PEACE in Action

UN Women

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A New Organization of the United Nations
UN Women

The creation by the United Nations General Assembly in July 2010 of the UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, known as UN Women, will give new impetus to UN system support to Member States in advancing the rights and priorities of the world's women. UN Women will be a dynamic and strong champion for gender equality and the empowerment of women, and provide a powerful voice for women and girls.

The year 2010 marks the 15th anniversary of the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action at the Fourth World Conference on Women (1995), and the 10th anniversary of Security Council resolution 1325 (2000) on women, peace, and security.

Ten years have also passed since the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were launched, with a series of time-bound targets for advancing development and reducing poverty by 2015 or earlier. While MDG 3 focuses specifically on promoting gender equality and empowering women, there is now broad recognition that gender equality is also a means towards the achievement of all the MDGs, but especially the following goals:

  • Goal 1 — Eradicate Extreme Poverty and Hunger;
  • Goal 2 — Achieve Universal Primary Education;
  • Goal 4 — Reduce Child Mortality;
  • Goal 5 — Improve Maternal Health;
  • Goal 6 — Combat HIV/AIDS, Malaria, and Other Diseases; and
  • Goal 7 — Ensure Environmental Sustainability

With regard to Goal 1, the majority of the world's poor are women. Certain groups are particularly vulnerable to poverty, such as women farmers, women in the informal sector, women with disabilities, and older women. Women's unequal access to financial resources has a negative impact on their well-being and that of their families and communities, as well as economic growth and development overall.

While girls' access to education has increased over the last decade, they still lag behind boys at primary and secondary levels. Women account for nearly 2/3 of the 776 million illiterate adults in the world.

Maternal health is a big problem, particularly in the less developed countries. In these countries, a large number of women and girls die during pregnancy, childbirth, or following delivery, and most of these complications are largely preventable and treatable.

Despite advances in a number of countries, violence against women and girls is a global pandemic. Among women aged between 15 and 44, acts of violence cause more deaths than cancer, malaria, traffic accidents, and war combined. In 2006, women and girls comprised 79 percent of the victims of human trafficking.

Additional facts and figures on the plight of women around the world are available in the Facts and Figures section of the UN Women website.

The work of UN Women to deal with the foregoing problems will be framed by the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), which marked its 30th anniversary in 2009. The Convention provides the basis for realizing equality between women and men, and an agenda for action by State parties to guarantee the enjoyment of those rights. As of June 2010, 186 countries are party to the CEDAW Convention — but not the United States.

There has been a gradual recognition of the need for improving the possibilities for action by women and for increasing their capabilities. Some of the developments were cited in the UN Commission article on the Status of Women in the Winter 2007-2008 issue of PEACE in Action.

The following four UN bodies will be merged into the new UN Women agency:

  1. the Division for the Advancement of Women;
  2. its International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women;
  3. the Office of the Special Adviser on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women; and
  4. the Development Fund for Women.

The establishment in July 2010 of UN Women, and the appointment in September of former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet as its executive director, provide an occasion to reflect and identify lessons on UN strengthening, reform, and effectiveness. UN Women will be the world body's lead advocate and operations agency for gender equality and women's empowerment throughout the world. It will work with governments, build partnerships with civil society, and mobilize political and financial support for advancing international goals for women.

UN Women will be financed by the UN's regular budget and by voluntary contributions. The member governments of the UN have agreed that annual spending of at least $500 million is the minimum amount required for the new entity. However, nongovernmental organizations have called for an annual budget of $1 billion.

By all accounts, Michelle Bachelet, 59, is an outstanding choice to serve as executive director for the first four-year period of UN Women's operations. In 2008, Time magazine ranked her in the 100 most influential people in the world.

When Bachelet takes over as the first head of UN Women in January, one challenge — apart from raising substantial funds from donor nations — will be working around the cultural influences in many societies that entrench discrimination and get in the way of a woman's ability to exercise her rights and make choices about her personal life.

In an interview in September, drawing on her experiences in Latin America and elsewhere, most recently in Haiti, where she has been a spokesperson for the UN Development Fund for Women since February, Bachelet said "Where women cannot put their abilities to work, often because of cultural, political, legal, or economic barriers, a community loses valuable talent." Bachelet was president of Chile from 2006 until March this year.

"I believe that in all the countries of the world, the sagacity of women and their commitment to the community is high," she said. "Their capacity to start from nothing and being able to feed the family, to do whatever they can do, is something the world cannot lose. We need to give women better possibilities."

Bachelet said that at UN Women she planned to work not only with governments, but also with grassroots organizations, where women often establish their first foothold and a sense of solidarity in taking on discrimination or campaigning for social change. She has been struck, she said, by the tremendous capacity of women in her own country to take charge in time of crisis.

"I flew to different places, and women were organizing everything — the tents and camps and everything," she said.

Bachelet feels confident that her life has helped to prepare her for working within different cultures toward the same goals that apply in Latin America, among them health and social security, better employment prospects, and a greater role in politics.

"But we also need to go further, to give them physical autonomy," she said. "That means women have the right to choice in sexual and reproductive rights. And violence will be a key issue for us." Bachelet believes strongly that governments need to take on the responsibility for equitable social policies.

There are many places in the world where women are not allowed to own property or inherit it from a spouse or father. They have no access to capital for building economic independence beyond limited microfinance programs. When husbands die, widows may be forced into marriages in their spouses' extended families or be turned into virtual domestic servants in the homes of relatives, condemned to a life of poverty and humiliation.

