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Do or Die: Learn to Speak Now or Forever Hold Your Piece


NEW YORK - I am a failure. Not because of an early divorce, or a failure to learn Chinese. Not even because, after 15 years abroad, I sometimes sound like a foreigner when speaking my native Danish language. All of those things, while potentially uncomfortable or painful, are the consequences of choices I have made. I am a failure because I have not been able to create equality in my own relationship -- despite being defined by my business card as a "women's rights advocate."

There are excuses. Equality takes time. There are social pressures involved. I have done better than my mother, even though she tried. I can't blame it all on my co-parent. He is not opposed to sharing the reproductive work -- we just can't seem to get the logistics right; what with two working adults and a child to rear in the urban jungle of cut-throat "equality" that is New York. So I'm a qualified failure -- I fail at equality in part because equality is failing me.

These excuses do not get rid of the frustration. But coming out as a failure allows me to deal with whatever obstacles to equality depend solely on me. This is why I recommend the same honesty for the United Nations.

The United Nations was created in 1945 with a stated objective to put into practice the shared principle that men and women are absolute equals. Since then, only three women have been elected President of the UN General Assembly, and none have served as Secretary-General. The organization has established agencies and offices for dealing with sex-based discrimination, but has provided them with grossly inadequate funding and virtually no political influence.

In other words: the United Nations sees itself as a women's rights advocate, yet like me, it has failed to create equality at home. The excuses are the same: time, social pressure, gradual improvements. But the real issue is that the organization must own up to its failure on women's rights. It is time to change.

This impetus for truth-telling, self-flagellation, and change in the area of gender equality is probably the least publicized part of the ongoing UN reform process. Yet it is also the one that has the potential of affecting the most people -- a little over half the world's population -- and it might already be under way. Next week governments from all over the world meet at the UN Commission on the Status of Women to discuss how to finance most effectively for equality.

The conclusions of this event could signal a new start for the United Nations in the area of women's rights. The laundry list of concerns is endless, but here are my top three personal recommendations:

* Power to act. It's not enough to say you want equality -- you need the power to do something about it. The United Nations has an abysmal record on this: of the 1,300 UN positions that state gender concern as part of their job description, 1,000 are junior positions with little decision-making or implementation power. Most deal with "gender" as only part of their job.

* Leadership. Last year, the United Nations selected another man with no discernable women's rights experience as its Secretary-General. The Commission on the Status of Women will contemplate whether women's rights are important enough to create an Under-Secretary-General position to head such concerns. It's not only important, it's essential.

* Resources. The budget of the (also under funded) UN children's agency, UNICEF, is about 40 times larger than that of the UN development fund for women, UNIFEM. UN reform experts have called for vastly increased funding for women's rights, though still only a fraction of what is routinely shelled out for peace-building, children's rights, and other equally important issues. Money isn't everything, but in this context its absence is significant. It spells a lack of commitment. The question shouldn't be: are women's rights really worth it, but rather: why have we been shortchanged for so long.

And it's not like there isn't enough to do.

Take violence against women. At least one in four women suffers violence at the hands of her husband or intimate partner. Sexual violence against women and girls has, especially in conflict areas, reached epidemic proportions. In 2006, the General Assembly set out a road-map for how the United Nations and its member states should prevent and punish violence against women. This year, the Secretary-General has launched a global campaign on this issue. But without reform and resources, the UN system will not be able to deliver the information and programs needed to bear out these good intentions.

Or how about maternal mortality? Every year over half a million women die as a result of complications related to pregnancy and childbirth. Some 8 million women a year survive such complications, but end up with life-long health consequences. The UN Millennium Campaign has gathered expertise on how to all but eliminate maternal mortality. Yet without a well-resourced women's agency empowered to help governments implement the needed reforms, our knowledge about how to save women's lives will be mostly academic.

Whether the reforms succeed will depend on one thing: does the United Nations -- or rather, its member states -- possess the political will and stamina to implement them? Perhaps looking critically at the status of equality at UN Plaza will inspire some action. It certainly helped me.

Follow Marianne Mollmann on Twitter: www.twitter.com/cluelesscamper