By Najma Sadeque
Published by DAWN Magazine – June 4 2006
Because of its visible work with disaster victims, refugees, children, and the poor, the UN is widely viewed as women-friendly, unlike international institutions such as the World Bank, the IMF and other IFIs and the WTO. Guess again. The track record shows otherwise. Like most governments, the UN is stronger in its pro-women rhetoric than in putting its money where its mouth is. To women who have lost their patience, the UN behaves like most governments that want to avoid confrontation but have no intention of taking positive action except by paying lip service at regular intervals with some fanfare.
More than a decade after the commitment to gender parity at the Beijing Conference, women are given only token representation in senior UN positions or on critical committees or high level expert panels. All this, seven years after the passage of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women now ratified by 180 governments; 13 years after the International Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, when “Women’s Rights are Human Rights” was coined; and 11 years after the Beijing Conference. A senior gender adviser needing anonymity said that ‘patriarchy influences the UN culture’.
In recent years the UN has come increasingly under attack for a number of reasons and not just for its laxity over women’s issues. It has been castigated for the tendency to take its priorities and cues from the world’s most powerful nation or northern corporate interests, more so since Kofi Annan created the Global Compact a few years ago. It was ostensibly a means of raising funds for the cash-strapped UN, a ‘good Samaritan partnership’ with the biggest multinational corporations of the world led by those that have been exposed by the media and people’s movements alike for the worst human rights violations that have hurt women the most. Outraged NGOs saw this as a shrewd – and low-cost – way to enable the white-washing of marred corporate images while ignoring the public interest.
The NGOs hold Annan responsible for the snail’s progress on women’s issues as they do the US which habitually keeps a billion dollars or more in dues to the UN unpaid for not always getting its way and releasing minimal amounts when it does. Many have not forgotten that the first meeting that Annan held after becoming UN Secretary-General almost a decade ago was not with any governmental or civil society group, but with big business to assure them of his support.
With his reputation on the slide, more so after the Iraq oil scandal that involved his son, Annan was pressed to concede onwards institutional reform, a long-standing demand. Last year, the General Assembly formally ‘invited’ him to launch work “to further strengthen the management and coordination of UN operational activities so that they can make an even more effective contribution to the achievement of the … Millennium Development Goals.” A report discussing UN reform was finally released.
Then, earlier this year, the UN appointed a new High-Level Panel on ‘UN System-Wide coherence in areas of Development, Humanitarian Assistance and Environment,” which was asked how gender equality “can be better and more fully addressed in the work of the UN”. Thereby the panel’s scope was narrowed down at the outset, but what infuriated women most was that the 15-member panel had only three women.
Increased, the 240+ women representatives from over 50 countries at this year’s UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) sent off an angry letter to Annan on International Women’s Day (March 8) accusing him of paying lip service to gender equality but failing to take real action. Some aspects of the UN reforms process were being driven by the US whose administration has always undermined the women’s rights agenda within the UN, they added bluntly.
The most pointed accusation, at a parallel CSW event, said that the UN appeared to have “adopted the route for economic development espoused by the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the World Trade Organisation which “touts trade, investment and aid (in that order) as the best development path.”
A coalition of the leading US-based women’s groups comprising the Centre for Women’s Global Leadership, the Women’s Environment and Development Organisation (WEDO) and the Women’s International League for peace and Freedom wrote directly to the overly male-dominated panel, pointing out that nothing had changed for women since Beijing 1995, neither within the United Nations nor through its activities or governments to bring about female empowerment or gender equality.
Annan’s lame response was: “It is … right and indeed necessary that women should be engaged in … decision-making processes in all areas, with equal strength and in equal numbers.” Promptly thereafter, an all-male shortlist was announced for a new executive director for the UN Environment Programmes, and a male deputy-secretary general was appointed to replace the previous one who was a woman. Women were never even considered.
