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UN Women at its First Birthday: Systems and visibility growing, more funding and civil society engagement needed

FRIDAY FILE: In 2011 the United Nations consolidated all four UN bodies working on gender equality - OSAGI, UNIFEM, INSTRAW, and DAW - to create one UN agency working on women's rights. On behalf of the Gender Equality Architecture Reform (GEAR) Campaign, Charlotte Bunch, founding member of the GEAR campaign reflects on the first year of UN Women.

This article is part of a series of Friday Files to explore some of the issues and debates related to the AWID 2012 Forum theme and draw the connections between women’s rights issues and economic power. For more information related to global governance click here.

By Masum Momaya

AWID: One year has passed since the establishment of UN Women. What have you observed to be the key priorities and activities of this agency so far? Charlotte Bunch (CB): A great deal of time and energy of UN Women in this first year was consumed with structural and personnel issues. It consolidated four UN entities into one and created systems of work, as well as sought more money for its operations. The most important content activity was the creation of a strategic plan with thematic priorities for UN Women's work: 1) increasing women's leadership and participation; 2) ending violence against women; 3) engaging women in peace and security processes; 4) enhancing women's economic empowerment; 5) gender budgeting; and 6) coordination and accountability across the UN System for gender equality. On February 2, Undersecretary General Michele Bachelet assessed UN Women’s first year and prioritized "a renewed push for women's economic empowerment and political participation" for 2012. Most of the thematic work in 2011 reflected the strengths of UNIFEM's past work, such as in the area of Women, Peace, and Security, and did not advance many new strategic directions. Bachelet’s 2012 priorities echo two of her key interests.

With regard to political participation, this builds on Bachelet’s strengths exhibited in 2011, such as her work with women political leaders, her support for getting women into politics, and her efforts to support women in the democracy movements in the Arab states.

On the economic empowerment of women, leadership from UN Women is badly needed, particularly to challenge existing, powerful economic and political interests that are standing in the way. This will require close collaboration between UN Women and civil society. The upcoming AWID International Forum will be a great space to consider what recommendations to make to UN Women for work in this area.

AWID: Thus far, has Undersecretary General Michele Bachelet exercised her leadership in ways that the GEAR Campaign, and women’s movements more broadly, had hoped for? CB: Undersecretary General Bachelet has been a strong and powerful advocate for women in the UN and governments over the past year, often raising the profile of gender equality issues by her very presence and persuasive voice. She has spoken in hundreds of venues and given visibility to the hopes for a strong UN women's agency. However, her fund raising has not yet reached expectations. While this is a difficult economic climate, UN Women still lacks a robust, strategic, and diversified approach to raising money, especially from non-traditional sources.

AWID: Back in December, the GEAR campaign asked member states and the executive board of UN Women to increase funding for the agency in order to fulfill its mandate. Has funding been increased? And, if not, what might it take to achieve this increase?

CB: According to Undersecretary General Bachelet’s report to the UN Women Executive Board in January, core funding for UN Women has doubled this year. UN Women has asked for a more robust increase to USD700 million in the coming year. Such an increase would be a great improvement as GEAR has called for a one billion US dollar annual budget, but the plan to achieve this is not clear. GEAR urges NGOs to pressure governments to live up to the promises made in creating the agency, and believes that a UN Women strategy in partnership with national NGOs could help to increase this amount in many countries.

AWID: The GEAR Campaign expressed caution about UN Women obtaining funding from the private sector. It urged UN Women to be “mindful of the social repercussions of this and to ensure that these sources are not in conflict with UN Human Rights standards, especially in relation to women’s human rights.”

CB: GEAR is concerned that while over 250 corporate CEOs have signed on to UN Women's Women’s Empowerment Principles, this has not resulted in significant new funding to the agency. We do not want the private sector to cover up their violations of worker's rights with contributions to UN Women and have urged that corporate partners be those whose practices respect women's human rights.

Ultimately, the GEAR campaign does believe that the private sector should fund UN Women - especially given the economic crisis of many traditional donor countries and the extent to which "investing in women" has become popular corporate and government rhetoric. Corporations should not just look good by signing partnerships without providing resources to match this rhetoric.

AWID: Aside from additional funding, the GEAR campaign has also explicitly lobbied for increased civil society participation in UN Women’s work. Has there been progress on this?

CB: Civil society participation has not seemed to be a real priority for this first year. Many civil society groups work well with UN Women in their particular areas of interest, as they did with its predecessors. Still, there has not been much progress in formalizing this process or making it an established practice. The posts in UN Women for civil society partnership are not all filled yet, and the practice still depends on the good will (or lack thereof) of individual staff persons rather than an explicit institutional mandate.

AWID: What about the creation of an NGO advisory group for UN Women?

CB: The lack of progress on this and other civil society mechanisms is puzzling given that the promise, and progress, of UN Women clearly relies on the strength of its relationship with women’s movements. But for reasons that are not clear to us, NGO advisory groups have not been established at any level - national, regional or global. UN Women now says that it will begin from the bottom up, and some movement is reported toward the creation of national or regional advisory groups. NGOs at the local and regional level should follow up with UN staff to ensure that such bodies are created as this principle of participation was clearly articulated at the time of the establishment of the agency. AWID: Have you seen evidence of UN Women’s work being strengthened at the country-level? And is there civil society involvement in this country-level work? CB: The involvement of civil society at the country level still depends on the patterns set up at the time of UNIFEM and/or particular interests of individual staff on the ground. So it varies enormously from place to place. UN Women is in position now to pay more attention to strengthening country level work, and we hope more systematic civil society engagement will be part of that. Of course, strengthening country work also requires more resources. The proposed budget for the next year puts greater emphasis in this area and will hopefully result in more progress. One area where country level work did have a stronger focus in 2011 was the Arab states, where greater resources were invested.

AWID: What will be the GEAR campaign’s priorities in 2012 with regards to UN Women?

CB: At this point, GEAR and women's rights NGOs around the world locally and globally need to develop more concrete proposals for what we think UN Women should be doing to advance its strategic themes and communicate these to UN Women staff, and where appropriate to national governments.

In 2012, the GEAR campaign will continue to advocate for greater civil society participation and to propose various forms of this, including both formal and informal mechanisms. We will also continue to work for greater funding from governments. As a coalition of civil society groups working for a feminist, human rights based social justice agenda, we will work with our member organizations in assessing UN Women's work towards these goals and seek to strengthen these perspectives within civil society advocacy at UN Women.

UN Women is also mandated to coordinate and advocate for gender equality throughout the UN System and has adopted a system wide plan for UN gender-related activities. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon recently named progress on gender equality as one of his key issues for his second term. The question is: how can we utilize UN Women to help advance these goals and to create greater synergy for women’s rights in the UN system, not only in New York but all UN agencies and programs? For example, NGOs should think creatively about how to push UN Women to be a strong voice in the coming Rio + 20 and Cairo + 20 reviews as well as in 2015 on the 20th anniversary of the Beijing conference and when the UN holds its MDG Review Summit.

If we want UN Women to reflect the goals we sought as participants in its creation, we need to suggest strategies for its work and apply political pressure towards these ends. UN Women must hear from women, and especially from feminists, about how we think it can make a critical difference as an interface between civil society, governments, and the rest of the UN System. This is our collective challenge in the coming years.