Who’s Scared of UN Women?

UN Women Executive Director Michelle Bachelet

Last Thursday I returned from a 4 day conference in Istanbul (some of you may have heard already). I attended the 12th AWID Forum – Transforming Economic Power to Advance Women’s Rights and Justice. And it was AMAZING! I met so many people, including lots of young women (all glad to call themselves feminists) and attending a huge number of plenaries and break-out sessions.

The days were long, on average we spent 12 hours each day at the conference centre. I learned about feminist economics, the importance of calculating time spent in paid and unpaid work to capture the real amount of work people do every day (rather than just paid work which excludes all of the work done by stay-at-home mums, for example), why having a budget surplus is only good if it means better government services, and the role of donors in supporting the women’s movement.

A key thing I learned that I would like to share is the state of UN Women 12 months after its creation.

Just a quick note, I’m a volunteer for UN Women Australia and have organised a number of advocacy, education and fundraising events for them in Melbourne over the past few years. I believe strongly in the role of a UN body dedicated the gender equality and have faith in the concept of universal human rights more broadly (but am aware that its current incarnation is inherently flawed, sexist, racist and exclusive).

Firstly, UN Women was created amidst huge levels of optimism that finally, women would have a peak UN body that can advocate for their rights and for gender equality. UN Women was created with the amalgamation of four UN entities which dealt with gender equality and women’s rights. One of these used to be UNIFEM, the development body for women’s rights. It was exciting to think that the political power and resourcing of four women’s rights bodies would be amalgamated into one ‘super’ body – and hopefully bring more cohesion and a larger voice to the global women’s rights movement.

If only.

Due to funding short falls (i.e. governments who aren’t giving UN Women the funding they promised they would) UN Women barely has the capacity to cover its administration costs. Therefore, it has to compete with other organisations for private donor funding in order to cover its core costs, as well as support projects which further women’s rights. This means that women’s organisations have to compete with UN Women as well as each other for scare funding and resources.

This is harmful to the women’s movement globally, as ideally UN Women would be able to rely on government funding to support its core functions as well as resource projects through funds like the Pacific Facility Fund for Combating Violence Against Women. However, women’s organisations have to compete with UN Women for funding, rather than being able to rely on them as a main source of funding.

Also, UN Women’s political mandate to affect change in member states is lacking as it is only empowered to assist governments at their request – rather than initiate change on their own. For citizens and gender equality activists who would like to see UN Women be able to exert pressure on governments who don’t take women’s rights seriously, this is a disappointing arrangement.

It’s clear to me that UN Women is plagued by resourcing shortfalls and is politically constrained because, on the one hand, member states think women’s rights is a ‘nice to have’ rather than essential for supporting human rights. Alternatively, perhaps the issue is that member states are scared of the change in patriarchal power balances and systems that a successful and empowered UN Women could bring locally, nationally and globally by supporting gender equality. As we’ve seen in the challenges to women’s reproductive rights in the US this past year and the violence experienced by women during the Arab Spring, patriarchal fear of the empowered woman remains high.

As a young woman involved in UN Women Australia I’m pretty angry about the pathetic global response UN Women has received since its creation. I have since resolved to approach my volunteering role with more gusto and vigour to show Australia that UN Women is more than just a ‘nice to have’ piece of international architecture.

As people who call themselves feminists and actually give a shit about the women’s rights movement, we can try to pressure UN Women to take political action, or provide more resources to important projects, but it won’t get us very far as UN Women has limited room to move. Rather, we should be pressuring our government to empower UN Women Australia because that is where change must come from.

I encourage you all to think of ways in which we can hold the Australian Government to account for not more actively supporting gender equality in our region through supporting UN Women Australia.

Personally, I would like to see CEDAW government and shadow reporting undertaken in country, rather than with thick, text-heavy reports that get sent directly from NGO or government headquarters to the UN – on the whole, bypassing large-scale, active citizen engagement.

How cool would it be to have a week where the UN or UN Women (not sure who gets reported to) situates itself in a city (capital or regional) and provides open forums to the public on why CEDAW reporting is important, followed by open sessions where we can hear the government defend its performance against CEDAW and the NGO sector’s response. Then, after 3 days or so, the UN can respond with a simple and clear ‘score card’ of the government’s performance with recommendations. A more detailed appendix can follow shortly after. Finally, a week of ‘wrap up’ activities that involve the public can take place to explain the outcomes of the reporting. Plus, this method can be used to keep the whole process transparent from start to finish and should be repeated every reporting cycle.

Human rights are for everyone, women’s human rights will benefit everyone and it’s clear to me that it’s not enough to rely on our government’s good intentions to uphold them. We should be demanding action.  What do you all think? Are you with me?

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About IsBambi

IsBambi is an administrator for feminaust. She is also a young woman excited about all things to do with feminism, skiing, British TV, dogs called Trevor and cycling. In addition to trying to do too much at once, she enjoys empowering young people and dragging men into the feminist debate.

2 thoughts on “Who’s Scared of UN Women?

  1. Hmmmm…Interesting post!

    My experience of UN Women has been divided by the ‘big picture’ UN Women – Yes I support the need for a global UN entity dedicated to gender equality and women’s rights, and yes, it is a shame that UN women receives only a small percentage of funding compared to its counterparts like UNICEF (not that anyone can begrudge funding children’s rights).

    But then there are my experiences of UN Women at the sub-regional level, namely in the Pacific, which I often associate with highly paid expat consultants (and poorly paid/treated local staff), poorly targeted/designed programs that are largely ineffective yet heavily funded by foreign aid donors, self-righteousness and criticism directed at any other NGO, local or otherwise who tries to do anything in the area of gender equality…These are some of my realities working in the same space as the mighty UN Women. In terms of funding ‘core costs’ – these are often exorbitant, especially when UN Women are currently expanding into parts of the Northern Pacific (Micronesia etc.) and involve funding for offices and other conditions far beyond what would be expected of any local person.

    I guess the question to be asked is, why should Pacific Island Governments be expected to fund UN Women’s core costs where there is little to show for it? UN Women Pacific’s key program aimed at increasing women’s representation in Parliament – the Gender Equality in Political Governance (GEPG), funded by AusAID, has been running for years, yet seems to have had little effect on numbers of women in Pacific Parliaments. Much newer and more innovative programs like UNDP’s women’s mock parliaments are much newer, more efficient and appear to be having immediate results for women. The Pacific Fund to eliminated VAW you mentioned seems to cost more to administer than it hands out in small grants, and some of the most successful initiatives that it funds come from local organisations that could probably manage that funding directly instead of UN Women acting as the middle man (or middle woman in this case).

    Finally, it is very frustrating to hear that UN Women are justifying competing for funding with grass roots women’s organisations because Governments wont pay their contributions. I would suggest that it is the responsibility of UN Women to work within their means and reduce their core operating costs to fit their budget, not compete for that money with smaller organisations and then absolve themselves of any responsibility.

    The truth is, I don’t know the answer. But it is a complex issue. I do think foreign Governments need to support gender equality by coming good on their promises of funding to UN Women but my gut feeling is that UN Women would be better placed focusing solely on policy and advocacy relating the gender equality and leave the programs up to local organisations who can deliver them much cheaper and more effectively (given they are supported in doing so).

    • Thanks for your comment Kiri! I have no experience with UN Women from that perspective so it’s awesome to hear from someone who has. I agree with everything you’ve said, local is better than highly paid non-local consultant! Plus, on reflection, I would like to see higher levels of advocacy work coming out of UN Women – even if just to rebut the stupid sexist crap our media comes up with every day.

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