New UN body to focus on gender equality, women's empowerment

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The UN General Assembly on Friday gave a green light to the creation of a new UN body with its single task to accelerate progress in meeting the needs of women and girls across the world, a move hailed by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and representatives from many countries as "a historic move" and "a major step forward" to strive for the gender equality and women's empowerment.

The establishment of the UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, also known as UN Women, is a result of years of negotiations between UN member states and advocacy by the global women's movement. It is part of the UN reform agenda, bringing together resources and mandates for greater impact, UN officials said.

The resolution was adopted against a backdrop that gender inequality remains deep entrenched in every society. The new UN body is expected to work exclusively for better life of poor mothers in Africa and more girls in schools in Latin America.

Gender equality and women's empowerment are human rights that lie at the heart of development and the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals.

New member of UN family

"The newest member of the UN family has been born today," Ban told the Assembly after it passed the resolution. "This is truly a watershed day."

"By bringing together four parts of the UN system dedicated to women's issues, member states have created a much stronger voice for women and for gender equality at the global level," said the secretary-general. "It will now be much more difficult for the world to ignore the challenges facing women and girls -- or to fail to take the necessary action."

The gender equality and women's empowerment are also included in the eight targets of the Millennium Development Goals, internationally accepted goals to be reached by the dateline of 2015. This indicates the UN determination to put it a top priority to make life better for women and girls worldwide.

UN Women, which is expected to be operational on Jan. 1, 2011, came into being on the basis of the UN work over the past decades to enforce gender equality and the empowerment of women in the world at large.

It merges and will build on the important work of four previous women-oriented UN bodies -- the Division for the Advancement of Women (DAW), the International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women (INSTRAW), the Office of the Special Adviser on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women (OSAGI) and the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM). The DAW was set up in 1946 and the UNIFEM was founded in 1979.

At the same time, it will enhance, not replace, efforts by other parts of the UN system, such as the UN Children's Fund ( UNICEF), the UN Development Program (UNDP) and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) that continue to have responsibility to work for gender equality and women's empowerment in their areas of expertise, said the officials.

"The United Nations is uniquely placed to take a leading role in advancing the status of women and I have no doubt of the significance of this resolution in advancing this vital area," Ali Treki, the president of the General Assembly, said. "A strong organizational structure will undoubtedly better serve us in improving our work, particularly in our results on the ground."

Two key roles

UN Women is expected to be a dynamic and strong champion for women and girls, providing them with a powerful voice at the global, regional and local levels. It has two key roles: It will support inter-governmental bodies such as the Commission on the Status of Women in their formulation of policies, global standards and norms, and it will help member states to implement these standards, standing ready to provide suitable technical and financial support to those countries that request it, as well as forging effective partnerships with civil society.

It will also help the UN system to be accountable for its own commitments on gender equality, including regular monitoring of system-wide progress.

The secretary-general will appoint an under-secretary-general to head the new body and is inviting suggestions from member states and civil society partners, UN officials said here Friday. The under-secretary-general will be a member of all senior UN decision-making bodies and will report to the secretary-general.

Significant progress

Over the past decades, the United Nations has made significant progress in advancing gender equality, including through landmark agreements such as the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

Gender equality is not only a basic human right, but its achievement has enormous socio-economic ramification. Empowering women fuels thriving economies, spurring productivity and growth.

Long way to go

At present, gender inequality remain deep entrenched in all society, from Asia to Europe. Women in all parts of the world suffer violence and discrimination, and are under-represented in decision-making processes.

High rates of maternal mortality continue to be a cause for global shame, UN officials said. For many years, the United Nations has faced serious challenges in its efforts to promote gender equality globally, including inadequate funding and no single recognized driver to direct UN activities on gender equality issues.

Despite the progress that has been made, six out of 10 of world 's poorest people are still women and girls, less than 16 percent of the world's parliamentarians are women, two thirds of all children shut outside the school gates are girls and, both in times of armed conflict and behind closed doors at home, women are still systematically subjected to violence.

The new UN body really has a long way to go to carry out its mandate. For example, insufficient funding is one of the major constraints that have been stunted UN efforts for many decades.

The secretary-general acknowledged that many member states are facing resource constraints due to the global economic downturn, but expressed confidence that the new office will receive strong financial support.

Echoing Ban's statement, Migiro said that the world body has come up against serious hurdles, including inadequate funding and fragmentation. However, she said the new UN body "will give women and girls the strong, unified voice they deserve on the world stage," calling the General Assembly decision a "positive and exciting moment for all the UN family."

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