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Puerto Vallarta News NetworkEditorials | Issues | September 2009 

UN to Consider New Position for Women
email this pageprint this pageemail usDonald Steinberg - GlobalPost
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September 08, 2009

A group of women in Cote d'Ivoire sit with their children. Cote d'Ivoire has lately been a major site of sexual violence, rape and gender-based torture. (Ann Jones)
New York - The United Nations may soon undergo a shake-up that could affect half the people on the planet.

As the U.N. reviews its internal structures for addressing women's interests around the world, surely the most significant changes expected will concern women and armed conflict. The question is - will this reform make a fundamental difference in the lives of women impacted by war?

Just as the U.N. takes the lead on protecting war-affected children through UNICEF and a high-profile special representative, advocates have looked to the U.N. to protect women from widespread abuse and to ensure their full participation in peace processes, post-conflict reconstruction and governance.

But nearly nine years after the U.N. Security Council passed a groundbreaking resolution to promote such a role, issues such as rape, trafficking, reproductive health and girls' education continue to receive short shrift.

One culprit is the alphabet soup of U.N. architecture itself. Multiple agencies - the Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), the Office of the Special Advisor for Gender Issues (OSAGI), the Division for the Advancement of Women (DAW), and others - fight for the same scarce resources with little political power. The offices are filled with talented and dedicated people, but their efforts are thwarted by a system that gives responsibility to all but holds no one accountable. Meanwhile, the two main tasks - ensuring an active field presence for gender proponents in U.N. missions, and mainstreaming gender issues in the work of key U.N. agencies - are largely left wanting. Now, with the broad support of the U.N. secretariat, a coalition of member states, and civil society groups, a new entity - known bureaucratically as the 'composite entity' or 'option D' - could be approved as early as next month in the U.N. General Assembly. It would bring the principal actors under a single office, headed by a high-profile Under-Secretary-General, and enable greater coordination and synergies. It would also ensure women's issues were at the nexus of U.N. debates, as the new Under-Secretary General would participate in all senior policy-making bodies and serve as a watchdog for the interest of half the world's population.

The proposal enjoys broad support among non-governmental organizations, including 340 groups around the world that are part of the Gender Equality Architecture Reform (GEAR) campaign. They view this as the best possible outcome in the current environment, in which some member states still ask what all the fuss is about.

In fact, the real solution is a full-time, well-financed specialized agency with universal reach, a so-called UNICEF for Women. But pragmatists believe this is a bridge too far in the present fiscal climate, and a deal is emerging that would simply appoint a high-visibility Under-Secretary-General and leave the rest of the details to be worked out under her direction.

Since this structure is to be left in place for up to five years before being reviewed, however, the potential impact is all about the details. As GEAR points out, to make this change really matter for real women, the following commitments must be secured from the beginning:

1) Women in civil society around the world - and especially from conflict-related countries - must have a genuine voice in the new entity, not just on an ad hoc consultative basis, but through a formal decision-making role. The principle must be, "Nothing About Us Without Us."

2) There must be time-bound goals for achieving reductions in violence against women, participation of women in peace processes, allocation of reconstruction resources to projects of interest to women and other steps. Progress must be measurable, and governments, U.N. offices, and individuals must be held accountable for achieving them, with stiff penalties for failing to do so.

3) As much as $1 billion more dollars a year - or about 30 cents per woman - must be dedicated to these issues. This will allow a presence for the new entity in all war-impacted countries, supported by projects that can make a difference. And if the money must come primarily from voluntary contributions, as now seems likely, pledges should be taken now and the Secretary-General must go from capital to capital to collect them.

4) The new Under-Secretary-General must be a world-class figure, able to generate not only public attention and mobilize political will among governments, but with substantial knowledge of the U.N. system. The Secretary-General must give this leader the respect and resources needed to do her job, and the access to the U.N. General Assembly and Security Council to achieve progress.

Negotiations over the next month will say much about whether the world is prepared to keep faith with half its population, or whether the promise of protection and participation will be just one more dream deferred.

Donald Steinberg is Deputy President for Policy at International Crisis Group. He is a member of the board of the Women's Refugee Commission and formerly served as President Clinton's special assistant for African Affairs.

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