The 2010 creation of the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment (or UN Women) represented an unusual organizational consolidation instead of the typical proliferation. It had a promising start under strong leadership but faces serious challenges with growing resistance to gender equality.
Support for women’s rights has a long and checkered history in the UN. One of the earliest intergovernmental commissions was the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), which first met in 1947, but from its inception the UN system lacked strong institutional arrangements to provide intellectual leadership about gender equality; support governments to translate commitments into action; and help translate women’s aspirations into reality.
A long-standing demand of the women’s movement had been the creation of a single UN institution that could spearhead change. The 2010 General Assembly resolution 64/289 created UN Women and was a symbolically important bridge between rhetoric and action; it was a welcome consolidation almost unprecedented in the UN’s life. The four component parts were the United Nations Fund for Women (UNIFEM); the Institute for Training and Research on Women (INSTRAW); the Division for Advancement of Women (DAW); and the Office of the Special Adviser on Women (OSAGI).
Many gains have been registered in women’s empowerment and rights, but discrimination and gender inequality persist worldwide. Despite increasing visibility and political mobilization, violence against women continues unabated. In armed conflicts, sexual and gender-based violence are increasingly used as weapons of war. Women are not present and their needs are not consistently considered in peace negotiations and post-conflict recovery.
UN Women was established amid a backlash on women’s rights in many parts of the world, as a number of hard-fought gains have been questioned by conservative forces; and fundamentalist groups across the religious spectrum—Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism—have attacked women’s rights, such as reproductive and property rights and access to public spaces. Austerity measures that have cut social services in many European countries, for instance, have deepened the burden of unpaid care and increased inequality. Violent extremism has shared a common feature—attacks on women’s rights as in the actions of Boko Haram.
Women’s organizations have been weakened and marginalized. The fear of pushback to previous gains led to the decision not to hold a Fifth World Conference on Women that was expected in 2015.
UN Women’s first three years, under the strong leadership of Michelle Bachelet, former and now current president of Chile, focused on institution building, setting priorities, and engaging with such critical international processes as Rio+20 and the Fourth International Conference on Aid Effectiveness. One achievement was the rapid implementation of regional offices and an expanded country presence mirroring the arrangements of other UN development organizations. UN Women’s seat at the country-team table increased engagement with the rest of the UN development system. Some of the most important breakthroughs for UN Women have come in the realm of ideas, analysis, and influence.
At the inter-governmental level, given the increasing resistance to gender equality in many countries, UN Women faces a growing challenge to reaching agreement on significant issues of gender equality. In 2012 the CSW failed to reach consensus on the draft of agreed conclusions about a priority theme that appeared innocuous—rural women. Governments failed to reach agreement, but UN Women was tainted by the setback.
2013’s priority theme on Ending Violence against Women was more controversial. Condemnation of violence against women is universal, but evidence-based policy falls far short of what is needed. UN Women marshalled its internal resources and mobilized partners, including other UN agencies and women’s organizations. Agreed conclusions were adopted that pushed the normative frontier in a number of areas, including actions to prevent violence. Heads of UN organizations issued a joint statement to end violence against women. The conclusions marked a coming of age of UN Women.
UN Women has championed women, peace, and security, and has collaborated with the Department of Peacekeeping Operations to conduct joint training on sexual violence and with the Department of Political Affairs on elections. At the country level, UN Women has provided advisers to UN peacekeeping and special political missions.
SDGs and the Future Development Agenda
UN Women has sought to frame the emerging SDGs within the framework of human rights and gender equality. A key 2013 contribution was A Transformative Stand-Alone Goal on Achieving Gender Equality, Women’s Rights and Women’s Empowerment. The document marked a departure from the MDG approach and highlighted structural issues of women’s rights. At the same time, UN Women called for mainstreaming critical gender-equality targets in other goals. In another departure, the organization recommended that indicators for all targets not just be disaggregated by sex but capture specific dimensions of gender inequality.
The success of this effort can be measured by Goal 5 in the SDGs, which was crafted by the Open Working Group of member states. For the first time, key structural issues of gender inequality were included in universal commitments.
Under the leadership of the second executive director, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, UN Women has pursued partnerships to make gender equality everyone’s business. A major effort is the “HeforShe Campaign,” which encourages men and boys to become champions of gender equality.
UN Women has made strides in its first five years, but a long road lies ahead. Gender inequality remains pervasive, and UN Women requires partners. As a young organization, it faces challenges of funding, capacity, and priority-setting. It should identify ways to go beyond being a development organization and give substance to its universal mandate, in particular by addressing gender inequality everywhere. As new programs are developed, new partners should help take the effort forward with UN Women catalyzing broader action. Due diligence is essential especially in partnering with the private sector. UN Women’s roots are in the women’s movement, and the strong links with women’s organizations should be sustained and expanded. UN Women should continue to push the frontier of ideas so that structural and persistent issues of gender inequality are better understood and addressed.
Perhaps the biggest challenge is to explicitly address women’s rights. While UNICEF is closely associated with the Convention on the Rights of the Child, UN Women’s work is largely shaped by the “softer” (in terms of international law) Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. Unlike them, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) is a human rights instrument that requires all countries to report periodically to the CEDAW Committee of Experts and act on their recommendations.
UN Women could do more to influence governments, civil society, and the UN system around CEDAW and its implementation. Various women’s movements have suggested that UN Women should have a mandate for expert reviews of critical issues similar to special rapporteurs in order to highlight common challenges to women’s rights that affect numerous countries and contexts. A stronger reflection of and engagement with CEDAW both in process and substance would help ground UN Women more firmly in human rights and thereby strengthen its universal mandate.
Such a move is critical for UN Women to contribute to the achievement of substantive equality for women and girls, which requires nothing less than the transformation of political, economic, and social institutions and the attitudes and norms on which they are constructed.
Saraswathi Menon formerly was the director of the Policy Division of UN Women, and director of UNDP's Evaluation Office. She is a member of the UN secretary-general's Advisory Group of Experts on Review of Peacebuilding Architecture. The views expressed here are her own and do not represent the official views of the United Nations.