U.N. Chief Leaves Women Out of Year-End Summing Up

Women take part in a protest for equal rights in Baghdad December 11, 2010. (REUTERS/Mohammed Ameen)

U.N. Chief Leaves Women Out of Year-End Summing Up

UNITED NATIONS - When Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon wrote a year-end op-ed piece for an Australian newspaper last week, he talked about the future of a world body facing a new generation of threats: climate change, poverty, nuclear disarmament and human rights.

But, wittingly or unwittingly, he left out one of the biggest political success stories of the world body: the creation of a separate body, UN Women, to promote gender empowerment worldwide.

The new U.N. agency, armed with a projected 500-million-dollar annual budget and headed by Under-Secretary-General Michelle Bachelet, began functioning at the beginning of the New Year.

But there has been no fanfare or political celebration inside the world body - even as the secretary-general is being accused of bypassing the importance of the landmark event.

"It would have been a tremendous opportunity to draw attention to UN Women ... after all, the creation of an entirely new agency devoted to half the world's population is something to be noted and celebrated," said Paula Donovan, a co-director of AIDS-Free World, one of the early active campaigners for the new agency.

"But there's not a word on UN Women," she complained in a letter to Bachelet, jointly authored with Stephen Lewis, a former deputy executive director of the U.N. children's agency UNICEF.

"And that's only the half of it. The other half provokes disbelief," says the letter.

The agency was inaugurated Tuesday, the first working day at the U.N. since Monday was a New Year holiday.

In a paragraph that summarises the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the secretary-general lists seven of the eight goals. "The only one left out is, astonishingly, the goal on gender equality and the empowerment of women. How is that possible?" the letter notes.

The creation of UN Women was hailed as a phenomenal success judging by the decades-old negotiations.

Asked to respond to the criticism, deputy U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq told IPS: "The secretary-general has made clear his commitment to women's issues, and he pushed strongly for the establishment of UN Women."

His commitment to UN Women can be seen through his efforts to win approval for that entity and his search for a strong leader for UN Women, which he found in Michelle Bachelet, said Haq.

"He has spoken extensively on women's issues, and its absence from one op-ed does not imply any lessening of his commitment on this crucial issue," he declared.

In the op-ed piece, which was published in the Sydney Morning Herald Dec. 31, Ban says the United Nations today leads what seems at times like a double life.

"Pundits criticise it for not solving all the world's ills, yet people around the world are asking it to do more, in more places, than ever before - a trend that will continue in 2011. It is not hard to see why," he wrote.

"The conventional wisdom will tell you that the MDG targets - reducing poverty and hunger, improving the health of mothers and children, combating HIV/AIDS, increasing access to education, protecting the environment, and forging a global partnership for development - are simply unattainable.

"In fact, we are controlling disease - polio, malaria and AIDS - better than ever, and making big, new investments in women's and children's health - the key to progress in many other areas," the article reads.

In her letter to Bachelet, Donovan says the greatest challenges for women will come from within.

"And that was demonstrated yesterday, right at the outset of your tenure, by a classic act of unthinking negligence on the part of the secretary-general himself. Alas, it is all too typical."

"Dr. Bachelet, you have your work cut out for you. And your work starts at the top," says the letter, which carries the heading: "Can we help with your biggest challenge: educating the secretary-general?"

Asked whether Ban was paying lip service to the cause of gender empowerment, Donovan told IPS: "I wish it were a fluke, but sadly, it's been a pattern since he took office."

"I really wonder whether he believes that he's ticking off the gender box when he makes a passing reference to maternal health - as though that were the sum total of women's rights," she added.

When he first started as secretary-general, said Donovan, Ban joked with senior officials from the World Health Organisation (WHO) that his learning curve on gender was best represented by a vertical line.

"If there has been a shift - and I'm not talking about the pro forma Mar. 8 [International Women's Day] speech, or the occasional spurts of indignation when Congolese women are raped within miles of a peacekeeping station - I haven't seen evidence of it," Donovan said.

Rather, the entire U.N. under his leadership seems to tolerate rather than promote the new women's agency, she said.

There's a roughly 10-minute film about 2010's successes and challenges on the UN.org homepage that must have taken quite some effort to put together, she pointed out.

During the last minute, she said, "just 10 seconds are given to a matter-of-fact statement that - I'm paraphrasing - To promote the interests of women and girls, the U.N. created a new gender entity called UN Women."

"We've also noted that, unless it's happening very quietly and behind closed doors - which is doubtful - the secretary-general's fundraising on behalf of UN Women hasn't been anywhere in evidence," she said.

At the same time, Donovan noted, Ban seems comfortable pressing donors to fund the U.N.'s work on climate change, humanitarian disasters - and that most popular and least controversial of all women's issues, maternal health.

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