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UNWomen - thoughts and questions...'s picture

So, some of these questions are answerable (and some aren't) -- I will seek the answers to the answerable ones, but given that this post is late + I have a lot of things to do before Thanksgiving, I'm just going to pose them for now and work on answering them more soon (and also working on continuing to read the report, I haven't finished)... If you guys have thoughts/info on this, please comment! I bet there are a lot of people who know more about these issues than I do (poli sci majors perhaps...?).

1. WHY did it take until 2011 for the United Nations to create an agency to promote women's empowerment and gender equality internationally (UNWomen)? It seems ridiculous that this is the first report of a nascent agency - women's issues didn't just start needing addressing this past year.

2. A partial answer (perhaps), embedded in another question: How much did Stephen Lewis have to do with it? Stephen Lewis was the UN Secretary-General's special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa from 2001-2006. He came to speak at Haverford about his understanding of the AIDS crisis my freshman year, and his talk was one of the most moving and fascinating I have ever attended -- I was thinking of it when we were talking about "calls to action" being embedded in academic lectures (vis a vis Judith Butler's visit), because he definitely challenged everyone in the audience to "pick an issue and devote your life to it," or something to that effect. At the time, I bought his book, Race Against Time, a collection of lectures he delivered on the AIDS crisis, but it languished on my bookshelf until this past summer.  He makes a big deal in his book (published in 2005) about how, "Women constitute more than half the world's population, and in the extensive labyrinth of UN organizations, they are barely represented" (123), citing a choice on behalf of the organization in general to use "gender mainstreaming" (treating women's issues as sub-sections under mission statements of existing organizations) instead of "bona fide, specialized programs" (125) to address women's concerns. Among his recommendations for dealing with the AIDS crisis, he says "I cannot emphasize enough that as a part of the reform mandate of the United Nations, the world must come to grips with the need for an overall agency for women" (152), indeed, also by women --  based on what he says elsewhere in the book, he definitely sees grassroots activist women driving programming, not merely "being rescued" or something...although I wonder whether that's how it's working in real life.

3. As happy as I was to check out this report and recognize that UNWomen does finally exist now (oops, I feel stupid for not looking this up when I read the book over the summer...), it made me think of Stephen Lewis and wonder if the leaders of the UN are still as gender-skewed as they were in 2005. Lewis notes that "Despite all the lip service paid by the UN member states to the importance of gender equality, only 11 of the 191 ambassadors, of 5.7 percent, are women. Worse still, the make-up of the workforce of the UN similarly distorted" (122). What do these numbers look like today? What about those who work for UNWomen specifically? How important is this? Lewis definitely thinks that lack of women leaders is part of the reason it has taken so long for women's issues to be seriously addressed by the UN.

4. I would be remiss if I didn't pose the question of how identities are constituted and feminisms distributed (re: Gender Trouble, Chandra Mohanty) -- the question the very title of the organization kind of begs -- UNWomen...unwomen? nonwomen? Who is and isn't a woman? Does the category really exist in such a monolithic way, are we collapsing the other important axes (class, ethnicity, age, etc.) by isolating this one? Can we have one international organization seek a similar set of goals for women throughout the world? How much specificity and local understanding does this organization seek in the realization of its "goals for women" in various countries? As I work my way through the report I should have a better understanding of some of the answers to these questions. But based on Stephen Lewis' expert perspective, I am inclined to believe that despite these thorny problematics, the reality of the global situation is such that this organization is probably capable of doing a lot more good than "gender mainstreaming" was able to -- perhaps an example of pragmatism requiring a reifying of categories and identities that in our theoretical world we have contemplated moving past -- but in the real world we really can't (yet). I wonder what Butler and Mohanty would say about the existence/goals/programs of UNWomen?

Comments's picture

You rock!

Way to be awesome, Phenoms! This is great and fills in a lot of gaps -- I've heard of CEDAW and UNIFEM and stuff, but it's good to see it in the broader trajectory/context...lots to think about!

phenoms's picture


To start to address your questions.

1) As far as I know, UNwomen is merely the latest UN agency surrounding women. To editorialize a little, the UN isn't the most effective institution, so it creates and recreates internal agencies (possibly with little change between them) over the years. If we look back to the 1945 charter, it includes a section on gender equality - which was followed up that same year by a "sub commission" on the status of women (as part of the Human Rights Commisson).

1946 the sub commission got promoted and became it's own full fledged operation.

- between this period the commission spent the majority of its time researching and collecting hard data surrounding the extent of discrimination against women worldwide.

- They needed to do this before they set any sort of international standards/conventions.

Ended up with a extremely detailed country-by-country picture of the legal status of women.

1950's - the Commission focused on removing discrimination in marriage.

1967 -The General Assembly adopts the Declaration on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women

1975 - First World Conference on the status of Women (also the first international women's year)

1976 - Division for the Advancement of Women (again under the Human Rights Division)

1979 - The General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) (first international document to actually define discrimination against women "any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on a basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field”. (art. 1) Legally binding - something the previous measures had not been.

1980 -  establishment of the United Nations Fund for Women (UNIFEM) and the International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women (INSTRAW).

From then on, as far as I know, the issue of women and gender became so diffuse throughout different agencies that its effects were far reaching. The UNwomen of 2011 is, I think, an attempt to centralize the issue again.