UN's Main Women's Body Remains Leaderless

UNITED NATIONS - When women activists lash out against gender discrimination, one of their longstanding complaints is also directed at the U.N. Secretariat, where senior level posts are still largely a virtual monopoly of men.

Despite a 1997 General Assembly resolution calling for 50:50 gender parity in decision-making jobs by 2000, the elusive goal is long past that deadline.

A coalition of some 600 women's groups and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) is now complaining that the pervasive gender discrimination in the U.N. system may also be responsible for the lack of an executive director at a key body dealing with women's issues: the U.N. Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM).

Since its former executive director Noeleen Heyzer was appointed executive secretary of the Bangkok-based U.N. Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) last September, UNIFEM has remained headless, but functions under an acting executive director, Joanne Sandler.

"We need an appointment now," says Ana Agostino, coordinator of the Feminist Task Force of the Global Call to Action Against Poverty (GCAP), who points out that the six-month-long delay is unacceptable.

She said that women's groups were expecting an announcement during the current two-week session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), which concludes Friday. But there are no indications it will happen.

She said the coalition of over 600 signatories plan to submit a letter to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon asking him to expedite the appointment.

"UNIFEM is the only agency that cares for women," Agostino told IPS. "And it's the only agency that relates to women on the ground."

Besides the petition to the secretary-general, she said, the coalition has also launched an online campaign. "At the United Nations, women demand gender justice. Women demand accountability," she added.

The coalition includes the Association of Women's Rights in Development, Centre for Productive Rights, Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era, International Coalition for Development Action, Women's Environment and Development Organisation, South Asia Women's Watch, Women's Initiative for Gender Justice and Caribbean Policy Development Centre.

In a letter to the secretary-general, the signatories also say they are supporting the candidature of Dr. Gita Sen, an advocate of women's rights and an adjunct professor of population and international health at Harvard University. Sen is reportedly on a short list of candidates for the job.

The letter notes that women's groups have been "following the recruitment process closely since last August and understand that she is the leading candidate based on her competence, experience and credibility."

Asked for comment, U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq told IPS: "We are still working on the appointment."

Adrienne Germain, president of the New York-based International Women's Health Coalition, said a thorough recruitment process "has identified a lead candidate of unprecedented strength."

"Her appointment now will demonstrate Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's commitment to the integrity of established U.N. recruitment processes," she added.

It will also provide an exceptionally skilled champion for women in what is clearly going to be a long debate on a future framework for the U.N.'s work on gender equality, she added.

"The world's girls and women deserve outstanding UNIFEM leadership and we need it now, not two or three years from now," Germain told IPS.

Meanwhile, Rachel Mayanja, special adviser to the secretary general on gender issues, told the CSW last week that as of December 2006, the representation of women in the U.N. secretariat at professional and higher categories remained virtually the same as in the previous year.

Both in 2006 and 2007, the number of women appointed as directors (D-1 and D-2s), assistant-secretaries-general (ASG) and under-secretaries general (USG) remained at 24.7 percent, while it was higher (37.7 percent) in the professional categories.

The U.N. ranking system moves up: from general service, the lowest rung, to professionals, directors, ASGs and USGs. Ranking ahead of them are the secretary-general and the deputy secretary-general.

"At the current rate of progress -- increasing 1.13 percent on average between 1998 and 2006 -- gender balance would be reached in 2027 at the D-1 level," Mayanja said.

However, she pointed out that 50:50 gender balance has already been achieved in the U.N. Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR), and the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA).

Additionally, she said, 47 percent of both the U.N. children's agency UNICEF and the International Civil Service Commission were staffed with women.

Mayanja also took a passing shot at the 192 member states when she said that a cursory review last January of some U.N. intergovernmental bodies revealed that women were without exception underrepresented.

Of the General Assembly's six main committees, whose office bearers are elected by member states, only the Economic and Financial Committee was headed by a woman.

(c) 2008 Inter Press Service

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