The world is letting down the newest and most promising agency created by the United Nations to raise the status of women, a key to more effective antipoverty programs and economic development.
When UN Women was created by the General Assembly in July 2010, there were high hopes that it would have a billion-dollar reservoir of funds to spend over two years, half of which would be raised by voluntary contributions. That goal was fading by the time the agency – called formally the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, a name that dodged its status within the system – began operations at the beginning of 2011 under its executive director Michelle Bachelet, a former president of Chile.
But how deep the hole really goes can be measured by the agency’s latest tally of contributions (www.unwomen.org). By the end of September this year, only about $58 million ($57,972,851) had been received; global pledges totaled a mere $131,386,226, far short of a billion dollars.
A large part of the cash in hand has come from Canada ($10.3 million), Australia ($9.5 million), Britain ($7.9 million), the United States ($6 million) and Sweden ($4 million). Other countries that have met their pledges of $1 million to $4 million are Belgium, Denmark, Finland, India, Ireland, Italy, Korea, Luxembourg and New Zealand. Contributions from Switzerland and Germany were in the pipeline.
The laggards are an interesting group. It should be noted that Chile, Bachelet’s home country and a Latin American economic power, has given $23,000. Iraq has pledged $100 and not delivered on it. Neither has Jordan met its pledge of $1,200. In all, more than 40 governments have not stepped up to back UN Women with contributions – that’s about one-fifth of the UN’s membership.
It was no secret that when UN Women was created many countries were not overjoyed at the idea of an agency committed to raising the status of women globally. In terms of legal standing alone, the agency’s first report, <a title=”Progress of the worlds women” href=”http://progress.unwomen.org/”>Progress of the World’s Women: In Pursuit of Justice</a>, published in July, said that hundreds of millions of women worldwide struggle under discriminatory laws and harmful practices that continue even when outlawed.
The report found that 603 million women lived in countries where domestic violence was not considered a crime, and more than 2.6 billion lived in places where marital rape had not been explicitly criminalized. Customs and religion can override secular laws giving women protection and property rights. When UN Women originated, some member governments made sure that culture would be taken into account in the agency’s work. That was a message that interference would not be tolerated even when the goal is saving women’s lives.
UN Women has ambitious plans for programs in more than 30 countries. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says over and over how important it is to raise the status of girls and women, educate them, ensure access to family planning and reproductive health in general and give them roles in the economy and government. Some of this is obviously falling on deaf ears or not penetrating closed minds. Supporters of the agency are asking how long an executive director of Bachelet’s stature will be willing to continue to fight a battle for women’s rights when the commitment of so many nations is at best cosmetic and at worst fraudulent.
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.