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Max Planck Encyclopedia of Public International Law [MPEPIL]

United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN-Women)

Stefanie Schmahl

From: Oxford Public International Law (http://opil.ouplaw.com). (c) Oxford University Press, 2015. All Rights Reserved.date: 21 March 2019

Women, rights — Universal international organizations

Published under the auspices of the Max Planck Foundation for International Peace and the Rule of Law under the direction of Rüdiger Wolfrum.

The United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (‘UN-Women’; ‘Entity’), with headquarters in New York, was created by United Nations General Assembly Resolution (UNGA Res) 64/289 of 21 July 2010 (UN Doc A/RES/64/289) as a result of the United Nations (UN) reform agenda that aimed to establish a system-wide coherence related to operational activities for development (see UNGA Res A/62/277 [15 September 2008] UN Doc A/RES/62/277, and UNGA Res A/63/311 [2 October 2009] UN Doc A/RES/63/311). The former mandates, resources and functions of the Office of the Special Adviser on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women (‘OSAGI’) and the Division for the Advancement of Women (‘DAW’) in the UN Secretariat, as well as those of the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) and the International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women (‘INSTRAW’; United Nations, Autonomous Research Institutes) were consolidated and transferred to the newly created Entity, which became operational on 1 January 2011. Since that date UN-Women has been the agency within the UN system responsible for all matters concerning women and gender equality. The mandate of UN-Women is largely identical to the mandate and functions of the now-dissolved UNIFEM as it is tasked with mainstreaming gender, developing policy goals relating to gender equality and the empowerment of women, advising intergovernmental bodies, Member States, and civil society, and carrying out development policy programme work in the field of women’s rights.

Only with the creation of UN-Women did UNIFEM and INSTRAW merge, together with OSAGI and DAW, into one composite entity within the UN system in order to progress more effectively and efficiently by enhanced coherence and accountability toward the goal of achieving gender equality and the empowerment of women. In order to retain the continuity of the four pre-existing entities’ assets, to ensure the synergies of the previously distinct parts, and to provide for greater impact and innovation, UN-Women set up, on 16 May 2011, a first strategic plan for the years 2011–2013 that had been developed pursuant to para. 77 of UNGA Res. 64/289 (UN Doc A/RES/64/289). The plan set out the organization’s long-term vision, mission, and programmatic priorities (see UN-Women Strategic Plan 2011–2013, UN Doc UNW/2011/9 [16 May 2011]) and was reviewed and updated in July 2013 and in August 2017 to cover the periods of 2014–2017 and 2018–2021, respectively (see UN-Women Strategic Plan 2014–2017 [23 July 2013] UN Doc UNW/2013/6; UN-Women Strategic Plan 2018–2021 [30 August 2017] UN Doc UNW/2017/6/Rev.1), in order to align it with the planning of other UN agencies, funds, and programmes such as the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

The strategic plan adopted in 2011, which forms the basis for the following strategic three-year arrangements, comprises six main goals which conform to the human rights–based approach to development planning: (1) increasing women’s leadership and participation; (2) increasing women’s access to economic empowerment and opportunities; (3) preventing violence against women and girls and expanding access to survivor services, including halting and reversing the spread of HIV/AIDS; (4) increasing women’s leadership in peace, security and humanitarian response; (5) strengthening the responsiveness of plans and budgets to gender equality at all levels; and (6) ensuring a comprehensive set of norms, policies and standards on gender equality and women’s empowerment that is dynamic, responds to emerging issues and challenges, and provides a firm basis for action by governments and other stakeholders at all levels (see UN-Women Strategic Plan 2011–2013 [16 May 2011] UN Doc UNW/2011/9, paras 41–53). Although all six goals are inter-linked, inter-dependent, and based on a holistic understanding of human rights, the first four goals focus primarily on increasing access to resources and services and on eliminating violence against women and girls, whereas the remaining two goals pertain mainly to strengthening institutional accountability for gender equality (see UN-Women Strategic Plan 2011–2013 [16 May 2011] UN Doc UNW/2011/9, para. 40). In order to pursue these goals, UN-Women aims at fulfilling four development results which include more effective and efficient UN system co-ordination; the institutionalization of a strong culture of results-based management and evaluation; the enhancement of organizational effectiveness at national, regional, and corporate levels; and the mobilization of adequate resources for gender equality and of financial funding to strengthen the institutional capacity of the organization (see UN-Women Strategic Plan 2011–2013 [16 May 2011] UN Doc UNW/2011/9, paras 54–68).

