By Alissa Vladimir*
On Saturday, February 26, women’s human rights leaders, scholars, and advocates gathered at The New School to discuss the current status of women’s rights in the world, and to make recommendations for the newly formed United Nations agency, UN Women . Sponsored by Women’s Learning Partnership , the conference, Celebrating UN Women, The Way Forward , focused on compiling suggestions for UN Women, the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women.
Officially launched on February 24, UN Women brings together the work of four previously distinct parts of the UN system: Division for the Advancement of Women (DAW), International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women (INSTRAW), Office of the Special Adviser on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women (OSAGI), and the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM).
Prior to the creation of UN Women, the United Nations had faced a number of challenges in its efforts to further global gender equality. With no single gender related entity, each group in itself lacked the appropriate funding and support to move their agendas forward. With the creation of this new umbrella organization, UN Women hopes to create a centralized hub for women’s human rights work, and bring advocates together to further the vision of gender equality grounded in the UN Charter : the elimination of discrimination against women and girls; empowerment of women; and achievement of equality between women and men as partners and beneficiaries of development, human rights, humanitarian action and peace and security.
Can a new UN organization like UN Women gain immediate success in our current economic climate, amidst a rise in political conservatism, and the growing influence of outspoken fundamentalist opponents? This was the question that continually arose during Saturday’s conference, with many speakers admitting that now was not the best time to be forming a new women’s organization at the UN. Although most speakers admitted that the birth of UN Women could not come at a more inopportune time, many pointed out that the world’s women need this organization now more than ever before.
During the afternoon panel discussion, Culture, Religion, and Human Rights: Applying What We Have Learned, Francis Kissling, a visiting scholar at the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania , and former head of Catholics for Choice , challenged UN Women to convene a fifth World Conference on Women (the Fourth World Conference on Women  was held in Beijing in 1995). Kissling remarked that within the UN system, fundamentalists seem to occupy a privileged space. She went on to state that fundamental religionists at the UN have been more disruptive in the lives of women than in any other global institution. Kissling received a strong reaction of support from the crowd when stating that if UN Women wishes to become a transformative agency, it must convene a meeting of the world’s women without fear of fundamentalist opposition, “…or the derailment of the meeting by those who do disagree with the core values of the meeting.”
In the final discussion of the conference, Where Do We Go From Here, Charlotte Bunch, Funder and former Director of the Center for Women’s Global Leadership at Rutgers University , pointed out that although UN Women may not be empowered by monetary support, given the current economic climate, what they do have is people power, the support of individuals working towards women’s human rights all over the world. Bunch explained that the key role of UN Women should be to raise the profile and bring more visibility to women’s voices all over the world. “Not only does UN Women need to fight for a seat at the table,” said Bunch. “But they also need to know what they are going to say when they reach the table. UN Women is not a substitute for the movement. It is part of our strategy. It’s not about what will they do but what we can do.”
Will UN Women become the type of transformative UN agency that these women and other advocates all over the world hope it will be? With the current struggle for democratic freedom spreading throughout the Arab world and beyond, the need for universal women’s human rights is stronger now more than ever before. Can UN Women rise to meet this need and bring together the many fragmented segments of the global women’s human rights movement while standing up to a strong fundamentalist conservative opposition? The world must wait and see.
*Alissa Vladimir is a women's human rights advocate living in New York City. She holds a Masters of Public Administration from the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at New York University.
PHOTO CREDIT: Anne Richardson of WLP