional nature of the new entity. "It has finally been agreed the entity will neither be a Secretariat nor a Fund/Programme but rather a technical and policy hybrid of the four current gender entities that really does combine aspects of both, or as we say, a new 21st century structure," the coalition said.

Currently, there are four existing women's U.N. entities in the world body: the U.N. Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM); the Office of the Special Adviser on Gender Issues; the U.N. Division for the Advancement of Women; and the International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women (INSTRAW).

The four bodies will be folded into the composite entity, taking into account their existing mandates.

Charlotte Bunch, executive director of the Center for Women's Global Leadership at Rutgers University and one of the leading advocates of the gender entity, told IPS: "I am happy with the outcome as it really does try to be the hybrid we wanted, and for the U.N. in these contentious times, I think its workable for a new strong agency to emerge."

Paula Donovan, co-director, AIDS-Free World and one of the original advocates of a separate U.N. body for women, told IPS: "Is 'cautiously overjoyed' a legitimate reaction?" If so, she said, "that's how I'm feeling, and I suspect that it's a feeling shared by most women."

"I'm guardedly thrilled that four years after we first proposed the idea, member states have now officially abolished the small, inadequate collection of U.N. funds and offices dealing with bits and pieces of women's issues, and instead laid the foundation for a strong, effective, full- fledged women's agency, a first-class rather than second- class citizen among UN entities," said Donovan, a former senior advisor on women's issues and AIDS at the U.N. children's agency UNICEF.

The new body is expected to have an annual budget of about 500 million dollars: 125 million dollars for basic support capacity at the country, regional and headquarters level, and 375 million dollars for country-specific U.N. programmatic support.

In contrast, the 2008 funding available to the four existing gender entities was 6.2 million dollars from the regular budget of the United Nations and 218.5 million dollars from voluntary contributions.

But the new figure of 500 million dollars still falls far short of a demand made by GEAR, which has called for a start-up of one billion dollars.

Asked about funding, Bunch admitted "The biggest obstacle to full implementation will be resources and leadership." Having a strong USG who can command respect from the other U.N. agencies and donors, as well as work closely with civil society, is now crucial, she said.

Bunch said the bigger players in the field - the U.N. Development Programme, U.N. Population Fund, and UNICEF, among others - "can play a big role in helping this to grow by collaborating with it in their gender work. Or they can undermine it if they choose to use their power competitively and not give space for this new voice of women to be heard."

Donovan said that looking realistically at what has happened so far, she is concerned by early signals. Already, the secretary-general is breaking the solemn commitment he has made repeatedly, in writing, to a fair, open and transparent process of selecting the entity's Under-Secretary-General, she said.

"As usual, exceptionally qualified women, without close ties to whichever party currently holds power in their countries, are excluded from consideration; there's simply no application process," Donovan said.

Instead, she pointed out, the usual furtive wheeling and dealing is going on behind closed doors, giving rise to the usual rumours: will it go to an African? A major donor? A Latin American? A U.N. insider?

Will the secretary-general feel compelled to choose the candidate endorsed by the United States? she asked.

"As usual, names rather than qualifications and track records are being horse-traded," Donovan said.

With less than eleven weeks remaining to name a USG, the prospects of engaging the world's women in a fair, open and transparent selection process seem dim, she warned.

There has been virtual radio silence from the vast information network and the worldwide communications channels that the secretary-general regularly uses to convey messages that he considers truly important. As a result, she said, a negligible percentage of the world's women have ever heard anything at all about this groundbreaking decision made on their behalf.

In fact, most U.N. staff are oblivious to the change or have nowhere to turn for information; absurdly enough, even the staff of the entities that are about to be abolished have been asking AIDS-Free World to fill them in on the latest developments, Donovan said

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Violence against women is a worldwide yet still hidden problem. Freedom from the threat of harassment, battering, and sexual assault is a concept that most of us have a hard time imagining because violence is such a deep part of our cultures and lives.