Does the UN need a "super-agency" for women?

This fall, the General Assembly will vote on making gender equality a real priority

By Kate Harding
Published May 27, 2009 7:28PM (EDT)

In 2008, fed up with the international community's consistent neglect of women's needs and human rights, more than 300 NGOs launched the European Campaign for Gender Equality Architecture Reform (GEAR) and began putting pressure on the United Nations to consolidate "the existing UN agencies addressing gender equality into a single improved and independent entity." Happily, the campaign seems to be working. This fall, the UN general assembly will vote on the possibility of adding a new "super-agency" for women, with a proposed starting budget of $1 billion.

Why do we need a super-agency, when every agency within the UN already has an official mandate to address gender inequality and women's rights? Lesley Abdela, writing in the Guardian today, is here to tell us.  "Despite generations of international agreements on women's equality," she writes, "responsibility for improving the lives of the world's women is spread thinner than Marmite across four poorly co-ordinated UN entities -- Unifem, DAW, Osagi, and Instraw." Abdela notes that in 2006, "a UN high-level panel set up to recommend reforms in the wake of the 2005 world summit gave the UN nul points for services to women. The panel found the way the UN system works for women 'incoherent, fragmented, and under-resourced.'" Overall, despite the UN's repeated commitments to focus on women's rights -- "in the convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women, the UN Beijing platform for action, security council resolutions 1325 and 1820 on women in peace and conflict, and in agreements from many UN world conferences" -- there seems to be a whole lot more talk than action.

Meanwhile, the "Facts" page at GEAR's website features a handy world map you can roll over to learn statistics about some of the ways sexism and misogyny operate in different cultures. In Europe, "Women earn only 76% of men's gross hourly pay," while in Saudi Arabia, "men have the right to twice the inheritance women are allowed." There endeth the merely infuriating, as opposed to downright horrifying stats. In Asia overall, thousands of women are murdered every year in so-called honor killings. In Sub-Saharan Africa, 3/4 of HIV positive people are women. In the U.S., a woman is raped every minute and a half. In Mexico, "an estimated 5,000 children are currently involved in prostitution, pornography and sex-tourism." And in "one small province" in Papua New Guinea, "approximately 150 women are believed to be killed each year for allegedly practicing witchcraft." 

Abdela reports that at a recent GEAR campaign meeting, Stephen Lewis, co-director of AIDS-Free World, summed up the "criminal negligence by the international community" regarding women's issues with this bleak anecdote: "There are 12 UN agencies and 17,000 UN peacekeepers in Congo, yet it was only when activist Eve Ensler, author of The Vagina Monologues, came back and reported to the American media that 'I have just returned from hell', that the UN humanitarian chief went to visit the country." Let's hope that in September, the UN General Assembly votes to make women and girls a real priority even before celebrities get pissed off.

Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

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