The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

A New UN Super-Agency for Women

May 29, 2009

From the Guardian:

This autumn the UN general assembly will vote yes or no to a new “super-agency for women”; $1bn is being discussed as the starter annual budget.

A major role for the new agency’s work will be to close the gap between rhetoric and reality on existing international resolutions on sex discrimination and women’s human rights. The priorities cover a lot of ground – to help women earn increased income, stay in education longer, have access to proper health care, and have an equal say in decisions that affect their lives and the future of the planet.

Despite generations of international agreements on women’s equality, responsibility for improving the lives of the world’s women is spread thinner than Marmite across four poorly co-ordinated UN entities – Unifem, DAW, Osagi, and Instraw. Their senior staff are not part of the UN’s main decision-making fora. All have minuscule budgets, little power or influence in the UN system and virtually no operational capacity on the ground. Unifem, the largest of the four, has 47 staff and a budget of $129m to serve the world’s three and a half billion women.

All organisations within the UN system are officially mandated to address gender and women’s rights. Most treat women’s rights and priorities as optional extras, or entirely ignore their responsibilities to half the world’s population. A few UN agencies and UN missions in some countries do important work on gender equality and women’s rights, but it’s patchy and often depends on an individual champion to push for it.

Giant leap for womankind? Or just another expensive UN bureaucracy? My two cents: it may make a big difference whether this new agency consolidates/replaces existing UN gender machinery, or whether it simply adds another agency onto the existing mishmash. If the latter, it is likely to increase the visibility of gender issues within the UN, but also increase redundancy, buck-passing and institutional inertia.

Another thing to keep an eye on will be the power politics involved, once such an agency is established, in defining the UN’s agenda on women’s empowerment. Culled from comments on the Guardian article:

“The men of Africa are in far more need of help than the women of Europe, America, Canada, Russia, etc. By grouping your “3 and a half billion women” together and claiming they are one big lump of victimhood that has been “let down” you just make a mockery of the whole issue. Perhaps the budget should be targeted at those nations where women really do get a rough deal rather than becoming another plaything of the pampered feminists of the West (a group whose living standards are probably in the top 5% of the world’s population). Western women have far more in common with Western men than they do with third world women.

Sadly, the form in which such an agency is likeliest to be effective and transformative is also the one it is least likely to take. What is probably needed is not a “women’s” agency but a “gender empowerment” agency. The former approach would focus on women and be contingent on identifying some agenda for all women, which could be politically problematic. The latter would promote gender awareness at all levels of UN policy and could conceivably focus on human rights violations against all gender minorities. Of course, this would be a more radical and far-reaching step (and lots of countries in the UN don’t like the term ‘gender’) so it is politically unlikely.

So perhaps this is not a giant leap, but at least a small step in the right direction.

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Charli Carpenter is a Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She is the author of 'Innocent Women and Children': Gender, Norms and the Protection of Civilians (Ashgate, 2006), Forgetting Children Born of War: Setting the Human Rights
Agenda in Bosnia and Beyond (Columbia, 2010), and ‘Lost’ Causes: Agenda-Setting in Global Issue Networks and the Shaping of Human Security (Cornell, 2014). Her main research interests include national security ethics, the protection of civilians, the laws of war, global agenda-setting, gender and political violence, humanitarian affairs, the role of information technology in human security, and the gap between intentions and outcomes among advocates of human security.