By Pamela Philipose, Womens Feature Service
Icy winds blowing on a snow-tinged Big Apple evening failed to tamp down the spirits of women from all over the world, who filled to capacity the 1,800-seat concourse that houses the United Nations General Assembly at the United Nations headquarters in New York. It was on February 24, 2011 that marked the official launch of a new organisation, UN Women. Headed by the former president of Chile, Michelle Bachelet, it has brought under a common umbrella four distinct organisations that have been working on various aspects of gender within the UN system.
As the high profile inaugural event, presided over by UN secretary-general, heads of government and a sprinkling of Hollywood movie stars, unspooled, the buzz of expectation was unmistakable. An anthem composed specially for the occasion marked the evening’s grand finale. The question on everybody’s mind was this, Will UN Women be able to go beyond the symbolic and make a discernible difference to the actual lives of women in Kigali, Hanoi, Natal, Ramallah, Tangier – and every corner of the world?
A century after the first International Women’s Day and 35 years after the first UN mandated UN Women’s Year, women continue to remain on the margins. They perform 66 per cent of the world’s work, produce 50 per cent of the food, but earn 10 per cent of the income and own one per cent of the property. Worldwide, one-in-five women will become a victim of rape or attempted rape in her lifetime. If the average distance to the moon is 394,400 kilometres, women in South Africa together walk the equivalent of a trip to the moon and back 16 times a day to supply their households with water. They hold only 19 per cent of seats in parliament and fewer than three per cent of signatories to peace agreements are women. In times of recession, some 80 per cent of women workers are considered to be in vulnerable employment in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.
Given these realities, the argument for women’s rights is as relevant as ever. Yet, there was a growing perception that gender as a concern had fallen off the map and the time had come to review and transform the manner in which the UN system was addressing it. Last July, the General Assembly finally came up with UNGA Resolution 64/289 that committed to setting up an “United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women”, which was to be headed by an under secretary-general who reported directly to the secretary-general.
Presently UN Women is very much a work in progress with many promises to keep. Under-Secretary General Michelle Bachelet put it this way in her inaugural speech, “UN Women will offer a new dynamic to the global dialogue on gender equality, and bring new energy, drawing on multiple talents, and bringing together men and women from different countries and communities in a shared endeavour.”
It is a moment full of possibilities. Talking to WFS in New York, political scientist Anne-Marie Goetz, chief advisor of governance, peace and security to UNIFEM and now with UN Women, explained what made the new organisation so important, “The single biggest gain is that the world now has an undisputed champion for the promotion of women’s rights and equality in UN Women. The challenge of course is in ensuring the requisite financial backing for such an enterprise.”
Clarifies Anne Stenhammer, programme director of the South Asia sub-regional office of UN Women, “This is not about discarding the considerable work that has already been done on gender empowerment over the years. It is about building on what has been achieved.” She is optimistic that UN Women will “give the women’s movement a chance to achieve fresh visibility and gain a new platform.”
The women activists and academics who had gathered in wintry weather to attend the 55th session of the Commission on the Status of Women, hoped that this indeed was the case. Networks like Cladem, the Latin American and Caribbean Committee for the Defense of Women’s Rights, have placed on record their “great expectations” from the fact that Bachelet – from the South American region, too – is now in charge of UN Women and they hope that it can prove to be “a powerful tool to combat discrimination and promote concrete actions for gender equality”.
As UN Women takes its baby steps to the future, it will be closely watched. Hopes are high, the stakes are huge, and time is short. Noted author and clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California Medical Centre, Jean Shinoda Bolen, spoke for many when she observed, “This is about creating critical mass. UN Women must put us on the map – that’s all of us, every one of us.”