Behind the Scenes at the UN: A Reform to Strengthen Global Women’s Rights and Gender Equality

It is a good week to be thinking about gender equality and women’s rights.  International Women’s Day, which was on Monday, was celebrated around the world.  At the United Nations this week over 700 government officials, thousands NGO leaders, and even a few celebrities have assembled for the 54th meeting of the Commission on the Status of Women. Across town, The Daily Beast’s inaugural Women in the World conference kicks off this weekend.

With appearances at the UN by the likes of Meryl Streep and Hillary Clinton, public attention to women’s rights and gender equality has been intense. Behind the scenes, meanwhile, there is an effort underway to make sure that attention to gender issues does not wane when the stars retreat to Hollywood and top government officials return to their capitals. Indeed, many of the same government officials and civil leaders meeting in New York this week are seeking to promote gender equality and women’s rights as a core UN mission, akin to universal human rights and global development.

For the past few years, governments and outside advocates have explored ways to re-calibrate the UN’s approach to gender issues. These efforts culminated in a September 2009 General Assembly resolution supporting the creation of a new UN entity dedicated to promoting global women’s rights. The resolution calls for merging the four separate UN programs that deal with gender and womens’ rights into a single directorate. This means the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), the UN Division for the Advancement of Women, The Office for the Special Advisor on Gender Issues, and the International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women, will be folded under the direction of a new under-secretary general.

To the outsider, this may seem like obtuse bureaucratic reshuffling. But many in the NGO community are hopeful that it could lead to tangible improvements in the lives of women around the world. “The gender architecture of the UN is very fragmented,” says Colette Tamko of the NGO Women’s Environment and Development Organization. “There has been only limited resources to work on gender programs.”Limited resources has translated into limited global progress on gender-specific issues, like the Millennium Development Goals of reducing maternal mortality and increasing girls’ access to primary education.  “There is too much of a disconnect between lofty goals of the UN and a capacity to see them through,” says Kathy Hall of the UN Foundation. (Disclosure)

The proposed new UN body, currently reffered to as the “Composite Gender Entity” is meant to bridge the gap between what UN member states say are priorities for gender equality and the UN secretariat’s ability to deliver. According to NGO officials with whom I spoke, this means significantly ramping up technical assistance to help developing world countries improve womens’ access to health care, education, and economic opportunity.

Still, there are some political challenges that must be overcome before the new entity can be fully established. Even though the General Assembly endorsed the idea in principal, it has been slow to formally approve the precise structure and function of the new entity. To a certain degree, the delay is a consequence of political wrangling between wealthier donor countries and the developing world that typically plays itself out at the United Nations. For donor countries, swiftly getting this new entity on its feet is a top priority. Before that happens, though, the developing world wants assurances on finance issues. 

A second hurdle is who, exactly, will lead this new entity? The original General Assembly resolution would establish a new under-secretary general to oversee the body. This is a top ranking position in the UN system. Naturally, member states are angling to promote their own candidates.

Guessing who might lead this entity has become something of a parlor game. The four most rumored candidates are Michelle Bachalet, former president of Chile; Winnie Byanyima, a Ugandan who serves as Director of the UN Development Programme Gender Team; Geeta Rao Gupta, a dual U.S.-Indian national who is President of the International Center for Research on Women; and Asha-Rose Migiro, the Deputy Secretary General and former foreign minister of Tanzania.

Beyond those four is a larger list of women rumored to be in the running for the spot. As one observer put it, these are names that “have been floating in the ether.”

Joyce Banda, Vice-President of Malawi

Alicia Bárcena Ibarra Executive Secretary of the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC)

Radhika Coomaraswamy, UN Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict and former United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women (from Sri Lanka)

Kathleen Cravero, President of the Oak Foundation; former Deputy Executive Director of UNAIDS and founder of the Global Coalition on Women and AIDS (from the United States)

Cristina Elizabet Fernández de Kirchner President of Argentina

Nilcea Freire Minister of the Special Secretariat for Policies for Women  (Brazil)

Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir Former Minister for Foreign Affairs of Iceland

Nyaradzai Gumbonzvanda Secretary General of the World YWCA; former Regional Director for the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) (from Zimbabwe)

Tarja Halonen President of Finland

Ameera Haq UN Special Representative in Timor-Leste and Head of the UN Integrated Mission in Timor-Leste; (Bangladesh)

Musimbi Kanyoro Director of the Population Program at the Packard Foundation; former Secretary General of the World YWCA (from Kenya)

Asma Khader Coordinator of Sisterhood Is Global Institute/Jordan; (from Jordan)

Irene Khan Former Secretary General of Amnesty International (Bangladesh)

Moushira Khattab Egypt’s State Minister for Family and Population Affairs and member of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child

Rachel Kyte Current VP for Business Advisory Services at IFC – World Bank (UK)

Cecilia Lopez Senator from Columbia and former Minister of Planning, Minister of Agriculture, Minister of the Environment and Minister in Charge of National Policies for Women’s Equity.

Ruth Jacoby Current Ambassador of Sweden to Germany

Hina Jilani, Former United Nations Special Representative on Human Rights Defenders (Pakistan)

Hilde Johnson Deputy Director of United Nations Children’s Fund; former Development Minister of Norway

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala Current Managing Director of the World Bank; former Minister of Finance and Foreign Affairs of Nigeria

Rachel Mayanja Current Special Adviser on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women (Uganda)

Sonia Montaño Current Chief of Women and Development Unit, Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) Bolivia

Thoraya Ahmed Obaid Executive Director of United Nations Population Fund Saudi Arabia

Joy Phumaphi Vice President of Human Development at World Bank (Botswana)

Mamphela Ramphele Executive Chair of Circle Capital Ventures; former Managing Director of the World Bank (South Africa)

Anna Kajumulo Tibaijuka UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of the UN Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT) Tanzania

The appointment is ultimately the Secretary General’s to make, but he is said to be consulting widely with various stakeholders. Precisely when the new under0secretary general will be named — and when the General Assembly will take its final vote — is still in question. That said, experience shows that the closer the United Nations gets to its annual summit in September, the likelihood of resolving outstanding reform issues tends to increase. As Colette Tamko of the NGO Women’s Environment and Development Organization told me, “the issue is not whether the new gender entity will be created. But when?“

Image: Flickr user Leitza