A Stronger Voice for Half the World: "UN Women" to Work for Gender Equality

"What? Another UN organization?" That might have been the reaction by some to the recent action by the General Assembly. And yet the unanimous adoption of a resolution that established "UN Women," a new composite entity for gender equality and empowerment of women, was greeted with a loud chorus of approval.

"UN Move a 'Watershed' for Women," ran a headline in New Zealand's The Daily Post. "A Blow For Gender Parity," chimed in an editorial The Hindu. The New York Times said it was "a great idea," although the paper wished there was a catchier acronym or name to go with it. But despite an occasional caveat, most observers seemed to agree that one small organizational step was a big stride in the right direction. One website even declared it "a giant leap for womankind."

All good and well, but somebody who has not been following the issue closely may still be puzzled: Hasn't the UN been trying to promote this cause before? Why a new body? Why only now?

To get a better perspective, a quick look back may be in order. The UN has been championing the cause of gender equality since its early days. In its Charter, the founders deliberately referred to the "equal rights of men and women" as they declared the Organization's "faith in fundamental human rights" and the "dignity and worth of the human person." An interesting fact, though: of the original 51 Member States, only 30 allowed women equal voting rights with men or permitted them to hold public office. So during the first three decades, the key focus in the UN's work on behalf of women was on the codification of women's legal and civil rights, and the gathering of data on the status of women in different countries. Despite progress on that front, it became increasingly obvious that laws per se were not enough.

That led to the second stage as the UN convened a series of world conferences to develop strategies and plans of action for the advancement of women. That drive culminated in the Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing in 1995, which unanimously adopted the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, in essence an agenda for women's empowerment for the next century. For that to happen, however, societies had to undergo fundamental transformations in their approach to the issue. One of Beijing's big achievements was that it triggered recognition of the need to shift the focus from women to the concept of gender, and the fact that the entire structure of society, and all relations between men and women within it, had to be re-evaluated. I had a chance to observe those historic deliberations close-up when I attended the Beijing Conference with the delegation of the UN's health agency, WHO, where I worked at the time. Personally, I felt strongly that first and foremost it was the responsibility of men -- as fathers, husbands, boyfriends and brothers -- to take gender issues seriously and to work toward changing attitudes.

Fast forward to July 2010. At that juncture, there were four distinct parts of the UN system which focused exclusively on gender equality and women's empowerment: The Division for the Advancement of Women; the International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women; the UN Development Fund for Women; and the Office of the Special Adviser on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women.

The situation highlighted one of the serious challenges the UN was facing in its continuing efforts to advance the cause of gender equality -- fragmentation and the absence of a single recognized entity to direct UN activities in this sphere. The problem had been recognized earlier, but it took several years of difficult multilateral negotiations to reach a consensus on an array of sensitive issues. Yes, it took a while to get there, but the result was a unanimous action by all Member States that would help to speed up the much needed changes -- including at the national level. There is now a single home for the UN system's work on gender. As Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the General Assembly after it passed the resolution, "Today's action does more than consolidate United Nations offices, it consolidates United Nations strengths."

The newly created entity, of course, has its job cut out for it. Unfortunately, gender inequalities remain deeply entrenched in many societies and run the gamut of injustices, from lack of representation in decision making to direct violence and discrimination. A recent report produced for UN Television's programme, 21st Century, cited this fact: Every day, 6,000 girls, many of them in sub-Saharan Africa, will endure a coming of-age ritual known as female genital mutilation. It's estimated that 100 to 140 million girls and women worldwide are currently living with the consequences of this procedure. Just one example that spotlights the challenges, often overlooked, that women continue to face in many parts of the world. But when you look at them close-up, one gets a better appreciation for the work of the body that tries to do something about it -- even if its name may not score high on the catchiness quotient.