New UN agency for women has strong roots in civil society

In Brief: 
  • In July, the UN General Assembly approved the consolidation of various UN agencies on women’s issue into a single, higher level entity
  • That entity, known as UN Women, was four years in its creation and its birth was helped greatly by NGOs
  • In a campaign involving more than 275 NGOs in 50 countries, civil society gave support to the concept and contributed to its final shape
  • The effort is seen by some as a model for UN reform and UN/civil society interaction

NEW YORK — For years, one of the most persistent challenges facing the United Nations has been to avoid fragmentation in its delivery of humanitarian aid and development assistance.

This has been notably true for issues concerning women, which were handled by at least four agencies, sometimes with competing or overlapping responsibilities. As well, many felt women’s issues generally took a backseat at the UN in all its activities and deliberations.

But last July, the UN General Assembly approved the creation of a new UN agency in an effort to address both of these problems.

In a move seen by many as historic, the Assembly brought into being the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women — known more concisely as “UN Women.”

“UN Women will give women and girls the strong, unified voice they deserve on the world stage,” said Asha-Rose Migiro, Deputy Secretary General of the UN. “I look forward to seeing this new entity up and running so that we — women and men — can move forward together in our endeavor to achieve the goals of equality, development and peace for all women and girls, everywhere.”

The creation of UN Women was historic for another reason, too. Those who followed the process closely say that civil society played a key role in shaping the concept for the agency and supporting its passage in the Assembly.

“This is really an example of the new role of civil society,” said Charlotte Bunch, director of the Center for Women’s Global Leadership.

The involvement of civil society in the process of establishing a unitary UN agency for women began in 2005, during the UN World Summit that year, which coincided with the 10th anniversary of the 1995 Fourth World Summit for Women in Beijing.

“We kept talking amongst us about why is there not more conversation in UN reform about women,” said Ms. Bunch in an interview in late July.

Then, in early 2006, UN Secretary General appointed a high-level panel to consider how the UN might improve its delivery of humanitarian and development assistance. Called the “Coherence Panel,” it sought to consider ways to “eliminate unnecessary duplication and competition” among agencies across the entire UN system.

“At that time, there were only three women on the panel (out of 15)” said Ms. Bunch, describing how non-governmental organizations (NGOs) gathered at the March 2006 Commission on the Status of Women began to organize on this issue.

From that effort arose the Gender Equality Architecture Reform (GEAR) campaign, undertaken by a coalition of NGOs concerned with women’s rights and gender equality.

Drawing on the strong network of NGOs that has grown worldwide through the various UN global conferences on women, GEAR ultimately enlisted the support of more than 275 organizations in at least 50 countries.

The Bahá’í International Community was involved from the beginning, said Bani Dugal, its principal representative to the United Nations. In 2006, Ms. Dugal was chair of the NGO Committee on the Status of Women, and hence at the center of many of the early discussions on how NGOs could support Mr. Annan’s vision for more coherence at the UN.

“Quite soon after we started consulting and meeting together it seemed very obvious that we needed a new entity at the UN that consolidated the four existing ones because that was the only thing that made sense,” she said.

Some of the existing agencies, Ms. Dugal added, resisted the change at first, concerned that consolidation would mean giving up their particular set of priorities. “But in the end, everyone lined up behind the idea of a unified agency,” said Ms. Dugal.

Before UN Women, the main agencies involved in women’s issues were the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), the Secretary-General’s Special Advisor on Gender Issues (OSAGI), the Division for the Advancement of Women (DAW), and the International Research, and the Training Institute for the Advancement of Women (INSTRAW). Other agencies, including UNDP, UNFPA, UNICEF, UNESCO, the High Commissioners for human rights and refugees, sometimes do important work on gender equality, but it is only a part of their mandate, and often receives low priority.

“Another concern we had was that women’s issues, despite all the talk about women, had never been adequately funded at the UN,” said Ms. Dugal. “So part of the effort was to ensure an entity like UN Women would be strong and independent, with enough visibility to get the resources needed for women.”

The new agency seems to promise most of what NGOs wished for. It merged together the four agencies that previously focused on women’s issues. The Assembly also specifically mandated that the agency “continue the existing practice of effective consultation with civil society organizations.”

Significantly, the leader of UN Women has been given the rank of Under Secretary General, which puts the agency at the same level as other major UN programs, such as UNICEF or the UN Development Programme (UNDP), and makes its leader a member of all senior UN decision-making bodies.

In September, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon appointed Michelle Bachelet, the former president of Chile, to lead UN Women, yet another sign of the high profile that Mr. Ban and others have designated for the agency.

“Michelle Bachelet is a top notch choice and has long been one of GEAR’s dream candidates,” said Ms. Bunch in a GEAR press release at the time. “An effective leader of great integrity, Bachelet has demonstrated strong commitment to women’s empowerment and the ability to shape gender equality policies in a variety of areas. She also has the stature to mobilize the resources crucial to make UN Women a success.”

UN Women became operational on 1 January 2011 and will have two key roles: It will support inter-governmental bodies such as the Commission on the Status of Women in their formulation of policies, global standards and norms, and it will help Member States to implement these standards, standing ready to provide suitable technical and financial support to those countries that request it, as well as forging effective partnerships with civil society. It will also help the UN system to be accountable for its own commitments on gender equality, including regular monitoring of system-wide progress, according to a UN press release.

The operations of UN Women will be funded from voluntary contributions, while the regular UN budget will support its normative work. At least US$500 million — double the current combined budget of UNIFEM, OSAGI, DAW, and INSTRAW — has been recognized by Member States as the minimum investment needed for UN Women, according to the release.

For NGOs, the process of creating and now supporting the agency suggests a model for future interactions between the UN and civil society.

“This new entity represents a new way of thinking about how to go about implementing some of these policies that have been out there for years but haven’t gone as far as implementation on the ground,” said Rachel Harris of the Women’s Environment and Development Organization (WEDO). “This is how you get things done in the 21st century.”

NGOs now want to make sure UN Women is effective. “Our concern now is to make sure that it is a lean, efficient agency, so that, as much as possible, funding gets transferred to the ground, to programs that help women and also to women themselves, so they can be empowered in projects they are doing,” said Ms. Dugal.