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SRHR Situation Report: The UN’s Gender Mainstreaming Project

October 11, 2010
The Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) Situation Report is a monthly column that focuses on policy developments around these issues worldwide.  This month’s column focuses on structural reforms around gender at the UN- the institution of a new agency called UN Women.

The United Nations announced on September 14th that former Chilean president Michelle Bachelet will head a newly minted agency United Nations Women (UN Women).  Ban Ki Moon has stressed that UN Women, which will launch in January 2011 and bring several currently-independent agencies under its umbrella, will help with the final push to acheiving the Millenium Development Goals- especially those that impact women and girls.  It’s exciting that the advocacy of international women’s rights NGOs’ years of advocacy has paid off, and it’s exciting to think about the potential.


Former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet appointed head of UN Women. Image care the AP and via VOA News.


The details
The new agency brings together the Office of the Special Adviser on Gender Issues and the Advancement of Women (OSAGI), the Division for the Advancement of Women (DAW), United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), and the International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women (INSTRAW).
Michelle Bachelet was appointed last month by UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, and will serve as an Under-Secretary General.  As president of Chile, Bachelet was a strong advocate for women’s rights; she’s a physician, and most of the international community agrees that she brings the right diplomatic skills and political experience to run an agency of this size.
The GEAR Campaign
For years, NGOs all over the world have been working together to advocate for the reform of the UN structure.  The Gender Equality Architecture Reform (GEAR) Campaign brought together human rights, feminist, and social justice groups to call for a “composite gender equality entity” which would bring together the multiple and fragmented groups working on gender issues.  GEAR has been working for years to ensure that the UN prioritize gender issues, and had a set of strong criteria for any leader of a composite gender equality entity.  Bachelet seems to fit the bill.
The master’s tools
My concern about this process is that radical change will need to take place to upset deeply entrenched, structural gender inequality in countries all over the world.  The UN is not about radical change, it’s about working within existing governmental and institutional frameworks.  When oppression is institutionalized to the degree that the heteropatriarchy is, however, working within that structure is not going to create real change.
I’m also worried the agency will be another way of compartmentalizing women’s rights as separate from human rights.  Even the idea of “gender mainstreaming” is troubling to me– often rather than giving added weight to the oppression of women and girls this sort of separation leads to the ghettoization of gender programs within agencies.  Why should the voice of women’s rights and humanity be just one voice at a conference room table?  Every member of every project should be focused on the human rights of every oppressed person, and it so happens that in our wonderful world the majority of those living in poverty, dying of preventable causes, the ones being objectified and dismissed are women.
Every UN agency should be focusing on women and girls.  Every international cooperative project should be designed, structured and implemented to ensure the increasing empowerment of women and girls and the full and real embodiment of our rights as human beings.  Of course, I’m a born critic.  None of that negates the powerful opportunity that this agency presents, with its increased power, attention, and hopefully funding.  Although the news of the creation of UN Women barely made a ripple in the US media, I’m very hopeful that the agency will use it’s resources to the full radical possibility for the future well-being and advancement of women and girls all over the world.
To take action and get ongoing news and updates about the reform, go to the GEAR Campaign’s website.
Brook Elliott Buettner is a freelance human rights policy writer.  More of her work is available at

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