The current third strategic plan of August 2017, which covers the period of 2018–2021, not only considers lessons learned from the previous two planning periods but also builds on recommendations from the 20-year review and the appraisal of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action of 1995 (see Report of the Secretary-General to the Commission on the Status of Women [5 December 2014] UN Doc E/CN.6/2015/3) as well as on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (see UNGA Res 70/1 [25 September 2015] UN Doc A/RES/70/1). It highlights UN-Women’s mandates and goals in key areas such as eradicating poverty for women and girls, improving adolescent and maternal health, achieving gender equality and the empowerment of women in all aspects of life, and ensuring greater availability and use of disaggregated data for sustainable development for women and girls, particularly in countries in conflict and post-conflict situations (see UN-Women Strategic Plan 2018–2021 [30 August 2017] UN Doc UNW/2017/6/Rev.1, pp. 4–5). These tasks are further guided and enhanced by UNGA Res 66/13 of 19 December 2011 (UN Doc A/RES/66/13) on women and political participation, by UNGA Res 71/243 of 21 December 2016 on the quadrennial comprehensive policy review (UN Doc A/RES/7/243), and by several UN Security Council Resolutions such as Resolutions 1325 of 31 October 2000 (UN Doc S/RES/1325 [2000]), 1820 of 19 June 2008 (UN Doc S/RES/1820 [2008]), 1888 of 30 September 2009 (UN Doc S/RES/1888 [2009]), 1889 of 5 October 2009 (UN Doc S/RES/1889 [2009]), 1960 of 16 December 2010 (UN Doc S/RES/1960 [2010]), 2106 of 24 June 2013 (UN Doc S/RES/2106 [2013]), and 2242 of 13 October 2015 (UN Doc S/RES/2242 [2015]).

Similar to the activities undertaken by UNIFEM, UN-Women also works in close consultation with the respective national and local machineries for women, in particular civil society organizations, and focal points designated by the Member States, thereby reflecting the people-centred nature of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Likewise, the technical and financial resources of the Entity are primarily meant to serve as a supplement—and not as a substitute—for the activities conducted by governments and non-governmental partners. As part of its mandate as a catalyst, UN-Women has, for instance, initiated a small publications programme that aims to facilitate implementation and monitoring of progress on policy and normative recommendations at the national level, in addition to providing advisory services, technical expertise, and training on gender equality issues, particularly in developing countries. In addition, UN-Women maintains relationships with UNDP, UNICEF, and the World Food Programme (WFP), and works closely together with the Commission on the Status of Women. Thereby, UN-Women is not only responsible for providing substantive support to the Commission in all aspects of its work, including regular monitoring of system-wide progress, but also for facilitating the participation of civil society representatives in the Commission’s annual session.

Whereas the administrator of UNDP, endorsed by a Consultative Committee, was accountable for all aspects of management and operations of UNIFEM, the governance structure of UN-Women is divided into the structure for the normative support functions on the one hand, and for the operational activities on the other. The United Nations, General Assembly (UNGA), the United Nations, Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), and the Commission on the Status of Women are to provide normative policy guidance to the Entity. The operational policy guidance is, in contrast, assigned to the General Assembly, ECOSOC, and the Executive Board of UN-Women (see UNGA Res 64/289 [21 July 2010] UN Doc A/RES/64/289, para. 57), the last of these being obliged to submit an annual report on the normative aspects, programmes, operations, management, and budget to the General Assembly and to the Commission on the Status of Women.

The Executive Board of UN-Women consists of 41 members who are elected for a term of three years by ECOSOC with due regard to the financing of the Entity from voluntary contributions and to equitable geographical distribution. Each State Party assigns a representative with relevant expertise and experience in development co-operation activities, including those benefiting women, to serve on the board. The regional allocation and the number of members are distributed between Africa (10), Asia and the Pacific (10), Eastern Europe (4), Latin America and the Caribbean (6), Western Europe and other States (5), and contributing countries (6). The Executive Board receives assistance from a Bureau and a Secretariat, both of which strive to ensure an effective relationship and the harmonization of practices between UN-Women and other relevant entities within the entire UN System. The Executive Board is headed by a UN Under-Secretary-General as Executive Director (see UNGA Res 64/289 [21 July 2010] UN Doc A/RES/64/289, para. 69), to whom the management of UN-Women and its administration, including responsibility for the mobilization of resources and the appointment of the staff of the Entity, are delegated. The Executive Director is supported by two Deputy Executive Directors responsible for the management of intergovernmental support, UN system coordination, and strategic partnerships on the one hand, and for policy and programme planning on the other. After the resignation of former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet in March 2013, the position of the Executive Director remained vacant until UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced, in July 2013, the appointment of a new Executive Director, former South African Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, who was sworn into office on 19 August 2013. During the interim period, UN-Women had been headed by one of the Deputy Executive Directors with the status of an UN Assistant-Secretary-General. UN-Women employs a staff of around 750 persons organization-wide, and is active through national committees as well as regional and multi-country liaison offices in more than 60 countries worldwide.

