At a Glance: UN Milestones
Women have fought to defend their rights within the global decision-making body of United Nations since its inception. Here are some milestones of the movement for equality within the UN:
Commission on the Status of Women created; independent entity in 1947.
Declaration on the Protection of Women and Children in Emergency and Armed Conflict adopted.
First UN Conference on Women in Mexico City; annual meeting as of 1987.
UN Development for Women is created; becomes UNIFEM in 1984.
Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination (CEDAW) adopted.
UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women appointed.
UN Security Council Resolution 1325 mandates gender lens on conflicts.
High level panel on coherence named to study gender reform of UN.
UN approves creation of UN Women as new agency.
Source: Charlotte Bunch, GEAR; UN.
Looking Ahead: The First 100 Days
• Read Michelle Bachelet's 100 day action plan for UN Women.
• Explore recommendations for UN Women from the World Pulse community
• Visit UN Women to stay up to date on the agency's progress
A New Era Begins at UN Women
Bunch has a similar view: “Our hope is not just that it will support women's project work," she says. She sees a role for UN Women as an auto-entity at the same level as other agencies like UNDP and UNICEF. "Michelle Bachelet will sit at all the decision-making tables of the UN, and so everybody underneath her then sits at a higher level.”
War, peace, migration, disasters, global warming—these may not be thought of as 'women's issues', but UN Women can bring analysis of how these issues overlap and run along gender lines to the negotiating table; how war may impact women differently, leading to mass rape in the Congo, for example. It can build on powerful policy tools like Security Council Resolution 1325, which was adopted to strengthen women's roles in the UN's peace and security efforts. It can tackle thorny social issues like reproductive rights and the gaps between religious laws and international laws. And it can help reframe a national, political reponse to gender crimes.
Looking ahead, there's clearly no shortage of issues UN Women might tackle. But advocates suggest, it's critical to pick and choose carefully. “My concern is that because 'women' is a cross-cutting issue, and is everywhere, it can be a little overwhelming to figure out what are the concrete things you can do, because you can't do everything,” says Bunch. “They need to figure out where UN Women is going to focus.”
“I believe the guiding principle ought to be women’s empowerment, especially in areas where governments have been less extensively, directly, or successfully engaged—such as women’s economic empowerment, violence against women, and women’s participation in domestic and international peacekeeping process,” says Mahnaz Afkhami of the Learning Partnership. She also has a suggestion for UN Women. “Given that many of the problems our world faces today … are either closely related to or a consequence of patriarchy as a system that governs the way human relationships are structured, it would be useful if UN Women convened a group of thinkers and experts—men and women—from a variety of fields to think about the existing global challenges and solutions holistically, and from the vantage point of foundational changes in patriarchal arrangements of power.”
Ritu Sharma is eyeing more concrete goals that would spell immediate improvement in women's lives. On her wish-list: “Getting every woman and girl child a birth certificate. Without that, [they] do not exist, have no rights, and can't get many services like education.”
Longtime activists also see new partnerships for UN Women and grassroots women's groups. “The UN is a latecomer to the feminist movement,” say Donovan and Lewis. “It needs to learn from and engage with those advocates in order to play its role—not assuming the lead, not making decisions on behalf of women, certainly not speaking for women... but supporting women's self-defined struggle to end gender discrimination.” Meanwhile, feminists also have work to do to mainstream this fight. The GEAR campaign includes large, mainstream human rights organizations who, Bunch notes, “have more power and influence within the UN.”
“It's hugely important for women's institutions to demand performance from it [UN Women] and demand through various forums that the UN isn't allowed to go back to business as usual,” stresses Ramdas.
That leaves a critical group to reach—and change. Here, Stephen Lewis, ever the outspoken feminist, minces no words: “Men have one role above all others in the pursuit of gender equality and the empowerment of women,” he says, “and that is to relinquish our power so that women can assume the share that is rightfully theirs.” If they do, Ramdas feels, they will gain, too. “I hope it will be a new decade for gender equality and I hope it not be narrowly defined, but a world in which men will be free too. Ideally this should be an agency that is passionate and that shows by liberating women, you liberate men too.”
“It's remarkably hard to make changes at the UN, especially big changes,” says Sharma. “But when women around the world put their hearts and minds to a common good, we are unstoppable.”
“You know, 'never ventured—never dared,'" says Ramdas, who shares the cautious optimism of many feminists about UN Women's mandate. “Honestly, this is the moment. We're at the beginning of a new year and decade.”