Global Policy Forum

Gender Empowerment at UN Still Cloudy


By Thalif Deen

December 22, 2009

When the United Nations commemorated the 30th anniversary of a major international treaty on women's rights last week, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon boasted about the increasing number of women he has appointed to senior positions in the world body since he took office in January 2007.

"We have more women under-secretaries-general (USGs) than at any time in UN history," he said, adding that many of them are the first women appointees to positions traditionally held by men over the past six decades.

Overall, the number of women in senior posts - at the rank of deputy secretary-general, USGs, and assistant secretaries-general (the three most senior ranks, after the secretary-general) - "has increased by 40 percent under my tenure," Ban said.

But despite the secretary-general's claims, the jury is still out on the UN's overall contribution to gender empowerment, says Gigi Francisco, global coordinator of Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era (DAWN), an international network of feminist scholars, researchers and activists from the global South.

Like most other women activists, Francisco wants to reserve her judgment until the much-publicized UN women's agency, officially called a "gender entity", is a reality next year

"There is evidently high expectation on the new gender entity. However the bottom line is finance," she said.

"How much money is actually guaranteed or assessed for the gender entity?" she asked.

The 192-General Assembly has already approved the creation of the new entity, which is backed by a powerful international coalition of women's organisations under the banner Gender Equality Architecture Reform Campaign (GEAR).

"Women's rights organisations around the GEAR Campaign had asked for a start-up of 1.0 billion dollars," Francisco told IPS.

But member states have so far "dragged their feet on actual financial commitments," she complained.

Since Ban took office, he has appointed 10 new women USGs, including the most recent, Rebeca Grynspan of Costa Rica, who will take over as the new associate administrator of the UN Development Program (UNDP) in February 2010.

The secretary-general has also promised a woman USG to head the new gender entity - possibly before the next meeting of the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), scheduled to take place Mar. 1-12 next year.

The CSW session is also expected to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the landmark Fourth World Conference on Women which was held in Beijing in 1995.

"The UN is making positive efforts to promote gender equality around the world," says Yasmeen Hassan, director of programs at Equality Now, a New York-based human rights organization focusing on gender-related issues.

"However, there is a lack of enforcement of gender equality standards even within the UN," she added.

While the secretary-general is making commendable efforts to add more women to high level posts, Hassan told IPS, "There has been no increase in the number of women in other posts [which make up the bulk of the UN]."

Also, she pointed out, that posts that are committed to gender equality work are at lower levels than comparable posts on other issues showing that gender equality issues are seen as lower priority within the UN

"Lastly, the UN does not have its house in order in addressing cases of sexual harassment and violence against women," Hassan complained.

Asked about the new gender entity, she said that the establishment of this entity is positive "in that at least the head of the entity will be at a high enough level (USG) to be included in the secretary-general's policy committee which meets regularly and ensure that gender equality concerns are incorporated into all decisions.

Last Friday, the United Nations commemorated the 30th anniversary of the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), described as a pre-eminent international treaty recognizing women's rights.

Asked about the relevance of CEDAW, Francisco of DAWN told IPS that economics has a lot to do with the state of gender issues and the relative strength of CEDAW in the UN and its member states.

"Rhetoric on women's rights and gender equality in the UN had never been matched by resources".

Let me try to explain this, she said.

For one, discussion by governments on how they could respond in a coordinated way to the impact of financial and economic crises and put in place more just and sustainable trade, monetary and finance architecture, or discussions around development cooperation in the UN's Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), have been opportunities for women's rights networks.

She said coalitions such as DAWN and the Women's Working Group on Financing for Development, have raised issues of women's economic rights: employment, incomes, assets, credits and entitlements to economic resources, and how the crises have been most harsh at the level of private and public care within households and communities.

But in terms of actual responses by member states to these demands, "we see a vast variation," said Francisco, who is a professor and co-chair of the International Studies Department at Miriam College in the Philippines.

In countries in the global South where government public finance is facing severe constraint, she noted, there are hardly any investments in social protection such as health and education.

And on reliance on international sources for financing for economic development, governments often turn to micro-finance programs for women which raises questions of viability and sustainability.

She said that large developing countries like Brazil, China and India have been able to provide conditional income transfers to women and their poor households such as linking the provision of household subsidies to children's education.

But richer countries like the United States, she said, have been able to provide more substantial income subsidies to women targeted recipients (unemployed due to economic contraction, single income earner, with children/dependent). This is regardless of whether these women have assets or entitlements to health insurance and the like.

Clearly women's economic rights and state responsibility to assist women and their households in times of crisis, have a lot to do with economics, she declared.

"We should not forget as well that in the CEDAW, upholding women's equal rights with men in the economy was underpinned by several assumptions: that men were the primary bread-winners and that entitlements/social protection were linked to this."

While linkage between production and social reproduction is recognized, she said, the desired norm for women was to be employed workers who also took care of housework; and access to full-time market-based work is privileged although there is incipient recognition of informal part-time work."


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