Global Policy Forum

Q and A: "Time Has Come for a New UN Women's Agency"


Nergui Manalsuren interviews Stephen Lewis, AIDS and gender expert

By Nergui Manalsuren

March 3, 2009

After being blind for years to the needs and rights of women, the United Nations is finally well on its way to create a "fully-resourced" women's agency, says Stephen Lewis, the former U.N. Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa.

A long-time vocal advocate for women's rights, Lewis helped promote the proposed billion-dollar gender institution, saying it is reasonable to ask for such an amount considering that the agency will deal with issues affecting half of the world's population, and that the funding is just a third of that given to the U.N.'s children's agency UNICEF and a quarter of the U.N.'s Development Fund's (UNDP) budget.
"We have an agency for children, we have an agency for health, we have an agency for sexual and reproductive rights, we've got agencies for all kinds of things, but not for women who need one, and I think the time has come," he told IPS correspondent Nergui Manalsuren. The proposal calls for a new "gender architecture", including the consolidation of three existing U.N. entities - the U.N. Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), the Office of the Special Adviser on Gender Issues and the U.N. Division for the Advancement of Women - under a single new U.N. agency.

Excerpts from the interview follow.

IPS: You talked about the creation of a women's agency. Where does it stand right now?

SL: The creation of a new international agency for women is well on its way in the next couple of days. I am hoping that a resolution creating the agency will occur before the end of this year, if not, then early 2010.
In the next week or two, the governments will have a proposal from the Secretariat, they will wrestle with the proposed proposal. The president of the General Assembly is very strongly in favour of the need for women's agency. He hopes that it will happen before he leaves office, which is Sep. 14. That may be too soon, it may be later in the fall or in the early winter, but it's coming, it's coming. What should happen now is actually to get the architecture in place. But there is no question that there is greater and greater momentum to create the agency as people realise how desperately it is needed.

IPS: What is the estimated budget?

SL: It is unknown. My agency is suggesting a billion dollars a year to start, which is only one-third of UNICEF, one-quarter of UNDP, so we are not asking for an inappropriate amount considering it's half the world's population and it has a lot of time to make up. I don't doubt that once it's created there will be several countries that come on board, some of the major donor countries of course. Even though there is financial difficulty in the world there seems to be some commitment to find the funding.

IPS: Do you think the G-77 developing countries may block it?

SL: No, I don't. I have great respect for the G-77's concerns because at first they worried that this might be a kind of western imposition. And they wanted to feel that they would control it, that it's a serious intervention and that there was nothing about it that would be a threat to the independence of developing country nation states. There would be no hidden conditionality. And I think that this way that there won't be, that this is an honest effort to intervene on behalf of the women of the world. And a number of the leading G-77 nations have indicated their support - [in] Latin America, Asia, Africa - so I am very hopeful.

IPS: What is the best strategy for bringing men on board?

SL: I think the best strategy is to empower women at the country level to assert their rights, to give them the capacity to fight for their rights and change legislation and gradually over time men will understand that there is a shift in the culture and the power relationships in society and they will come onboard. Men are difficult to deal with but over time they understand what is happening. But what we have to do is empower women at the country level. We can't fight this battle in the abstract.

IPS: What's the problem with gender mainstreaming at the U.N., especially at the decision-making level?

SL: Gender mainstreaming has failed in every respect. What happens with gender mainstreaming is you say we'll mainstream gender into that and then no one ever thinks of it again. They say it's taken care of - it's "mainstream". And the truth is the gender mainstreaming simply sustains women's inequality - that's what gender mainstreaming is. It's a recipe for inequality because unless you deal with women in a serious way, giving it special consideration, until you have equality then women will always be struggling.

IPS: What is your opinion on the Security Council resolutions?

SL: There's a great pity about the Security Council resolutions, you tend to get good language without implementation. So, the famous Resolution 1325 which passed in October 2000 saying that women must be involved in peacekeeping and peacemaking operations has never been implemented. Women never were at the peace table. It's like the resolution doesn't exist, but we talk about it all the time.
It's pretty ugly in terms of what it means around women. And now we have a resolution of last year about sexual violence, and you get a sense that once you've got something on paper then they don't feel the obligation to implement it. They have endorsed the responsibility to protect. They have principle, which will allow them to implement it, so you have to ask yourself: will they be doing this if it was men? And, the answer is no, they can afford not to care because they're women.

IPS: What made you become such a strong advocate of women?

SL: Because I'm a social democrat who believes in social justice, and there's no justice in this world for the women, so you fight for it.


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