An AIDS-Free World Travel Diary: On The Road To A New UN Agency For Women
In September of this year, UN member states passed a resolution to move swiftly to create a new UN agency for women, a move, packaged with a series of reforms on governance and funding, that they hope will result in renewed public faith in the UN system.
Julia Greenberg, AIDS-Free World’s associate director, tells the inside story behind the sudden groundswell in support for the new women’s agency and why the global community of women living with, and affected by HIV/AIDS, should care.
AIDS-Free World’s call for a complete overhaul of the UN’s response to the rights and needs of women in began 2005 when Stephen Lewis and Paula Donovan, our co-directors, and then the team that drove the work of the office of the UN Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, began mentioning the limitless potential of a new women’s agency in all of Stephen Lewis’s speeches about the horrendous impact of AIDS on the women of Africa. In 2006, gender equality found its way onto the agenda of the UN reform process spearheaded by Kofi Annan, due largely to the high level advocacy of the Envoy Team combined with the community mobilisation and tireless activism of a global coalition of women’s groups called the GEAR campaign (Gender Equality Architecture Reform). The envoy team’s public statements about the UN’s woefully inadequate women’s programmes (the combined annual budgets for all of the UN agencies concerned with gender totalled US$65 million in 2006, while UNICEF’s budget was US$2 billion), and intensive lobbying of members of the High Level Panel tasked by Annan to recommend a series of reforms on ‘system-wide coherence’, helped lead to a concrete recommendation for a wholly new women’s agency, ambitiously funded, with operational capacity at the country level, headed by an under-secretary general.
Since this recommendation was made, the proposal for the women’s agency has been caught up in political wrangling among member states over other reforms recommended by the High Level Panel on such issues as governance and funding. These are critically important issues, especially for poor countries in the Group of 77 block (G77) who live with the destructive legacy of the conditions, such as structural adjustment programmes, that have been imposed upon them by the World Bank and the IMF. While we did not (and would never) play down the impact of this damaging legacy, we bridled at the contention of many G77 countries that that the proposal for the women’s agency was, in effect, a condition imposed on them by donors. Moreover, we lamented the lack of will and leadership in the secretariat, who seemed more concerned with hanging on to jobs they might lose in the proposed new structure than with upholding the core values of equality enshrined in the UN charter.
And so ambassadors and UN officials continued to talk and the proposal for the women’s agency languished. And during that very same time period we saw the rape of hundreds of women in Kenya during post-election violence with no UN agency to address their specific needs, a prolonged battle within UNAIDS to come up with coherent gender guidance for member states, which was only issued in April 2008, just before the secretary general reported that 61% of the populations in sub-Saharan Africa infected with HIV were women.
In January 2008, we began to see signs of life when the new secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, appointed two new co-chairs, Augustine Mahiga, the ambassador from Tanzania, and Paul Kavanagh, the ambassador from Ireland, to resurrect the system-wide coherence process, and thus, the proposal for a new women’s agency. Mahiga and Kavanagh have proven to be shrewd and tireless stewards of the reform agenda. They recognised that they had to significantly narrow the scope of the High Level Panel’s recommendations in order to achieve consensus, and as such they informed the General Assembly that they would convene a series of ‘Informal Consultations’ (General Assembly meetings) on four aspects of the High Level Panel’s recommendations: 1) ‘Delivering as One’ (an attempt to streamline the on the ground operations of UN country teams); 2) governance 3) funding; and 4) gender.
A TWO-DAY TRIP FROM INDIA TO LIBERIA AND MANY COUNTRIES IN BETWEEN
Beginning in April, Stephen Lewis and I, on behalf of AIDS-Free World, embarked on a global quest to encourage UN ambassadors, especially those from the G77 block, to speak out in support of the women’s agency at the two informal consultations on gender scheduled for May and June. We knew that the only hope for a consensus in the General Assembly was if developing country voices added their demands to the chorus of donor countries, specifically the northern Europeans, who had been very vocal in their support.
A UN mission reflects, with almost uncanny accuracy, the position and condition of the country it represents. A visit to India involves being led by several polite aids, through a series of interconnected rooms, each with beautifully appointed artwork and rugs, into the inner sanctum office of the ambassador. By contrast, the missions of the poorest of the sub-Saharan African countries boast broken elevators, faulty air conditioners, and often require walking up four or five flights of stairs of a rickety brownstone, un-strategically located several blocks from the UN.
Anticipating resistance to our appeals from India, a powerful presence in the General Assembly, we were encouraged by what we heard during our visit. Over tea, India’s brilliant and provocative Ambassador Nirupam Sen assured us that there was almost unanimous agreement among developing countries that a new women’s agency was needed, but that it was necessary to finesse the politics. The main concerns of poor countries, he told us, were around governance. The G77 is interested in strengthening the UN’s technical assistance and financing functions, while northern countries like the United States are more comfortable with this power in the hands of the Bretton Woods institutions – the World Bank and the IMF. He rejected the notion that the G77 was holding the women’s agency hostage to negotiate for other reforms, and asserted that the system-wide coherence exercise was in fact essential to the UN – a UN that was relevant to the realities of the countries on the poorer half of the planet.
