With March 8th marking the 100th anniversary of International Women's Day coinciding with the launch of a new superagency at the United Nations devoted to women, surely some cautious celebrating is in order.
It's a time of caution because as we all know "talk is cheap" and nowhere is it cheaper than at the United Nations. But with an expanded budget, the unification of several less potent agencies such as UNIFEM and INSTRAW, and the formidable Michelle Bachelet, former president of Chile, at the helm of the new agency, there is reason to hope that concrete action benefitting the world's women will occur.
Batchelet believes deeply in and works hard for gender equality and women's economic, political and social empowerment. She understands that gender inequalities are still deeply embedded in societies everywhere. That's why she has claimed that "Gender equality must become a lived reality," on the website of UN Women, short for the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women.
In a statement launching UN Women's
"Vision and 100-Day Action Plan," Bachelet said that the agency's vision "is
one where men and women have equal opportunities and capacities, where women
are empowered and where the principles of gender equality are firmly embedded
in all efforts to advance development, peace and security."
Who could possibly be against that? Well, lots of folks, it turns out. Just look at what the new Congress in this country is trying to do. Or check out countries where various fundamentalisms (and I don't just mean Islamic) are working overtime to ensure that women, unlike children, are neither seen nor heard.
That's why UN Women will focus on five key principle-based actions: Providing support to national partners who want to implement international agreements and standards; supporting intergovernmental attempts to frame gender equality policies; advocating for the rights of the world's most excluded women and girls; promoting a coherent UN system to work on gender equality; and acting as a global knowledge broker to align relevant practices.
That's a tall order, and a good example of how the UN often overextends itself rhetorically. Still, by keeping in mind several priorities, the new agency should be able to accomplish more than its collective predecessors have. The priorities it stresses are expanding women's voice, leadership and participation; ending violence against women; implementing women's peace and security agenda; enhancing women's economic empowerment, and making gender equality central to national, local, and sectoral planning, budgeting, and statistics gathering.
To that end, Batchelet has sent researchers to various countries to identify gaps in capacity and performance that could impede the mission of UN Women. A system-wide coordination strategy within the UN is being developed, and partnerships are being built with academic networks around the globe with a view to girls' leadership. Working with other UN agencies, Batchelet has promised to "encourage" countries to put in place a set of standard responses to violence against women and to provide "concrete benchmarks" for monitoring success. In addition, UN Women is taking the lead role in getting the UN to be more forceful in having women at the seat of decision-making in conflict and post-conflict countries, and to ensure that its own agencies seriously advance women's economic empowerment in their respective sectors (e.g., reproductive health, water and sanitation, labor).
One hundred years ago, when International Women's Day (IWD) was conceived by working women fighting for better labor practices and for suffrage, women in America could not vote. As its founders convened in Copenhagen in 1910 and a year later held their first rallies throughout Europe, they could not have imagined either the progress that's been made in gaining "equal rights, equal opportunities, and progress for all" or the challenges that confront a globalized and increasingly fragile world in 2011.
But today IWD is recognized globally and is an official holiday in many countries of the world from Armenia to Vietnam. Every year thousands of events remind women of their stunning achievements while pointing out critical work that still needs to be done. Forming what one woman at the 1975 UN Decade for Women conference called "a chain of women around the globe," women reach across the miles to each other every March in support and celebration.
Perhaps in the coming years, with Michelle Batchelet at the helm of UN Women, we will have even more to celebrate.