U.N. Women's Agency Being "Strangled at Birth"

30 June 2011
IPS News

UNITED NATIONS, Jun 30, 2011 (IPS) - When the United Nations inaugurated a landmark special agency for women last January, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon set an initial target of 500 million dollars as the proposed annual budget for the new gender-empowered body.

But nearly six months later, the voluntary funding for U.N. Women (UNW) from the 192 member states has remained painfully slow.

Ambassador Hardeep Singh Puri, India's Permanent Representative to the United Nations, expressed disappointment over the funding shortfall.

Nearly six months after its operationalisation, the actual contributions and pledges received are modest and only around 80 million dollars, he said.

"This is not commensurate with the aspiration and ambition assigned to U.N. Women," he complained.

Addressing the first regular meeting of the 41-member executive board of UNW early this week, he said: "We must not be oblivious of the fact that activities enumerated in the Strategic Plan need resources."

The Strategic Plan envisages financial requirement of nearly 1.2 billion dollars in 2011-13.

"If we have to ensure that U.N. Women stands for action, the donor community has to make generous contributions to U.N. Women," said Ambassador Puri.

Stephen Lewis, a former deputy executive director of the U.N. children's agency UNICEF and co-founder of the international advocacy organisation AIDS-Free World, has been one of the strongest advocates of UNW since long before its creation.

In an interview with IPS, Lewis said total funding raised so far - anywhere between 80 million and 126 million dollars - is "hopelessly, pathetically below what's needed and was expected".

"I gather that UN Women has now lowered its sights to a target of 250 million dollars. That's a travesty ... barely more than the cumulative total of the four small entities that were rolled into UN Women at its formation," he said.

The four women's entities that were folded into UNW were: the U.N. Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM); the Office of the Special Adviser on Gender Issues; the U.N. Division for the Advancement of Women; and the International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women (INSTRAW).

The extended title of the new UNW is: 'the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women', and it is headed by the former president of Chile Michelle Bachelet.

Lewis said the secretary-general's target was 500 million dollars, which he described as "ridiculously low".

The target set by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) was one billion dollars ("barely enough").

"At the moment, UN Women is being strangled at birth by a coalition of the wealthy," said Lewis, a former Canadian ambassador to the United Nations.

"All the misogynist countries, from Pakistan to Sudan, must surely be laughing behind the scenes. They never wanted UN Women and now the Western donors are doing the dirty work for them," he said.

"It's an ugly business and shows, yet again, that when it comes to women, the U.N. can never get its act together," declared Lewis.

"As always, we and others will give Michelle Bachelet the benefit of the doubt. She's quite superb as an under-secretary-general (USG, the rank she holds in the U.N. totem pole)," he added. "But even Michelle Bachelet cannot change the world for women without the resources to do so."

Antonia Kirkland, legal advisor at the New York-based Equality Now, told IPS that without a significant increase in funding by member states, UN Women risks being as sidelined as the previous four entities it replaced that focused on women's empowerment.

"We must ensure that governments fulfill their legal obligations to protect women's rights".

Kirkland said the UN Women's Executive Board must concretely implement commitments made by its members and must devote adequate resources and projected funds to this entity, whose creation was a result of tireless efforts and advocacy by the international women's movement, and in particular the GEAR campaign.

A coalition of over 300 international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) led a global campaign for Gender Equality Architecture Reform (GEAR) in the U.N. system resulting in the creation of UNW.

The coalition included Women's Environment and Development Organisation (WEDO), Center for Women's Global Leadership, International Planned Parenthood Association, Asia Pacific Women's Watch, African Women's Development and Communication Network and Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era, among others.

Kirkland said member states have already invested precious time and money to establish UN Women. It is now time to urgently implement programmes that will benefit women and girls around the world, and give them the promised opportunity to achieve equality and enjoy their full human rights.

Meanwhile, Ambassador Puri told the executive board that to ensure that UN Women stands for action, "We would support all efforts to ensure that scarce resources are not diverted from programme activities in the field to administrative expenditure at U.N. Headquarters."

He said UN Women will be measured by what and how it delivers in the field, not just by what it symbolises.

The first challenge of resource mobilisation to fulfill its ambitious agenda is critical and would demonstrate the trust the international community bestows on UN Women. This needs a sound plan and a committed senior management, he said.

"I am happy to see that the revisions which have been made in the support budget late last week are the right steps in the right direction," Puri noted.

The Indian envoy described the initial target of 500 million dollars as reasonable as well as modest.

"Although I do want to point out here that the Secretary General last year had actually proposed that UN Women should be created with the initial corpus of one billion dollars," he said.

This was also the demand of the developing countries and civil society.

"This might sound ambitious, but the lower target of 500 million dollars should not make us complacent and limit ourselves," he said.

Instead, "We should be prepared to revisit this target later this year, and consider upward revision, in a realistic and practical manner."

"I would like to inform you that the Government of India is seized of the need to make appropriate contribution to UN Women," he added.