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From a ‘shack’ to a new-age building? Appraising the new UN gender equality architecture

Written by Nicola Jones


The UN system has long been criticised for not matching its often impressive and widely supported commitments to gender equality with the human and budget resources, as well as the requisite institutional muscle, to translate commitments into reality for girls and women. From CEDAW , to the Beijing Platform for Action , to the Millennium Development Goals , the commitments are there, but the concerted action so badly needed has been lacking.

Indeed long-term feminist activist and founder of the Centre for Women's Global Leadership, Charlotte Bunch, has lamented that the existing UN gender equality architecture is no more than a ‘shack' . For many civil society groups around the globe, government representatives and UN gender champions, the announcement last week that a new composite gender entity would finally be established after years of struggle was therefore warmly welcomed as a sign of growing recognition that tackling gender inequality is at the heart of development.

The new UN Entity for Gender Equality and Women's Empowerment ( UN Women ) to be launched in early 2011 will absorb the functions of the four existing UN bodies addressing gender issues ( UNIFEM , and the less well-known OSAGI , DAW , INSTRAW , and the Inter-Agency Network on Women and Gender Equality ) and aim to provide much stronger vision and oversight of initiatives to promote gender equality and empowerment in all the UN's work. As part of a broader UN initiative to improve strategic policy and programming coherence, UN Women will combine both normative and operational functions, while also introducing an innovative new formula for reflecting a greater balance between northern and southern countries on its executive board.

The challenges facing the new entity, however, are daunting. While the three decades since CEDAW (1979) have seen impressive improvements, for instance, in gender equity in education, in narrowing the gender wage gap, and improving women's political representation, gender inequalities in many facets of life remain stark. Women continue, for example, to remain excluded from many of the potential gains of trade liberalisation and to bear the brunt of crises as highlighted by the recent food, fuel and financial crises (see also gender vulnerabilities, food price shocks and social protection responses). Gender-based violence also remains pervasive, including in school settings , hindering the realisation of the full capabilities of women and girls, and health inequalities are similarly highly gendered, as underscored, for instance, by the growing feminisation of AIDS in Africa , the global under-investment in maternal and reproductive health services , and by the disproportionate child mortality burden faced by girls.

UN Women will have significantly more resources than its predecessors at its disposal (an initial budget of $500 million with a goal of $1 billion); more and more senior-level staff with decision-making power within the UN; as well as the promise of more operational mechanisms to effectively integrate the voices of women activists who have played such a pivotal role in tackling gender injustice in developed and developing countries alike. All of these features bode well for addressing the weaknesses that have plagued gender mainstreaming efforts to date within and outside the UN, and in contributing to the new gender equality architecture's emergence as an effective and streamlined building fit for a new age. However, UN Women needs to support national governments and civil society movements to promote change that will dismantle both formal and informal institutions and practices of gender inequality. And to do so, it will need to make concerted investments in at least four key areas that have received comparatively little attention in discussions around these reforms to date:

  • First, in the remaining five years of the MDG agenda, it is critical that UN Women plays a leading role in broadening the focus on gender from the current narrow emphasis on gender parity in education and political representation (as important as these targets are) to the integration of a gender lens into solutions designed to tackle all the Goals.
  • Second, as the social impacts of the global recession and food price crisis continue to be felt by millions of chronically and newly poor people, it will also be imperative for the new gender equality architecture to champion investment in gender-sensitive social policy and social protection solutions , that take into account the too-often under-valued care work responsibilities that women and girls shoulder.
  • Third, as interest in impact evaluations of development initiatives increase (in part as a response to mounting fiscal constraints and pressures to demonstrate ‘value for money'), it will not only be critical that UN women staff help donors, international agencies and national governments ensure that gender equity considerations are embedded in evaluation questions, but also that much more attention and resources are invested in collecting, reporting on and analysing gender-disaggregated data and indicators.
  • Finally, ‘gender' has too often been relegated to little more than ‘another box to be ticked'. But if the efforts to secure important gender equality policy commitments and platforms are to be translated into broad-based and sustainable change, innovative, practical and tailored capacity building support will need to be provided to policy-makers, development practitioners, and indeed development programme participants. Only if the link between gender equality and development effectiveness is internalised can the promise of UN women as a harbinger of real transformation be realised.

Many thanks to Elizabeth Presler-Marshall for research support on this blog.