More than half the people in the world living with HIV are women, in large part a reflection of their woeful lack of power to demand safe sex. No access to family planning means unwanted, possibly dangerous, pregnancies, which often rank as the leading killer of teenage girls in developing countries. Violence against women is on the rise in numerous poor nations; it does not happen only in conflict areas or end when wars finish.

Bachelet deflects the criticism that her own middleclass upbringing and the prosperity and high level of human development in Chile — now a member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, viewed in developing nations as a rich nations' club — would make her less understanding of the poor.

As a child, the daughter of an air force officer and an archeologist, she had many advantages, she said. But as the family moved around Chile to follow her father's career, she said, "It gave me the possibility of seeing the contradictions, the tensions of being in a small village -- or a big village, an urban area -- the opportunities that people can have or not have depending on where they were born."

At age 12, she lived for a while with her parents in Maryland, where, she said, "I got to learn not only the language but also a different culture."

Tragedy struck the family when Bachelet was in her early 20s and had begun studying medicine in Chile. Her father, General Alberto Bachelet, who had been appointed to a government post by the left-wing president Salvador Allende, was jailed when Allende was ousted in a 1973 coup by General Augusto Pinochet. Alberto Bachelet was tortured and died of a heart attack in prison.

Michelle and her mother were also detained for a month in 1975 and went into exile after being released, first to Australia and then East Germany, where she continued her medical studies in Berlin.

In Germany, she married another Chilean exile, Jorge Dávalos, an architect, with whom she had a son and daughter. They later separated.

When the Pinochet era ended in 1990, Bachelet rose quickly in her medical career and political life. Qualified as a surgeon, she took time out to study military strategy in Chile and in the U.S. National Defense College. She was appointed health minister in 2000, and then defense minister in 2004 -- the first woman in Latin America to hold that position.

The experience of violence, death, and exile are seared in her memory, though she does not like to talk about that period or the abuses she suffered as a prisoner of the Pinochet regime. Regarding the exile, she says: "I went to many places. You are not only getting more mature with age, but you are also able to explore so many experiences, know so many interesting people, and ask yourself questions you might not ask in a small country far away. I think it gave me a broader perspective, a much broader cultural understanding. I know that the world is different and there is no uniformity. But we always have to have a common goal, to move to equal rights and equal opportunities. We can factor in or not factor in certain things, but we must go in that direction."

On November 10, 2010, the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) elected the Executive Board for UN Women. The 41 members include10 from Africa, 10 from Asia, 4 from Eastern Europe, 6 from Latin America and the Caribbean, 5 from Western Europe, and 6 from countries contributing to UN Women's budget. The agency opens 1 January 2011.

In the Outcome Document of the High-Level Plenary Meeting of the General Assembly September 20-22, 2010 to review progress in achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the General Assembly welcomed the establishment of UN Women. It went on to say that achieving gender equality and empowerment of women is both a key development goal and an important means for achieving the MDGs. It also reaffirmed the need for the full and effective implementation of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (as set forth in the Report of the Fourth World Conference on Women, Beijing, 4-15 September 1995).

The UN Secretary-General issued the following statement on November 25, 2010:

"As we observe the 2010 International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, let us acknowledge the widespread and growing efforts to address this important issue. No longer are women's organizations alone. From Latin America to the United States, from Asia to Africa, men and boys, young and old, musicians, celebrities and sports personalities, the media, public and private organizations, and ordinary citizens are doing more to protect women and girls and promote their empowerment and rights.

The social mobilization platform "Say NOUNiTE" has recorded almost 1 million activities implemented by civil society and individuals worldwide. In August this year at the fifth World Youth Conference in Mexico, young activists from around the world were clear in their message: "It's time to end violence against women and girls!" Member States, too, are engaged. As of November 2010, my database on the extent, nature and consequences of violence against women, which also logs policies and programmes for combating the pandemic, has registered more than 100 reports from governments.

This year's observance highlights the role the business community can play — from developing projects to providing direct financial support to organizations working to end violence and embracing the principles of corporate social responsibility. The "Women's Empowerment Principles", an initiative of the UN Global Compact and UNIFEM, recognize the costs to business of violence against women and are now supported by more than 120 leading companies. A growing number of media outlets are bringing light to bear on so-called "honour-killings", trafficking of girls and sexual violence in conflict, and are raising awareness about the benefits to society of empowering women. Yet much more needs to be done. In homes, schools and the office, in refugee camps and conflict situations, the corporate sector can help us to prevent the many forms of violence that women and girls continue to face.

My UNiTE to End Violence against Women campaign, and the Network of Men Leaders I launched last year, have generated welcome momentum and engagement. The word is spreading: violence against women and girls has no place in any society, and impunity for perpetrators must no longer be tolerated. On this International Day, I urge all — Governments, civil society, the corporate sector, individuals — to take responsibility for eradicating violence against women and girls."

In support of the new UN Women organization, and in support of the Secretary-General's positive statements, we hope to see the United Stated Senate at long last ratify the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). A Senate Committee again began consideration of the Convention in November 2010. U.S. ratification of CEDAW will strengthen the U.S. as a leader in standing up for women and girls around the world. It can also encourage the other few countries that have not ratified the Convention to do so. It would be particularly appropriate to approve CEDAW at the time of the establishment of the new UN Women organization.

(This article draws on: 1) an article by A. Edward Elmendorf, President of the UN Association-USA (UNA-USA), in UNA-USA's E-mail World Bulletin of October 13, 2010; 2) an article by Barbara Crossette, UN correspondent of The Nation, in the InterDependent, a publication of the UNA-USA; 3) the UN Women website (} 4) the Outcome Document from the High-Level Plenary Meeting of the General Assembly September 20-22, 2010, and 5) the proclamation of the SecretaryGeneral on November 25, 2010).
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