We were greeted by the extremely impressive and kind Ambassador Milton Nathaniel Barnes whose mission consists of a barely-furnished, two-room office with a staff of three. His Excellency actually ran for president against Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, who after defeating him, appointed him as her man in New York. Proudly representing a nation led by the first democratically elected woman in Africa, he told us that Liberia’s role at the UN required being out in front on the questions of gender. Given the paucity of staff and funding for the mission at this time of transition in Monrovia, he was grateful that we reminded him of the time and date of the consultation on gender, and he assured us he would be happy to speak in support of the women’s agency. We proceeded on to visits with Jordan, Brazil, and Kenya, and again heard that support for the women’s agency was widespread, but that the complexities of negotiating the extensive package of reforms would be the greatest obstacle to its coming into existence.
THE FIRST INFORMAL CONSULTATION ON GENDER – 16 MAY 2008
On the crisp May afternoon, I quickly flashed my UN pass (which does not allow me access to closed informal consultations) to the distracted guard posted at conference room four, and found a seat in the observer section. The co-chair from Tanzania began the discussion: ‘The co-chairs sense a widespread commitment to the objectives and actions agreed in Beijing in 1995 and reiterated on numerous occasions since then. It is therefore fully understandable why the High Level Panel sought to make recommendations which in their view would enhance the UN's ability to achieve these… To use a summary phrase: gender is development. We have heard this constantly during our widespread consultations. Our purpose in advancing system-wide coherence is to attain better and more effective delivery of development to all sections of societies in need.’ Not a bad start.
The G77 again raised the issue that ‘The gender issues should not be misused to introduce new conditionalities on international development assistance.’ Carefully scrutinising every word, my heart leapt when the statement introduced the word ‘misuse’, the implication being that there might be scenario by which a gender reform could be used correctly.
As the hours (yes, three of them) passed, my heart sank, as none of the African ambassadors who indicated to us that they would speak in support of the women’s agency did so. Relief came, however, in the form of strong statements about the weaknesses of the UN on gender by Mongolia, Albania, Bangladesh, all including requests for the secretary general to produce a note presenting his views of how the UN could better deliver on its commitments to gender. Kazakhstan said it best: ‘Almost two years passed after the report of the High Level Panel on system wide coherence recommended new gender architecture that would be able to bridge the system’s gap between policy and implementation and be accountable for the outcome. The panel’s proposal to consolidate mandates of OSAGI, DAW and UNIFEM into one entity led by an under-secretary general that would assume full responsibility for strategic planning, normative and operational functions is still a proposal on paper. While one of the most flashing issues that concerns 50% of the world population is still beyond the secretariat’s action. In this regard, my delegation would like to request secretary general to get finalized the negotiations with members states on the structure and working methods of the gender entity that would play a leadership role to assist the governments in reaching gender equality worldwide and commence running the entity.’
The co-chairs ended the meeting by requesting that the secretary general heed the requests of the member states to produce a report on the UN’s work on gender, for discussion by member states in one month’s time. Interestingly, no one baulked at the fact that gender warranted two consultations, while funding and governance only got one each. We hoped that our powers of persuasion would compel African ambassadors to suggest that a new women’s agency was exactly what was needed to address the weaknesses that would be laid out in the secretary general’s paper. We awaited release of the report, and scheduled another round of meetings with ambassadors.
FROM RWANDA TO ZAMBIA: AFRICAN AMBASSADORS TAKE THE LEAD – 2 JUNE 2008
From the moment we sat down with the His Excellency Joseph Nsengimana, it became clear that the debate on the women’s agency had been fast tracked. Governments like Rwanda, with impressive records on gender equality (Rwanda has more women in parliament than any other country on the planet) saw the future women’s agency as an opportunity to enhance its presence and clout within the UN system. The ambassador was so confident that the women’s agency would come to be, that he had submitted CVs of excellent Rwandan candidates for senior posts in the new structure.
We heard similar stories from Namibia and Lesotho, and ended the day on a high note during our visit with Ambassador Lazarous Kapambwe. Finally, he claimed to have called for the ‘creation of the unit’ before the system-wide coherence process even started, and suggested that we lobby key countries willing to make the women’s agency the ‘flagship issue’ of the upcoming session of the General Assembly.
THE SECOND INFORMAL CONSULTATION ON GENDER – 16 JUNE 2008
The report on the state of the UN’s work on gender was issued by the deputy secretary general on 5 June, and detailed weaknesses in the areas of coordination and coherence, authority and positioning, accountability and resources. It hit all the bases, and laid the groundwork for clear calls for reform which, this time around, the member states took up with what can only be described as gusto.
