Foreign Policy Blogs

Will UN Women Succeed?

by Elizabeth Samson

On November 10, 2010, the United Nations took an important step towards committing itself to female empowerment with the election of 41 member states to the board of a new agency—the UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women. Known as UN Women, the new body brings four organizations that have been dedicated to the needs of women under one umbrella:

· Division for the Advancement of Women (est. 1946)
· International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women (est. 1976)
· United Nations Development Fund for Women (est. 1976)
· Office of the Special Adviser on Gender Issues and the Advancement of Women (est. 1997)

Having felt that these agencies had been limited in their ability to effect change, the United Nations General Assembly voted on July 2, 2010, to create UN Women to “accelerate progress in meeting the needs of women and girls worldwide.” According to the UN, the new organization’s purpose is to promote women’s rights and the “full participation [of women] in global affairs,” giving “women and girls the strong, unified voice they deserve on the world stage.”

With a budget of $500 million, twice the budget of the other four institutions combined, the establishment of UN Women will displace the others, streamlining the efforts to provide support for member states on issues of gender. Unlike the status of heads of the other organizations, UN Women’s executive director will also hold the title of
under-secretary general, a member of all senior UN decision-making bodies who is appointed by and will report directly to the secretary general. Former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, the current executive director, will thus have more leverage than her predecessors in the other agencies to get the job done.

Notwithstanding those improvements, there are significant roadblocks to UN Women’s effectiveness. Its 41-member board is comprised of 35 members from regional groups—Africa (10), Asia (10), Eastern Europe (4), Latin America and the Caribbean (6) and Western Europe (5). Additionally, there are six additional members from contributing countries. Unfortunately, several of the 41 members have abysmal records in protecting human rights and securing gender equality.

Saudi Arabia, a country in which women are forbidden to drive, and Libya, which is infamous for its violation of human rights and civil liberties, made the cut for UN Women’s board. Other unfortunate choices include China, a country in which women undergo sex-selective abortions and sterilization and female infanticide is still practiced, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, where violence against women is perceived to be normal by large segments of society. The inclusion of these countries on the board makes it difficult to have confidence that UN Women will be able to uninhibitedly implement a progressive women’s rights agenda.

Iran, one of the world’s worst violators of women’s rights, came very close to receiving an appointment to the board, but the United States and other countries lobbied successfully against its inclusion. Blocking Iran, where women are stoned to death for committing adultery and honor killings are commonplace, was a responsible move. This is especially the case because in April 2010, the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) foolishly elected Iran to serve a four-year term, commencing in 2011, on the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW).

One of the objectives of UN Women is to support CSW in creating policies that facilitate the development of women’s rights, so the exclusion of Iran on the board of UN Women will perhaps offer a measure of damage control by providing a system of checks and balances against those who see no harm in allowing notorious human rights violators to determine the fate of their victims through the vehicle of the United Nations.

The hope is that countries with better track records on gender equality will be able to influence the others who have not achieved as much progress and that the overall UN Women board composition will negate any efforts by countries with less-than-stellar human rights records to suppress the advancement of women. Whatever UN Women’s lofty ambitions may be, its ability to realize those ambitions and be a successful enterprise will depend upon the willingness of its board members to assist UN member states in securing the rights of women and promoting their advancement in the world.

Elizabeth Samson is a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute and an attorney specializing in human rights and international and European law.



FPA Administrator
FPA Administrator

Blog updates from the FPA online editorial team and op-ed publisher for special contributors.

Great Decisions Discussion group