Thalif DeenForm of New U.N. Women's Entity Still Nebulous

By Thalif Deen
U.N. Bureau Chief at Inter Press Service News Agency  

UNITED NATIONS, Mar 18 (IPS) - When a high-level panel of former political leaders and senior government officials released a study in late 2006 on ways to eliminate duplication and strengthen coordination among the U.N.'s myriad bodies, it also recommended the creation of a specialised agency for women aimed at consolidating gender-related activities under a single umbrella.

But more than two years later - and following the conclusion of a two-week session of the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) last week - the original proposal seems likely to be abandoned or diluted.

The most viable option, as currently contemplated, is the creation of a separate department for gender affairs in the U.N. Secretariat - much like the existing Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) - than a separate U.N. agency. Or perhaps a mix of both.

Unlike a department, a U.N. agency would not only have remained autonomous but also sought a massive budget, possibly over a billion dollars, as demanded by women's groups and non-governmental organisations.

But such separate agency for women has not generated strong support among most member states - both for political and financial reasons.

Currently, there are four U.N. bodies focusing on gender-related issues: 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).

As a result, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon admits the "U.N. gender architecture lacks a recognised driver" - and is probably in danger of heading in different directions.

"It is fragmented. It is inadequately funded, and insufficiently focused on country-driven demands," he complained before a meeting of member states last week.

There are also gaps between policies and implementation on gender issues, he argued. "And authority and accountability are weak."

Ban said he is looking at two approaches: the first is to leave gender architecture as it is now in the hands of four U.N entities, while adding resources and improving interagency cooperation.

The second is to unify all four under one roof, with several institutional options for the proposed consolidation.

These include a fund or programme similar to the U.N. Children's agency UNICEF or the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP), both of which are considered full-fledged U.N. agencies with governing bodies.

And another option is to create a separate department in the U.N. Secretariat.

But the most likely scenario, the secretary-general said, is the creation of a composite entity, which would combine the features of both a fund and a department.

All of these proposals have been submitted to the General Assembly President Miguel D'Escoto Brockmann for consideration by the 192-member Assembly at its current session, which concludes early September. A final decision is expected by then.

Expressing his own preference, Ban said a department would not provide a robust field presence. And a fund or programme would not fully eliminate fragmentation, link normative and operational work, or exercise the level of authority needed to hold all entities accountable for performance.

"Thus, the composite entity remains the most promising option," he told delegates.

Taina Bien-Aime, executive director of the New York-based Equality Now, told IPS: "We understand that the General Assembly is now considering various options for the creation of a consolidated entity to address women's issues."

"We believe that this entity is much needed and that its creation should be accelerated," she said.

Bien-Aime noted that after years of discussion, it is time to move forward, and the idea of streamlining, rationalising and strengthening the gender architecture of the U.N. system is very welcome.

"The proposed reforms will no doubt enhance the ability of the United Nations to promote the advancement of women around the world," she declared.

Meanwhile, at the conclusion of the its two-week session Friday, the CSW adopted several resolutions stressing the need for equal sharing of responsibilities between women and men, including care giving in the context of HIV/AIDS.

There were, however, two complaints at the CSW conclusions: firstly, that there was no reference to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and secondly, to women living under occupation.

A resolution urging U.N. assistance to Palestinian women was adopted by a vote of 30 in favour to three against, with eight abstentions. The only three countries of the 45-member CSW to vote against it were the Netherlands, the United States and Britain.

Among the resolutions that were adopted by consensus was one that called on governments, along with the United Nations, civil society and the private sector, to intensify efforts to fully implement the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action, which called for the removal of all barriers to women's participation in all spheres of public and private life.

Francisco Cos-Montiel, senior programme specialist for Women's Rights and Citizenship at the Ottawa-based International Development Research Centre (IDRC), told IPS that two of the issues before the CSW were decentralisation and women‚s rights, along with care giving in the context of HIV/AIDS.

When services such as health are transferred to localities with little capacity or with limited fiscal revenues, women (and not men) are going to provide care giving in the absence of these public services.

This, in turn, can have important consequences, for example, on girls' education, or will limit women's capacity to enter the labour market, he added.

"I think that, for the first time, the need to have gender sensitive decentralisation policies was highlighted (at the CSW session)," Cos-Montiel said.

It also presented the potential advantages these policies might have, but also the risks they pose for women, he said.

Bien-Aime of Equality Now told IPS that while the topic of focus - namely, the equal sharing of responsibility between women and men - was an important one, it was so broad that governments yet again seemed paralysed into moving toward concrete and urgent action to bring the Beijing Platform Action to life.

She said that next year the CSW will be celebrating Beijing Plus 15, (the fifteenth anniversary of the Beijing Women's Conference), and the question will remain as to what CSW has concretely done to remedy gender-based discrimination and violence.

"The Beijing Platform for Action is a strong blueprint for governments to put in place mechanisms and machineries that could work toward ensuring equality for women before the law and in practice, and yet another session slips by with nothing concrete to bring home," she said.

In light of the magnitude of the issues before the CSW, "We had hoped that it would have embraced the opportunity to develop mechanisms to ensure equality before the law by appointing a special rapporteur on laws that discriminate against women," she added.

"We are disappointed that the discussion yet again did not move forward. Eliminating discriminatory laws is an issue that should not really be controversial as it is a question of fundamental human rights affirmed by many conventions, as well as the Beijing Platform for Action and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights," Bien-Aime said.

In 2000, she said, member states at the CSW had already pledged to repeal discriminatory laws, preferably by the year 2005, "which is now a shameful four years behind us."

"The only cost to repealing laws that discriminate against women is political will, which we hope will manifest itself at a minimum by the 15th anniversary of Beijing through concrete actions, including the appointment of a special rapporteur or independent expert on sex-discriminatory laws," Bien-Aime said.

Thalif Deen has been U.N. Bureau Chief since 1992, covering political, economic and social issues related to the United Nations and U.N. agencies. Currently, he is also editor of the U.N. edition of the IPS journal TerraViva, which is widely circulated in the U.N. community. He has been runner-up and cited twice for "excellence in U.N. reporting" at the annual awards presentation of the U.N. Correspondents' Association. A former Information Officer at the U.N. Secretariat and a one-time member of the Sri Lanka delegation to the General Asssembly sessions, he is currently editor of the Journal of the Group of 77, published in collaboration with IPS. A Fulbright-Hayes scholar, he holds a Master's degree in Journalism from Columbia University in New York.

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