From Liberia: ‘Gender equality and women’s empowerment are key pillars in the quest for peace, stability, and economic prosperity. The rights of empowerment of women…are critical building blocks that support the structure of effective statehood… It is clear and obvious that we are morally and philosophically bound to new mechanisms on gender equality and women’s empowerment.’
From Rwanda: ‘It is in our common interest to strengthen the capacity and effectiveness of the UN’s work advancing women’s empowerment and gender equality at country level as a matter of priority before the end of the 62nd session [of the General Assembly this September].’
From Benin: ‘We know how much is still left to be desired in promoting the rights of women. The UN must strengthen its capacity to contribute to solutions. Assistance must become more effective and pressure on states must be more intense and sustained to loosen the grip of traditions that subjugate women. We must without haste, establish the entity that is being proposed. It’s urgent that women take their rightful place in the life of nations and achievement of the millennium development goals.’
And the co-chair from Tanzania took his very obvious cue and concluded with the following remark: ‘We have heard loud and clear from the membership a strong desire to address effectively the manifest weakness of the UN system in the area of gender equality and women’s empowerment. We detect an unmistakable and broad-based momentum in this direction. The co-chairs believe that in light of the foregoing, we are now in a position to ask the secretary general, by mid-July, to produce a second paper which would focus on the institutional dimension of gender. The secretary general could be asked to present, in a non-prescriptive manner, a range of options to help the UN help improve its gender equality and women’s empowerment work.’
And so the game had changed. We had moved on to brass tacks – an actual structure for the women’s agency. We were determined to understand why, suddenly, a resistant, male-dominated institution had so completely changed its tune on gender reform. So we asked the ambassador from China.
FROM CHINA TO TANZANIA: THE WOMEN’S AGENCY BECOMES THE WINNING ISSUE ¬– 9 JULY
China: We were delighted that Ambassador Liu Zhenmin agreed to meet with us on the very day that he was concerned with important Security Council matters such as the proposed sanctions against the Zimbabwean government after last month’s stolen elections (which they would veto). Considering China’s statement at the June 16th Informal Consultation on Gender, we weren’t expecting an open embrace of gender reform: ‘China believes that strengthening the existing institutions and the Inter-agency Working Group on Gender and Women’s Empowerment should be considered an option. There is no evidence to show that a new entity will solve these problems.’
Sitting on the white leather couches of the Indonesian lounge surrounded by clusters of ambassadors in heated acts of diplomacy, we asked the ambassador, why, suddenly was there so much momentum in support of the women’s agency among member states? His response was simple and clear. Of all the reforms brought forward for discussion by the co-chairs, Ireland and Tanzania, the proposed women’s agency is the ‘easiest issue they are promoting.’ He proceeded to explain, quite presciently, that it would not be the governments that would block progress, but the existing agencies focused on women’s issues: ‘Each will want dominance in the new structure.’
His analysis did not imply blanket support from China, but it did confirm our suspicion that even the most powerful and sometimes obstinate voices among the member states had come to believe that it was unlikely that the General Assembly would turn their backs on this reform. It would be ‘easier’ to resolve the issue of the women’s agency than those related to funding or governance. A decision on this one reform would at least demonstrate a modicum of progress in the system-wide coherence process.
Tanzania: Much was revealed about the remarkable progress on the women’s agency during our meeting with His Excellency Augustine Mahiga, the ambassador and co-chair from Tanzania. He openly shared the intricate, thoughtful and exhaustive strategy that he and Ambassador Kavanagh of Ireland had pursued to promote constructive engagement by member states in the system-wide coherence process, particularly the gender issue. He raised the following key points during our 90 minute meeting.
He and Kavanagh knew that support for the women’s agency had to come from the bottom up. They travelled to several developing countries and were able to report back to resistant member states that governments had become impatient with the slow pace of the UN in pushing forward gender policies. It was during their field investigations that they heard the phrase ‘gender issues are development issues.’ He believed that given the member states’ preoccupation with strengthening the UN’s development functions, that this phrase would have lasting resonance and traction.
The co-chairs also recognised that while it was okay for gender issues to be development issues, it was distinctly not okay for gender issues to become a Trojan horse for human rights issues. The High Level panel’s recommendations related to human rights would most definitely have been taken as conditionalities by member states, so the co-chairs quietly dropped them from the discussion, noting that the Human Rights Council in Geneva was the appropriate body for these issues. According to Mahiga, he could feel the member states breath a ‘collective a sigh of relief.’
He concluded our meeting with the following statement. ‘Resources are dipping for development activities through the UN, but its convening power is unique and its leveraging power increased if it is efficient, effective and people can trust it.’ To that, we chimed in, ‘AIDS-Free World would argue that in light of what the you just said, the UN needs women.’
