Arab Woman to Head UN’s New Gender Programme?

Op-ed by Karama Founder and Chair Hibaaq Osman

Appeared 30 March 2010 in Common Ground News

Cairo – In the halls of the United Nation’s New York bureau, officials have been considering a proposal to unify the UN’s many organisations promoting women’s equality and rights into a single “gender entity”. This entity would have a greatly increased budget – exactly how much is still being debated – and would be headed by an executive at the rank of Under-Secretary General.

This is a tremendous opportunity for the United Nations to step up funding for global women’s issues and to create something greater than the sum of its parts. Current women’s activities are run by the Division for the Advancement of Women (DAW), the Office of the Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women (OSAGI), the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) and the UN International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women (INSTRAW). It’s also a once-in-a-generation chance for the UN to turbo-charge women’s rights in the Middle East by appointing someone from the Arab region to lead the new gender entity.

Here’s why: selecting an Arab woman would be a step towards acknowledging that developing countries are no longer in the backseat of the fight for equality; they are behind the wheel. For years, the priorities of the global women’s movement have been set in the capitals of rich countries, with funding flowing from governments and private foundations to the issues and regions they assign as global priorities. Meanwhile, the struggle, strategies and increasing successes of Arab women activists and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) against gender inequality have been largely overlooked.

Today, dominant governments and funders still play a major role in directing the financing for women’s empowerment. However, an increasingly vibrant array of local and international women activists and NGOs are setting especially effective agendas that meet the needs of women in their own countries.

Appointing an Arab woman to the helm of this new programme would increase pressure on governments in the region to honour commitments they have made under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) treaty, and would serve as a powerful signal to Arab governments that the international community is committed to full implementation.

While CEDAW has been signed by all states in the Middle East and North Africa, except Sudan and Somalia, Arab governments continue to drag their heels in implementing it. They continue to impose reservations – exceptions to articles within the treaty that clash with local customs or laws – that render many of the treaty’s provisions toothless. Arab governments would find it difficult to ignore a strong voice, in their language, leading the charge for women’s rights from the highest levels of the United Nations.

This logic also holds true for media and civil society groups. A bold Arab voice at the forefront of the global women’s movement would be a magnet for Arab media, which have been slow to amplify messages of women’s equality, as well as a galvanising force for the next generation of local civil society activists.

Last week, female activists from the Arab world and beyond gathered in New York at the UN’s 54th Commission on the Status of Women. They celebrated successes of the past year, such as Jordan’s announcement that it will lift some of its reservations on CEDAW and grant women unrestricted travel rights. I was part of that meeting and was reminded of the work that lies ahead in the fight for women’s legal equality, economic participation and political empowerment.

I left the meeting convinced that the creation of this new gender entity will make 2010 a watershed year in the struggle for women’s rights, on par with the passage of CEDAW in 1979, the adoption of the Beijing Platform for Action in 1995 which set out a number of actions for fundamental changes by 2000 and the introduction of the Millennium Development Goals in 2000.

This is a truly historic opportunity for the global women’s movement. The world’s decision-makers in New York should know that Arab women, from Baghdad to Casablanca, are watching closely, rooting for an Arab woman to carry the flag of global gender equality.