Early last year the United Nations merged four agencies working on women’s rights to create UN Women, an agency focused on the advancement of women worldwide. This merger was intended to finally give the underfunded agencies previously working on women’s rights higher rank in the U.N. system and create a more united U.N. front on tackling global gender issues. Advocates hoped that these measures would help mainstream gender issues across the United Nations and make significant improvements in its progress toward women’s economic empowerment and political participations. The agency’s strength is imperative to the United Nations’ work, especially in regard to their Millennium Development Goals—a number of goals embraced by all U.N. members to promote gender equality and to combat poverty, hunger, disease, illiteracy, and environmental degradation by 2015. But even though the agency was successful in its first year it appears that problems of funding and resources have left UN Women stumbling into 2012.
UN Women contributed significantly to the advancement of women across the globe in just one year. Here are just a few of the successes UN Women had in 2011:
- Provided $4.8 million dollars in grants through the Gender Equality Fund to advance women’s empowerment in the Arab world
- Launched a global policy agenda to end violence against women and an initiative to provide essential services to survivors
- Supported women’s participation in international engagement conferences in Afghanistan and the newest U.N. member state, South Sudan
- Supported the training of more than 250 women in Africa and Asia to become mediators in conflict prevention
Earlier this year UN Women executive director Michelle Bachelet, former Socialist president of Chila, said UN Women primarily needs to focus on economic empowerment and political participation going forward: "While 93 percent of the gap in education has been closed, 41 per cent of the disparity in economic participation and 82 per cent of that in political empowerment remain to be narrowed." This means women are far less likely than their male counterparts to be engaged politically and participate in the global labor force.
Ms. Bachelet has identified several key objectives for 2012: expanding women’s voices, leadership, and participation; ending violence against women; ensuring women’s full participation in conflict resolution; enhancing women’s economic empowerment; and prioritizing gender equality in national, local, and sectoral planning and budgeting.
The goals for 2012 are bold and ambitious, and they directly speak to the need of building a longstanding agency devoted to the advancement of women. This need is apparent in the agency’s theme for tomorrow’s International Women’s Day: to empower rural women and end hunger and poverty. Estimates show that if women had the same access to productive resources as their male counterparts, they could increase yields on their farms by 20–30 percent, lifting 100 million to 150 million people out of hunger. But ending poverty and hunger goes beyond rural women and extends to the advancement of women in all spheres of life, which is why we need UN Women.
One key factor has plagued the progress of UN Women: lack of financial resources. Nations have been less than generous in their contributions, and the agency relies on this funding for its operations. As a result, Michelle Bachelet spent much of her efforts in the first year fundraising as opposed to implementing their initial goals and objectives. According to Anwarul Chowdhury, a diplomat from Bangladesh, “UN Women has benefited from Bachelet’s international standing, though she spent too much time at the outset looking for additional resources.”
Encouragingly, the agency is set to receive a boost in funding, reaching $500 million a year. This additional funding could significantly help the complexity of issues facing UN Women. UN Women has put its initial resources to good use achieving many of the successes outlined earlier. But it will need more and sustained financing if it is to continue to meet the needs of women worldwide.
One thing is for sure: To achieve the Millennium Development Goal of “promoting gender equality and empowering women,” the United Nations needs a strong agency devoted to the advancement of women. It’s crucial to the progress of the United Nations and gender equality. Women’s rights are human rights.
Sophia Kerby is the Special Assistant for Progress 2050 at the Center for American Progress.
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