As regards financing (International Organizations or Institutions, Financing of), UN-Women differs from its predecessor UNIFEM in receiving funds from the regular UN budget for the resources required to service the normative intergovernmental processes, and is thus dependent on voluntary contributions merely for its operational activities, although these do in fact account for around 98% of UN-Women’s total budget. In view of the resounding political support for the formation of the new Entity in 2010, UN-Women had high hopes of doubling the budget that UNIFEM, INSTRAW, OSAGI, and DAW had previously had at their disposal (see Report of the Secretary-General ‘Comprehensive Proposal for the Composite Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women’ [6 January 2010] UN Doc A/64/588, paras 47–49). However, it soon became clear that voluntary contributors were not willing to commit more generously than in the past. With approximately US$330 million received by national governments for 2014, which was the record year for resource mobilization, the Entity is far from obtaining the originally desired annual budget of US$500 million (see UN-Women Strategic Plan 2011–2013 [16 May 2011] UN Doc UNW/2011/9, Annex III). Moreover, in 2016, UN-Women was able to mobilize only a total of US$327 million and thus still remains chronically underfinanced (see UN-Women ‘Annual Report 2016–2017’: 2016 financial statements, p. 45).

There is no doubt about the lingering need to improve the status of women. Gender equality is not only a basic human right, but its achievement also has enormous ramifications with regard to the economy, productivity, and the growth of societies. Yet in reality gender inequalities remain deeply entrenched in almost every society. Despite considerable progress in laws and policies to address gender-based discrimination and violence during the last decade, crimes against women and girls, discrimination in professional life, and gender wage gaps persist in every part of the world. Too often women and girls are denied basic education and health care. They frequently lack access to decent work, face occupational segregation, and are under-represented in political and economic decision-making processes. Through its diverse partnerships with governments, UN agencies, and civil society organizations, UN-Women supports innovative strategies to bridge this enduring implementation gap. In a similar way, the Entity plays an important role in contributing to an increase in political and economic opportunities and options for women, especially in developing countries, where socio-economic inequities often have a detrimental effect on their situation. By nominating prominent personalities as goodwill ambassadors, UN-Women—just like its predecessor UNIFEM—tries to change the reluctant attitude of some States vis-à-vis women’s rights.

10 In sum, the Entity’s strength lies in its global and coherent strategy, in its flexibility, and in the complementarity of its innovative and catalytic priority roles, especially in assisting national and regional ministries and NGOs to integrate the concerns of women. The progress reached in recent years demonstrates that old trends can be broken and efforts accelerated to achieve gender equality and women’s empowerment (see UN-Women Strategic Plan 2018–2021 [30 August 2017] UN Doc UNW/2017/6/Rev.1, para 20). UN-Women’s weakness, however, consists in its operational dependency on voluntary financial resources which are insufficient to enable the Entity to respond adequately to the high number of requests received. Although UN-Women was created to address the serious challenges that the four previous UN entities OSAGI, DAW, UNIFEM, and INSTRAW had to face in their efforts to promote gender equality globally, coherently, and—above all—with the necessary funding, it still remains important for other organs providing development aid such as UNDP and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD) to include women’s concerns in their programmes.

Select Bibliography

  • M Snyder Transforming Development. Women, Poverty and Politics. A UN Fund for Women (Intermediate Technology Publications London 1995).
  • H Pietilä and J Vickers Making Women Matter. The Role of the United Nations (3rd edn Zed London 1996).
  • C Bunch ‘Frauenrechte und Geschlechterintegration in den UN’ (2009) 5 VN 195–203.
  • A Blätte ‘UNIFEM’ in H Volger (ed) A Concise Encyclopedia of the United Nations (Nijhoff 2nd edn 2010) 733–36.
  • F Bauer ‘Auf die Anfangseuphorie folgt der Arbeitsalltag. UN Women ein Jahr nach der Gründung’ (2011) 6 VN 257–61.
  • S Schmahl ‘United Nations Development Fund (UNIFEM)’ in R Wolfrum (ed) Max Planck Encyclopedia of Public International vol. X (OUP Oxford 2012) 330–32.

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