UN Envoy’s Report on Swazi and Basotho Women

What has to be understood ‘ and seems never to be understood ‘ is that we’re fundamentally talking about saving millions of lives. On three separate occasions in the relatively recent past ‘ commencing at the University of Pennsylvania, later elaborated upon at Harvard, and re-asserted on International Women’s Day less than two weeks ago ‘ I have argued the need for a new, dominant, strongly-resourced and strongly-staffed multilateral women’s agency. This is not a piker’s proposition: I mean an agency for women on the scale of UNICEF. To be sure, there is a natural aversion to creating new multilateral entities, with new multilateral bureaucracies. That’s understandable. But this is a singular need in the modern world: there is no item more urgent on the international development agenda. What has happened to women is such a gross and palpable violation of human rights that the funding must be found, whether from Official Development Assistance or new ?innovative financing,’ or a combination of both. We must right the wrong. I have argued, and it is an argument shared by many others in the women’s movement, that what we now have in place ‘ whether it’s UNFPA or UNIFEM or the Division for the Advancement of Women ‘ cannot do the job that needs to be done. This is not to disparage their good work; this is only to say that it has to be combined and then enhanced a hundred-fold. A powerful women’s agency was never more urgently needed within the United Nations than it is at this historical moment. The HIV/AIDS pandemic is the litmus. It is impossible to traverse the continent of Africa, it is impossible to visit countries like Lesotho and Swaziland, without an enveloping sense of horror and despair at the carnage amongst women. And in very large part, this carnage took root and has been allowed to rage because the voice of women is the voice that is still not heard. You will forgive me, but I have to say that the United Nations doesn’t seem to understand this truth. And there is dramatic evidence of that. We have just had appointed, for the specific purpose of UN reform, a high-level panel of fifteen people to rework the landscape of development, humanitarian assistance and environment within the United Nations. Development and humanitarian assistance? What job description could have more to do with the lives of women, that is to say, with the lives of more than half the world’s population? Yet, of the fifteen members of the panel, when the appointments were made, only three were women. BUT HEAR THIS: one of the women on the panel has now been replaced by a man, so the ratio is now thirteen to two! And as if that weren’t sufficiently preposterous, the two members of the secretariat, thus far appointed to work for the panel are both men. So the ratio between men and women appointed so far to this crucial task is now fifteen to two. What in the world is going on? Tragically, nothing new. Nothing that would hint that the gender equity and equality promulgated in all the declarations that emerge from international conferences, and in the Millennium Development Goals for 2015, are to be taken seriously. We’ve just emerged from the 2006 session of the Commission on the Status of Women where the central theme was the need for absolute equality of men and women on all decision-making bodies. It was a theme vigorously endorsed by the Secretary-General and the then Deputy Secretary-General, and by every senior member of the secretariat. I would respectfully suggest that there isn’t a legal scholar in this world, no matter how versed in the arcane minutiae of contracts, who could find a way of reconciling the promises with the performance. At this point, since the panel is obviously in place, the only thing that can be done is to tip the ratio by expanding the panel’s membership, and to have absolute transparency in its proceedings. Everything must be open to monitoring by women’s groups, which are struggling so valiantly to achieve the Millennium Development Goals, including the one specifically aimed at gender equality and the empowerment of women by 2015. More, the panel must be open for submissions from women’s groups. If the panel is not prepared, in the spirit of UN reform, to make dramatic changes to the way women are addressed within multilateralism, then the panel must be required to explain on what basis it determined that the present arrangements serve the needs and rights of women everywhere. The panel must be required to explain how the pandemic of AIDS, the escalating violence against women, the contagion of conflict and rape, the absence of empowerment, the lack of legislation on equality ? the panel must be required to explain how the present international circumstance serves the interests and upholds the human rights of the women of the world. Why do I go on in this fashion? Because I’m frantic. Things are changing on the ground so incrementally ‘ Lesotho and Swaziland are but symbols for the greater whole ‘ that we’re losing millions of young women in Africa. In the process, we’re creating a generation of orphans whose lives are lives of torment. How will we ever explain what we have wrought? What a universe this is. We came out of the Holocaust asking ourselves how we could ever live with the recognition that much of the world knew what was in those trains rumbling down the tracks to Auschwitz. We came out of Rwanda asking ourselves how it was possible that the world was inert in the face of a hideous genocide that everyone knew was taking place. It is my contention that years from now, historians will ask how it was possible that the world allowed AIDS to throttle and eviscerate a continent, and overwhelmingly the women of that continent, and watch the tragedy unfold, in real time, while we toyed with the game of reform.

April 2006
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