The stats are in: according to Amnesty International’s recent report, The Gender Trap: Women, Violence and Poverty, women comprise 70 percent of the world’s poor and 75 percent of the world’s illiterate. One in three women – nearly one billion women – will be beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused in her lifetime. In Chad’s refugee camps, female survivors of war face sexual harassment, rape, and other forms of oppression on a daily basis. In the Middle East and in immigrant communities around the world, an estimated 5,000 women are victims of “honor” killings every year. And sadly, the list goes on.
The marginalization and disempowerment of women is an international problem of truly epidemic proportions. In every corner of the globe, from isolated rural villages to bustling modern cities, women face harassment, discrimination, extreme poverty, sexual assault and domestic violence, fatal preventable health complications, and innumerable other affronts to their dignity and livelihoods.
The United Nations (UN), with its vast membership, access to resources, and international status, is one of the few institutions capable of undertaking measures to empower women globally. Currently, four separate U.N. entities exist to address women’s issues, but for years, the lack of coordination, country presence, and funding have prevented these entities from effectively promoting gender equality and from holding member countries accountable to their treaty obligations.
Finally, this September, the 192 member states of the UN General Assembly voted unanimously to adopt a resolution to consolidate the four entities into one agency, offering hope that the U.N. will have the resources and capacity to step up as an effective global leader for women’s rights and dignity.
The resolution, however, includes no reference to the new agency’s future mandate or structure – both of which will be crucial factors in determining the entity’s capacity to fight gender-inequality. The Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on System Wide Coherence recently recommended that the new entity be headed by an Under Secretary-General, have strong country presence, and receive robust funding – but without member states’ commitment to these measures the new agency will be hard-pressed to ensure that member countries live up to their international obligations and work effectively to empower women, end violence and discrimination, and achieve gender-equality.
The time is now! As the 15th anniversary of the Beijing World Conference on Women approaches in 2010, we must pressure the UN to provide the new women’s agency with the resources and leadership it needs to fulfill its mandate of protecting and empowering women globally.
Alexandra Robinson contributed to this post.