‘That is an understatement’, he replied, echoing the chorus of the many male African ambassadors suddenly championing the cause of the world’s women from Rwanda to Zambia: ‘If we have women there, that is where the salvation lies. We are depriving the world of half of its riches.’ We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.
AUGUST THROUGH SEPTEMBER: A DECISIVE MOMENT?
Immediately before the 62nd General Assembly, the deputy secretary-general produced what has become known among the community of NGOs with whom we have been working to promote the women’s agency as ‘The Options Paper’, delineating a range of possible structures for a new UN agency for women. Among the options suggested are: 1) Maintaining the status quo; 2) Simply combining the existing, fragmented agencies; 3) Creating a new composite organization that will combine normative and operational functions; and 4) an autonomous fund or programme.
When the paper was released in July, the member states convened, remarkably, for their third discussion on gender equality and women’s empowerment in three months and requested that the deputy secretary general further elaborate on the options presented, with a particular focus on the composite entity. Two months later, member states adopted, by consensus, a resolution to take ‘substantive action’ on the women’s agency in its next session.
SIGNIFICANCE OF A NEW WOMEN’S AGENCY FOR THE AIDS MOVEMENT
If any movement knows how to mobilise communities to demand that the international community create institutions that respond to their needs and rely on their expertise, it’s the AIDS movement. UNAIDS is one of the few UN bodies whose governance structure includes NGOs and people living with AIDS as permanent board members. If it was not for the tireless work of AIDS activists in the late 1990s through to the early 2000s, the Global Fund for AIDS, TB, and Malaria would not exist, and certainly would not have the innovative mechanisms for civil participation that currently help drive its policies and operations.
But let’s not look at these institutions through rose-tinted glasses. Even with civil society participation in UNAIDS and the Global Fund, the international community’s response to the impact of HIV/AIDS on women can only be characterised as a failure. The statistics tell the story: women comprise 61% of women living with AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa; AIDS is the leading cause of death among black women in the United States aged 25–34; only 34% of the world’s women have access to a simple therapy to prevent transmission of the virus to their children – the global target set in 2001 was 80% coverage. Data on the links between HIV infection and conflict-driven sexual violence is practically non-existent. What we do know is terrifying. For example, UNAIDS reports that the HIV prevalence rate in Democratic Republic of Congo is between 1.7% and 7.6 % depending on the region, and may be as high as 20% among women who have been raped in the conflict-riddled east of the country.
Women working at the community level to cope with the devastating impact of AIDS know instinctively that women’s vulnerability begins at birth and continues when the boy-child is the first to receive school fees, when girls are circumcised and married off early, when domestic violence explodes, and when girls are conscripted into wars as fighters and sexual slaves. That is why women-led AIDS programmes around the world deal not only with prevention and care, but with human rights training, inheritance and property rights protection, and advocacy to abolish hidden school fees. And, it’s always the case that these effective and innovative programmes are constantly struggling for recognition and funding.
A women’s agency with significant resources and visionary leadership could support these kinds of programmes and fill other huge holes in the UN’s AIDS response. To name a few: there is no single agency representing women’s issues among the co-sponsoring organisations of UNAIDS (UNIFEM reports to UNDP, so is not represented directly); UNICEF touts as a success the fact that globally 34% of women who need prevention of vertical transmission therapy have accessed it, but says little about the fact that these same women face significant barriers accessing treatment for themselves. Today, when a conflict erupts, gender experts are evacuated as ‘non-essential staff’, and as a result rape prevention and post-rape treatment (including post-exposure prophylaxis) are rarely implemented as part of the emergency response.
It may be too much to ask to expect women, who already heroically carry the lion’s share of the burden of the AIDS response on their backs, to divert what precious little of their energy remains to demanding a role in a new UN women’s agency, but if they did, there is no doubt that the UN would be infinitely stronger for it.
THE MONTHS AHEAD
Unlike many of the ambassadors with whom we spoke, of course AIDS-Free World does not support this particular UN reform simply because it’s winnable. And of course we believe that women’s rights are human rights, and that human rights should be central to every aspect of UN reform. But we vastly prefer the current language coming from member states about gender equality as a moral and ethical imperative, than the language of donor-imposed conditionality. We will try to hold them to their statements.
If in the 63rd session of the General Assembly, ending in 2009, the proposal for the women’s agency stalls again, AIDS-Free World and our allies in the women’s and AIDS movement will loudly and publicly question whether the UN has the credibility to speak on behalf of women at all. If the proposal pushes through, that is when the work will really begin. The time will have come to demonstrate to the honourable co-chair from Tanzania, that indeed, if women are there, that is where the UN’s salvation truly lies.
Julia Greenberg is AIDS-Free World associate director.