Can UN Women Take Global Gender Equality from Rhetoric to Reality?

Friday, November 18, 2011



Since its formal launch early this year, the international community has celebrated the creation of UN Women, the new United Nations agency dedicated to furthering gender equality and women’s empowerment worldwide. UN Women has a start-up budget of $500 million, an amount more than double the total funding of the four UN bodies amalgamated to form the new agency, and is governed by a 41-member Executive Board headed by former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet. At the rank of under-secretary-general, Bachelet has more clout than any official tasked with gender equality has ever enjoyed in the UN system. Applauding the agency as proof of renewed dedication by the UN to prioritize gender equality, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon pledged that the UN Women will “significantly boost UN efforts to promote gender equality, expand opportunity, and tackle discrimination around the globe.”

Beyond its symbolic allure, however, lurks a question the ovations for UN Women largely overlook: How will the new agency approach the practical work of gender equality in the global context? Can UN Women remedy the mistakes and avoid the pitfalls of past UN efforts to combat gender inequality?

For decades, the UN has touted gender mainstreaming as the key to unlocking gender equality in countries around the world. In principle, gender mainstreaming includes formal consideration of the gender implications of UN programs worldwide, promoting women’s participation in domestic decision-making structures, and attempting to increase women’s representation inside the UN and other international institutions.

In practice, however, gender mainstreaming has boiled down to a one-size-fits-all policy of ‘add women and stir.’ Limited attention is paid to the particular needs of women and girls in the diverse communities where UN gender mainstreaming plays out. In a recent survey of 100 civil society organizations working in 75 countries, nearly half reported that the UN does not understand the daily realities of women on the ground. Women have made up only seven percent of negotiators in major UN peace talks in spite of Security Council Resolution 1325, intended to amplify the role of women in conflict resolution. At the UN itself, women make up more than half of employees at the lowest levels, but occupy less than 26% of top jobs. Most discouraging is the lack of progress on the UN Millennium Development Goals, designed to reduce poverty, disease, inequality and other obstacles to development, where major indicators on women and girls lag well behind targets in other areas.

To be sure, the UN faces a unique set of challenges in pursing global gender equality while balancing the varied interests of member states, all on a limited budget over which it has little control: to date, UN Women has raised only $200 million in member state donations. Besides, gender mainstreaming has made some strides toward improving the visibility of women in the international arena, including the formal inclusion to the UN agenda of violence against women and the promulgation of Security Council Resolution 1820, recognizing sexual violence during conflict as a matter of international peace and security. Unfortunately, these successes are the exception, not the rule. According to Paula Donovan, co-director of the HIV/AIDS advocacy organization AIDS-Free World, “It’s been awfully easy [for the UN] to get away with expressing interest in achieving women’s rights without actually demonstrating commitment to achieving women’s equality. This is a hard habit to break.”

Indeed. Despite the recognized shortcomings of gender mainstreaming, there is no indication that UN Women will take a different tack going forward. Rather than falling back on old habits, UN Women should take advantage of its new leadership and increased funding to overhaul the gender mainstreaming approach. To carefully tailor its country-specific policies to the needs of local communities, the new agency should strengthen connections with local organizations. A first step in this regard would be to reserve a meaningful number of seats on the 41-member Executive Board of UN Women for members of civil society groups. Closer to home, UN Women should spearhead the renovation of hiring and promotion policies to recruit and retain a diversity of women in the UN system.

In her first address as the head of UN Women, Michelle Bachelet told the General Assembly that gender equality “must be more than a mantra. It must become a lived reality for women and men and boys and girls in all countries.” The rhetoric is undeniable. The problem faced by Bachelet and UN Women is that gender mainstreaming simply isn’t up to the task of taking gender equality from rhetoric to reality.

Jenna McGill is a Professor at the University of Ottawa Faculty of Law.
Designed by Rachel Gold.