UN: The women's agenda for United Nations reform

AWID's Kathambi Kinoti interviews Charlotte Bunch, Executive Director of the Center for Women's Global Leadership on the current United Nations reform drive, and what it means for women.
Throughout this year AWID will be dedicating several Friday File issues to the current UN reforms and to the broader question of how the UN can be more responsive to women's rights.
AWID: What is the Center for Women's Global Leadership doing in relation to the current UN reform drive?

Charlotte Bunch: The Center for Women's Global Leadership (CWGL) is part of a group of organizations that have been working for about one year, since the run-up to the United Nations Millennium Summit that was held in 2005, to ensure that adequate attention is given to women's equality and gender issues within the United Nations. We have two broad areas of focus. The first is the UN human rights machinery and the second is the area of peace and security. CWGL's particular focus is the women's rights machinery while the initiative within the second area is led by the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. We have managed to achieve a commitment from UN Secretary General Kofi Annan that the High-Level Panel on UN system-wide coherence in areas of development, humanitarian assistance and the environment will consider the gender architecture in those areas.

AWID: Although the UN would be expected to lead the way in demonstrating commitment to gender equality, within its administrative structure gender equality does not appear to be regarded as a priority. Why do you think this is so?

CB: There are two reasons for this:
  1. Governments are not supporting the UN in putting money into efforts to make gender equality a priority. They are not committing enough resources to strengthening the women's rights machinery by enhancing its status and paying attention to staffing needs. The mood of governments, particularly that of the United States, is that no new resources should be allocated to women's issues. In the 1990s there was more support of women's equality both at the UN level and at the national level. However, practical support has now been transformed into lip service.
  2. The second reason is that since 9/11 the antiterrorism mood has created a sense of crisis in the UN such that other issues are given less priority and we have lost what we gained in the 1990s in terms of women's equality. There are people on both sides of the debate: those who argue that the war against terror is justified and those who argue that it has been created and blown out of proportion by the US. Whatever the case, the debate itself has taken up prominent space and shrunk the space for women's rights. Although there is a connection between the peace and security and women's rights, the links are not adequately being made. The sense of crisis has also meant that peace and security issues are being regarded from a short-term rather than a long-term perspective.
AWID: There have been calls by among other people, Stephen Lewis the UN Special Envoy for HIV and AIDS in Africa, for a separate women's agency within the UN. Do you agree with those advocating for a new women's agency, and if so, what do you think the priority of such an agency should be?

CB: If women's rights are to have a stronger profile, we need a separate agency at the operational level. I therefore agree with the need that Stephen Lewis has spoken to. Whether it should be a whole new outfit or combine the UNIFEM and UNFPA is still open to debate, but whatever agency is created should receive adequate resources otherwise the problem that UNIFEM has been facing will be perpetuated. By resources I am referring to both money and status. Whatever agency is formed should build on UNIFEM's work so far, such as their work on women, peace and security, the trust fund on violence against women, and on gender budgeting.

In order for the women's agency to be seen as more powerful it might be better to consolidate UNIFEM and UNFPA and give the new body a new name, not just more resources.

In terms of priorities, it should develop programme areas along the lines of the Beijing Platform for Action, what UNIFEM and UNFPA have been working on in the areas of political and economic empowerment, violence against women, sexual and reproductive rights, peace and security, land and inheritance rights. It will need to address new issues that have come to prominence since the Beijing Platform such as HIV/AIDS. It should still be able to partner with other UN bodies such as UNEP and UNDP, and the other UN agencies still need to incorporate women's needs into their agenda.

AWID: How can system-wide coherence within the UN with regards to women's empowerment and gender equality issues best be achieved?

CB: Women's issues have to be addressed adequately at all levels. The UN operates at two levels. The first is the operational level, at which it works in the field, on development concerns nationally. The second is at the international policy-making or global level. Women's rights need a strong presence in both areas. At the operational level we need an agency that will incorporate the roles that UNIFEM, UNFPA and the United Nations International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women (INSTRAW) currently play in the field. At the international policy-making level we could continue to have the Office of the Special Adviser on Gender Issues (OSAGI). The status of the machinery at both levels needs to be strengthened and adequately resourced.

At the same time, gender mainstreaming needs to continue and be strengthened within other UN agencies. This will avoid a situation where the addressing of women's issues becomes confined to the new agency alone.

AWID: How can civil society influence the current UN reform agenda so that it adequately encompasses the goals of gender equality and women's empowerment?

CB: Women's groups need to be aware that gender equality is now officially on the agenda of the UN reform programme. They need to begin talking to their governments about what they would like them. Up until this year's Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) governments were not willing to engage with this issue, but now that it is on the agenda they have no choice.

The recommendations of the Coherence Panel will go to the UN General Assembly in September this year. After that a lot more discussion at the policy level will go on. Women's organizations need to start talking to their governments now, if they want their governments to respond positively to the Coherence Panel's recommendations. Most governments do not know or do not care that gender equality is on the agenda and we need to start applying pressure now for a common agreement on a stronger agency for women with a higher level status and more resources.

CWGL is compiling an update on UN reform activities and advocacy issues and this will be available shortly on our website.

AWID: What potential obstacles or pitfalls for women's rights, if any, do you foresee in the current reform drive?

CB: There are different interests jostling for position in the reform process. A major issue is budget-cutting, coherence and rationalization. Governments want to spend less money. We need to be careful that the need for the enhancement of women's rights is not compromised in the name of coherence. There are voices that are saying that there are already too many gender focal points within the UN and we need to be aware of this.

We welcome the creation of the new Human Rights Council, but we need to be alert in ensuring that the principles of gender equality and respect for women's rights are built into this new institution so that what we gained within the former Commission for Human Rights (CHR) is not lost. Women's rights had a regular place on the agenda of the CHR and this should be continued with the Council.

Engaging with UN processes at the global level may seem tedious and frustrating because sometimes it appears that it is not going anywhere. This is particularly so if we compare the current climate to the one that existed in the 1990s when a lot of space was created for women. However engagement with the UN reform process is about having space at an international level and we will lose a lot if we do not keep the space open. I would therefore encourage women's groups to get actively involved in the process.