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UN Poised to Close Gender Gap and Create Women's Agency

Mark Tran

Women from developing countries have been let down by the UN, say ministers. Photograph: Martin Godwin/Guardian

UNITED NATIONS - The UN is poised to create a powerful new department for women who say they have been sidelined for decades, to rectify a glaring omission in the world body.

Advocates for women's rights are looking for a fully-fledged agency with a budget of $1bn (£639m) on a par with other high-profile UN departments, to address crucial areas such as violence against women, property rights and HIV/Aids.

"The UN record on women has been abysmal," said Stephen Lewis, co-director of Aids-Free World, and an advocate of gender equality. "It has neglected the rights and needs of women everywhere. It's clear to everyone that the marginalisation of women over decades is unacceptable and the best way to correct it is a UN agency like Unicef for children."

Although the UN has poured billions of pounds into agencies for refugees (UNHCR) and for children (Unicef), no equivalent exists for women. Women's issues are currently dealt with by several small departments that lack the resources and clout of a fully-fledged agency.

The idea for such a body emerged from plans to reform the UN by Kofi Annan, the former UN secretary general, in 2006. A high-level panel that included Gordon Brown, who was then chancellor, endorsed an agency headed by an under-secretary general, one rank below secretary-general, something that women's groups have lobbied for over the years.

Annan wanted the agency to be part of his legacy but it was too ambitious an undertaking as he only had one year left in office. Still, the prospect of a UN women's agency three years after the idea was broached is fast for the UN, an organisation with a tendency to slip from inertia to paralysis.

Rich countries, such as the Nordic states, favour creating an agency by the end of the year, but some members from the G77 group of developing countries such as Cuba, Libya, Sudan and, to a certain extent, India, want to nail down issues such as governance and funding before agreeing to vote on a resolution.

How the agency will operate at country level with other UN bodies is another matter that needs to be sorted out. The most high-profile issue will be who leads the new organisation. The consensus is that a backroom deal common to institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund is out of the question.

Lewis is optimistic that the general assembly will pass a resolution to create the agency in September when it meets for its annual session.

Britain's minister for trade and development, Gareth Thomas, said: "The United Nations needs to do more to support women in developing countries and the British government supports the creation of a new UN agency for women to enable this to happen. This agency should be built on existing UN institutions and will be a key step forward in making the UN more effective in the future."

Much will depend on the Obama administration, which has yet to formally declare its position, and more importantly on how much cash to put in. The aim is to get $1bn or as close as possible. Unicef's budget is three times that amount.

Sceptics will question whether the UN, already an alphabet soup of institutions and a massive bureaucracy, should have another billion dollar agency. Lewis cites some numbers to back up his argument. In sub-Saharan Africa, of the 63 million people with HIV, 60% are women. That percentage shoots up to 75%-80% in the 15-24 age group. He believes these women need a powerful voice in the UN to speak on their behalf.

"This is all about the struggle for gender equality," Lewis said. "A UN women's agency will give meaning and force to that struggle. The UN cannot continue to marginalise 52% of the world's population. It's unacceptable."

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