10 March 2015

UN Women: Men Know Better

The original idea behind UN Women was to create an agency that would promote Gender Equality. 

If UNDP is United Nations Development Programme, this was supposed to be something like UNGEP.  

In his infinite wisdom,  UN's Secretary General Ban Ki Moon decided to name the new organization, UN Women.

And therein lies a serious problem. 

Empowering Women Without Addressing Gender Equality

Gender is a social construct and as such includes a large number of identities beyond the biological male and female categories. (Actually, biology is not that clear cut either but that is a whole other discussion). 

Naming it UN Women meant that the agency was not there to address gender equality issues but was conceived as an advocate for women. 

Clearly there is nothing wrong with having a UN agency promoting the empowerment of women. In fact, it is a very good thing. The problem is that you cannot do that without addressing gender equality.  

You see, women are the only minority on the planet that are universally discriminated against without any serious repercussions. They are beaten up and murdered everywhere. They are raped in peace time as in war time. They earn less than men everywhere. They are underrepresented in political institutions or in companies. They own a tiny 2 percent of global assets. 

And they live as objectified "things" everywhere, the objectification varying according to culture, country and context.

If you remove the focus from gender equality, which would be very challenging for many cultures, countries and contexts, you make the new agency, a pleading entity that begs member states to do a bit more to improve women's lives. And this, despite the certainty that no member state would actually lift a finger to improve women's lives and status.

Without gender equality at its core, the new entity was DOA.

A Distinguished Executive Council

Ban Ki Moon did not stop there. He made sure that the new entity would be a failure by saddling it with an extraordinarily bad governing body.

The 41 member Executive Board of UN Women is composed of

- 10 countries from Africa
- 10 countries from Asia
- 4 countries from Eastern Europe
- 6 from Latin America and the Caribbean
- 5 countries from Western Europe, North America and others group
- 6 from major donor countries.

In other words, most of the Executive Board members are poor countries which would be unable to contribute to the work of the agency financially. And  empowerment of women is not even on their list of priorities.

So where do you get money?

When the first Executive Director Michelle Bachelet left after two years to run for president in her native Chile, as her replacement, the Board and Ban Ki Moon selected an unknown South African politician, Phumzile Mlambo Ngcuka. Whereas Bachelet was a charismatic and well-known politician who could get countries to pledge money and support to the new agency, her successor was such a marginal figure that she could not get any world leader on the phone. 

Incidentally, do you know who the donor countries are in the Executive Board?

Mexico, Norway, Sweden, United Kingdom, United States of America and Saudi Arabia.

Yes, Saudi Arabia is a member of the privileged club of "contributing countries" in the Executive Board.

Ban Ki Moon did one more thing that I consider astonishingly patronizing for women's movement.

Only Men Can Empower Women

The head of the UN Women is supported by two Assistant Secretary Generals (ASG). 

One looks after intergovernmental support and strategic partnerships. It is currently occupied by Lakshmi Puri. She has no gender expertise or experience either. But one could argue that for this work a gender background might not a strict necessity..(Her CV states that she has always promoted women's rights and sadly, such ex post facto assertions and being a woman are typically the only qualifications needed for these posts). 

The other ASG position was given the Policy and Programme portfolio. Basically, anything of substance the new entity was supposed to undertake was going to be decided by this person. 

And they gave the job to a man. 

On 11 March 2011, three days after the International Women's Day, Ban Ki Moon appointed a man, John Hendra to that position, a regular UNDP officer with zero gender experience and expertise. He was the man to devise and design the policies and programs that would empower women.

Now if I were a woman I would be somewhat miffed that the only UN agency with a mandate to empower women left its policy and programming work to a man. One without even a passing acquaintance with that field.

But I would be really upset if history repeated itself: When John Hendra went back to UNDP, his successor was also a man. A Frenchman no less.

Yannick Glemarec, another UNDP officer with no gender experience and expertise, is now in charge of determining all the policies and programming options of UN Women. 

Apparently, he knows about climate change and fund management but absolutely nothing about the field of gender equality.

And this time he was appointed just a day before the International Women's Day.

The message is as clear as the glass ceiling. 

There are no qualified women for these senior jobs. 

Even men with no expertise and proper qualifications are better than women.

What About Gender Parity?

I heard someone making the argument that since this is about gender and there are two ASG positions, it is perfectly reasonable that one should go to a man. 

There are two problems with that argument. One, why should the policy job go to a man? Right? This is about women after all.

Two, achieving parity at UN Women would be desirable if parity existed elsewhere within the UN system. Women occupy roughly 30 percent of all senior UN jobs and for the top of the echelon their numbers went down by 2.9 percent between 2011 and 2013 (to 27.1 percent). 

In case you are wondering, UN Women jobs were overwhelmingly held by women at the outset. Since then, in every category except for the most junior positions there has been a decline in the number of women officers. 

That is to say, they replaced most departing or retiring personnel with men.

And the signature achievement of UN Women in the last two years has been to start a new movement called He for She

The idea behind it is for men to achieve gender equality for women.

Can the message be any clearer?

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