UN Women receives guarded welcome from gender activists

22 July 2010
Girls helping their mother dry and package herbs for sale at market, Zimbabwe. Photo: Panos / Giacomo Pirozzi.

22 July 2010 - Tessa Lewin

As the UN finally agreed this month to the creation of a single powerful body to promote women's equality worldwide, researchers and activists from the Pathways of Women's Empowerment research group spoke of their hopes and fears for the new intergovernmental organisation.

The creation of UN Women has taken years of careful behind the scenes lobbying by women's rights activists, and will consolidate the four existing UN divisions currently dealing with women's and gender issues. Many have argued that, without the focus of a single agency, it has been difficult to deal with gender justice effectively and efficiently.

The new entity will give its leader - the Under Secretary General - a place at the UN high table alongside the Secretary General.

The Pathways of Women's Empowerment is a Department for International Development (DFID) funded Research Programme Consortium (RPC) based at IDS and with partner institutions in Bangladesh, Brazil, Egypt and Ghana. One colleague joked about 'UN Women' sounding too much like a social club. Another about various nominated delegates not being feminists. Others raised concerns about women's empowerment being increasingly seen as a one-stop-shot to solve global poverty.

'States should commit financial support'

Rosalind Eyben, a Pathways-affiliated research fellow based at IDS, commented: 'Member states should recognise, value and support all UN organisations' efforts in relation to mainstreaming gender, while at the same time recognise the very important added value of the new gender entity, UN Women.

'States should commit significant financial support for its effective operation without imposing upon it the current tyranny of extraordinary demands in terms of reporting against indicators of achievement that bear little relation to the manner and possibilities the entity will have for supporting social transformation.'

Eyben said there were positive signs this could happen. Recent evidence from a review commissioned from IDS members of Pathways by DFID indicated that UN organisations have an overall better track record than the international finance institutions in supporting and promoting gender equality.

Gender equality and justice

The news of the creation of UN Women comes ten years after the Millennium Development Goals (MDG), with their goal of promoting gender equality and empowering women, were announced. It also comes 15 years after the Beijing Platform for Action, with its agenda of women's empowerment, was drawn up. It will be officially launched in 2011.

Many have argued that, without the focus of a single agency, dealing with gender justice effectively and efficiently has been difficult.

Parity as a development issue

The new structure recognises that gender is not only important, but as important as other development issues. Clearly, the existence of UN Women is a significant change, and one that will hopefully allow the UN a stronger and more systematic engagement with issues of women's rights and empowerment.

Joanne Sandler, a member of Pathways management board, deputy executive director of Unifem and one of the architects of UN Women, said: 'The debates and organising around the establishment of UN Women have taken more than four years and a huge amount of work from women's rights advocates in countries worldwide and within the UN. But the work has just begun.

'For UN Women to deliver on the promise inherent in its establishment, the organising and advocacy must continue. And the indicator of success must be clear: concrete changes in the options and opportunities for women and girls in the countries and communities where they live.'

Southern concerns

UN Women has not been greeted positively by all in the Pathways community, however. Colleagues from both Bangladesh and Palestine expressed concern that it may add to the existing bureaucracy of the UN without allowing for the mainstreaming of gender within the other UN organisations.

Dr. Islah Jad, Women's Studies Institute Director at BirZeit University, commented: 'It is important for this body to avoid state nomination and nominate women on their feminist credentials and merit and not on their closeness to their governments and its policies.'

Eileen Kuttab, Assistant Professor in Sociology at Birzeit University, said: 'Our experience with the UN as Palestinians has been very negative, as they never enforced resolutions that supported the Palestinians, and have practised double standards when dealing with the Palestinian issue.

'We hope that the UN gender entity will be sensitive to issues given their local context and will not impose global agendas on local agendas, resulting in the depoliticising of gender issues in local communities. I hope that there is a continuous consultation with the different gender entities in the South so that it remains relevant and useful.'

Tessa Lewin is a Communications Officer with the Pathways of Women's Empowerment RPC