Over six decades after the United Nations was founded in 1945, one half of the world's population is finally getting the attention it is due. A new United Nations agency, UN Women, will formally launch this week with the express mandate of promoting global women's equality. With the United States as UN Women's chief backer, and with former Chilean President Michele Bachelet at the helm as a strong and proven leader, the new agency could be poised to provide powerful financial and diplomatic support for women pushing for real equality and broader roles in policymaking everywhere, and not a moment too soon.
Except for one fact: UN Women has very little money. At the start of this year, it had $300 million in operating funds, rather than the $1 billion it was promised or even the $500 million that was supposed to be its bare minimum. President Obama has requested only $8 million for UN Women in his FY2012 budget proposal as the U.S. contribution. Contrast this underwhelming amount with, for example, UNICEF's $3 billion budget, $127 million of which comes from the United States.
UN Women incorporates four separate agencies from throughout the UN system into a streamlined operation, making it a higher-level and more cost-effective option in the long run than the current system. It is mandated to guide other UN agencies in forming policies and global standards for women's equality and ending gender-based violence, helping member countries implement those standards with technical and financial support to governments and civil society, and holding the UN's old-boy system accountable for those commitments and for achieving gender balance itself.
Without stronger U.S. support, UN Women won't be able to do its job. It cannot hope to fulfill U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's promise that it "will be a powerful force in our shared work to elevate the status of women and girls" and "help millions of people around the world improve their lives." And women around the world do need it: they are still the vast majority of the poor, the hungry and the illiterate worldwide, and are painfully absent from most major global decision-making processes.
The Obama Administration has said repeatedly that women's rights are key to economic development and to the international stability that is critical for U.S. national security. But by failing to put muscle behind UN Women, the United States is forfeiting two historic opportunities: first, to put women in the global spotlight they deserve, and second, to shape the new agency's agenda.
UN Women could be a formidable presence in Security Council deliberations on war and peacemaking. It could, for example, point out the deep links between military violence and violence against women, such as the mass rapes in Congo and Sudan, and insist that they be taken seriously. It could insist that women have a greater voice in shaping the institutions that make decisions about their lives, such as with Egypt's new constitution. It could focus on the gender aspects of war, peace, migration, global warming, trade agreements, public health policies and religious traditions, and put women firmly at the center of those debates.
UN Women could urge governments to take concrete small-seeming steps that would bring immediate improvement to women's lives, such as getting every woman and female child a birth certificate: without that document, they do not exist, have no rights and cannot obtain services like education or bank credit. Without investments in women, all the other development and poverty reduction goals that world leaders have endorsed at various international conferences do not pay dividends. UN Women could push to make real existing UN covenants that have long promised but failed to deliver greater investments in girls' education, women's health and women's political participation. For the first time, in short, the world's women could have in Michelle Bachelet a smart, focused and powerful international leader focused on their empowerment.
None of this will happen without adequate funding. Women must demand performance from UN Women and demand that their governments put up a share that corresponds to their rhetorical commitment to women's equality. Economies are strained worldwide, but economies will be the first to benefit if women are fully able to participate in all of their nation's activities. UN Women could be the instrument to make this happen, and this is the time to back it.
Follow Ritu Sharma on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@womenthrive