UN acted in ‘bad faith’ over new women’s agency

Women’s rights advocates who spent years pushing for a United Nations women’s agency celebrated earlier this month when secretary general Ban Ki-moon announced its creation on July 2.

Meant to tackle all issues facing women and balance gender inequality, the agency is the first of its kind in the organisation’s 65-year history, with a proposed annual budget of $1-billion.

Just weeks after its creation however, concerns surrounding the process of hiring an under-secretary general to head up the new arm abound.

Advocates claimed a lack of transparency and minimal involvement by non-UN organisations could create an inept agency, resulting in little change for women worldwide.

Speaking this week at the XVIII International Aids Conference in Vienna, Paula Donovan, co-director of the Aids Free World advocacy organisation, said that she and others central to the agency’s creation were assured by Ki-moon that the hiring process would be markedly different from that of other sections of the UN. While the process is often closed to the public — with posts being given to those already within the organisation — hiring for this position was meant to include consultations from civil society and an open call for applications.

‘No search’
Yet advocates claim the process has been completely private, and there has been no outside input. Speaking to UN sources, they have been told that the closing date for the position was July 23, just weeks after the agency’s creation and without a formal job description or advert. “There’s no application process. The job hasn’t been advertised, there is no search,” said Donovan. A United Nations spokesperson could not be reached for comment.

Donovan considered this to be an act of “bad faith” by the secretary general, and was concerned it would taint the work of the new agency. “When someone goes completely back on his word, you feel like you can’t even get into questions of substance,” she said.

Lack of commitment by the UN to take women’s issues seriously is not a new trend, advocates have claimed. Despite several treaties and the creation of the UN Development Fund for Women, or Unifem, the UN’s programmes on women have “failed miserably”, according to Donovan. In addition to offering very limited funds for women’s issues, female exclusion from high-level panels and decision-making bodies perpetuate a patriarchal system which ensure women’s concerns are neither heard nor met.

Despite Kofi Annan’s policy for UN panels to be composed of at least 50% women, nearly all of those under his watch — as well as that of his successor — have been dominated by men. This was true even when considering so-called women’s issues. Even though Ki-moon has referred to women as being “at the centre of climate change”, his commission to consider climate-change financing consisted of an “unusually large commission of 19 members, not including one woman”, said Donovan. Ironically, Anan’s gender committee, which included 12 members, boasted only three women. Despite rhetoric, “the gender composition never changed”, she said.

‘Biggest struggle on the planet’
Stephen Lewis, the former UN special envoy for HIV/Aids under Annan, said the lack of urgency to address gender issues stemmed from beyond the UN. Speaking at a conference session, he claimed, “gender equality was never taken seriously by the men who drafted the millennium development goals”. Where women’s issues were discussed, there were no substantial indicators to help determine whether gains were being made. Lewis considered this “absolute nonsense … the struggle for gender equality is the single biggest struggle on the planet”.

Of central concern to women’s rights is the HIV/Aids pandemic. Women currently constitute the majority of all new infections and are considered more vulnerable than men due to their marginalised social and economic position, limited protection of rights and access to healthcare, and rampant violence against them.

Yet despite increased calls to address gender discrimination as part of the fight against HIV/Aids, men still dominate the response. At a UNAids meeting earlier this year, at which gender was considered a necessary “pillar”, less than a quarter of panel members were women. Despite this, Donovan said “in the minds of people at the top, there seems to be absolutely no disconnect between those two things … They say that women need to be at the centre of treatment and are at the centre of the pandemic, but then continue to appoint mostly men.”

Donovan contended that hiring an under-secretary general from outside the UN was essential to truly combating gender inequality and HIV. The insistence on hiring from within the UN was justified by saying that someone needed to “hit the ground running”, she said. “That’s code for not wanting to teach someone all the rules and regulations that benefit men and prejudice women … unless you’ve figured out how to play the patriarchy game, then you are not qualified for a high-level position.” When women are appointed by the UN, “they want [those] who act like men … and who don’t bring up any sort of gender issues”.

Lewis agreed. UN and other leaders “take their hegemony for granted”, with their continued presence acting as “an assumption”.

Donovan said she was convinced the only the way the UN would change was if people were hired from outside the organisation.

“It’s time to recognise smart minds and good thinking and pay attention to that … [The UN] needs an influx of new blood.”

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Mara Kardas-Nelson
Mara Kardas-Nelson is a journalist with the Mail & Guardian's Centre for Health Journalism, where she focuses on access to medicine, health policy, financing, and planning. She has been contributing to the Mail & Guardian since 2009, writing on a wide variety of topics ranging from the environment to development to local culture. In 2010 she shared a Mondi Shanduka Newspaper award with photographer Sam Reinders for their work on acid mine drainage in Gauteng and Mpumalanga. Her work has appeared in publications across Africa, North America, and Europe.

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