Stephen Lewis gets his wish!

Anyone who heard Stephen Lewis speak at the NDP Convention in Quebec last September, or at August’s International AIDS Conference in Toronto, will know how pleased he is with the announcement his office forwarded today:

A giant step towards equality for women was taken today at the United Nations when a High-Level Panel on UN reform recommended to the Secretary-General the creation of the world body’s first full-fledged agency for women. We are heartened that the panel, appointed by Secretary-General Kofi Annan earlier this year, has reached the conclusion that women’s rights and development have always received substandard treatment in the United Nations system. Its recommendation of “an enhanced and independent” policy, advocacy and operational agency for women’s empowerment and gender equality, to be headed by an Under Secretary-General, is an inspired and entirely welcome remedy. If implemented and funded as recommended, the new organization will begin to correct over six decades of UN neglect and indifference toward women.

The High-Level Panel’s recommendation goes next to the General Assembly. Member States’ decisions on three critical elements will determine whether today’s announcement will be recorded as a turning point in the life of the UN and the lives of women.

First, understanding that women’s empowerment and equal rights are central to development and peace, the panel recommended that the new women’s entity must be “fully and ambitiously funded”. We agree whole-heartedly; to make up for lost time and turn rhetoric into reality, the new organization will need a budget of $1 billion. To quote a recent joint statement by Liberia’s President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf; Graça Machel, President of Mozambique’s Foundation for Community Development; and the Ministers of Health of Botswana and Kenya, Hon. Sheila Tlou and Hon. Charity Ngilu: “ Let’s put that in perspective: last year, UNICEF had a budget of over $2 billion for children. Surely half of that would not be excessive for the world’s women. Surely ameliorating the lives of half the global population is worth $1 billion a year, for a start.”

Second, success hinges on approval of the plan to replace the UN’s weak women’s machinery with “sharply focused operations on gender equality and women’s empowerment issues, equipped with high-quality technical and substantive expertise, to provide leadership in regions and countries”. A destructive pattern has taken hold of landmark agreements on women’s rights: gender equality advocates work tirelessly to gain international consensus, only to see their hard-won declarations and resolutions reach dead ends for lack of expertise and operational capacity at country level. The women’s organizations and advocates who have pressed the case for a UN women’s agency know that targeted programmes and experts will be needed in every country to end that pattern forever.

We have great hopes for what the new women’s agency can accomplish through targeted programmes in developing countries. At long last, the UN is poised to act on behalf of more than 17 million women living with HIV/AIDS worldwide, and the additional 225 young women between 15 and 24 who will become infected every hour today. It can now begin to reverse injustices that have forever been tolerated: the fact that one in three women worldwide has been beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused during her lifetime; that women produce most of the world’s food but own just one per cent of its deeded land; and that they make up the majority of the poor and illiterate.

Finally, the new agency for women will need a leader with vision, expertise, authority, empathy and devotion unparalleled in the history of multilateralism. Let the global and transparent selection process begin.

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