Women’s issues has so far been scattered among half a dozen UN bodies, big and minuscule, which include the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), the small advisory Divisions for the Advancement of Women (DAW), the rarely-heard-of Office of the Special Adviser on Gender Issues (OSAGI) and the International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women (INSTRAW). But none of them, with the exception of the UNFPA, has the standing or clout or the resources that the UNDP or Unicef or the UNHCR receive.
Dissatisfaction was expressed over the way development funding by UN agencies has always gone to ineffectually to governments, rather than to the NGOs who overall have proven to be more effective both in terms of cost as well as performance. This was particularly in the case of governments not known to be supportive of gender equality.
Various suggestion have been made to strengthen women’s working within the UN. One was to combine the UNIFEM, the DAW, the OSAGI and the INSTRAW into a major, autonomous and holistic new women’s agency. There is much less enthusiasm for the UNIFEM being incorporated into the UNDP where it would be swallowed up into invisibility by the male-centred agency.
Some are no longer content with that and are calling on the Security Council to install a qualified woman as the next secretary-general after Annan completes his second five-year-term at this year’s end. But there are others who do not think that will necessarily serve the purpose since there are scores of other issues that also demand the secretary-general’s attention, and could be subjected to similar browbeating by the ultimate decisions-makers, the Secretary Council members. They are instead demanding the creation of a completely separate UN agency as the only way to ensure true rectification of gender shortcomings the world over.
If the male stronghold is to be convinced only by other men, then one of the most convincing advocates is Stephen Lewis, a former Unicef deputy executive director and currently UN special envoy for HIV/Aids in Africa who openly said that an all-encompassing international women’s agency was needed to advocate for women the way Unicef with its over 8,000 staff does for children. He said, “To talk of UN reform and human rights for women, in the same breath, under present circumstances is laughable.”
However brave the UNIFEM appeared, he revealed, “It’s not even an agency; it’s a mere department of the UNDP, and it has a budget so modest and a staff so small as to belie any possibility of an agency on a grand sale. I don’t belittle the UNIFEM: it does its best, but its best is shackled by a lethal combination of parsimony and misogyny within the international system … If we are to have a separate women’s agency, it needs financing of at least a billion dollars a year and several thousand staff.” This he calculated in order even to approximate the wealth and clout of other UN agencies.
Lewis echoes an initiative which goes back to 1996 when a number of women organisations launched the “It’s time for a woman” campaign which has persisted since and calls for the Security Council and the 10 rotating members in 2006, namely Argentina, Congo, Denmark, Ghana, Greece, Japan, Peru, Qatar, Slovakia and Tanzania, to nominate a woman as secretary-general. The Beijing Platform for Action supports the campaign. The UN has been around for 61 years now, long enough to have had at least one woman secretary-general, but it never did. One of the campaign’s member organisation, Equality Now, points out that as of mid-2005, women occupied only 37.1 per cent of professional and higher positions, and only 16.2 per cent of the under-secretaries general were women.
“The head of the UNIFEM is ranked as a ‘D2’, a touch better than middle management, but purely on a par with a number of individual country representatives from various of the agencies,” states Lewis. “On the other hand, every single special representative of the secretary-general (overwhelmingly male) is of higher rank. In the lexicon of human rights violations, the situation stands as an example of shameless patriarchal assault.”
The “Time for a woman” campaign recommends 18 top women who are considered capably of taking over from Kofi Annan, some of whom have previously headed UN agencies. Among them are Gro Harlem Brundtlan, former Norwegian prime minister, WHO Director-General and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, but the Burmese junta would be unlikely to release her from house arrest.
Said Stephen Lewis, “It’s darn near criminal to believe, as so many nation states apparently believe, that mainstreaming gender through three operational activities (development, humanitarian assistance and environment) will lead to improvement in the human rights of women. It never has; in fact, mainstreaming, with its pathetic illusion of transformation, leads to a cul de sac for women. What is needed I’ve said it before, and I shall say it ad nauseam … is an international women’s agency. It’s as simple and straightforward as that … To talk of UN reform and human rights for women, in the same breath, under present circumstances, is laughable.”