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UN to Consider New Structure for Women: Making Change Matter
UN to Consider New Structure for Women: Making Change Matter
Can War Be Feminist?
Can War Be Feminist?
Op-Ed / Global

UN to Consider New Structure for Women: Making Change Matter

Originally published in Global Post

The United Nations may soon undergo a shake-up that could affect half the people on the planet.

As the U.N. reviews its internal structures for addressing women's interests around the world, surely the most significant changes expected will concern women and armed conflict. The question is - will this reform make a fundamental difference in the lives of women impacted by war?

Just as the U.N. takes the lead on protecting war-affected children through UNICEF and a high-profile special representative, advocates have looked to the U.N. to protect women from widespread abuse and to ensure their full participation in peace processes, post-conflict reconstruction and governance.

But nearly nine years after the U.N. Security Council passed a groundbreaking resolution to promote such a role, issues such as rape, trafficking, reproductive health and girls' education continue to receive short shrift. 

One culprit is the alphabet soup of U.N. architecture itself.  Multiple agencies - the Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), the Office of the Special Advisor for Gender Issues (OSAGI), the Division for the Advancement of Women (DAW), and others - fight for the same scarce resources with little political power. The offices are filled with talented and dedicated people, but their efforts are thwarted by a system that gives responsibility to all but holds no one accountable.  Meanwhile, the two main tasks - ensuring an active field presence for gender proponents in U.N. missions, and mainstreaming gender issues in the work of key U.N. agencies - are largely left wanting.

Now, with the broad support of the U.N. secretariat, a coalition of member states, and civil society groups, a new entity - known bureaucratically as the 'composite entity' or 'option D' - could be approved shortly in the U.N. General Assembly. It would bring the principal actors under a single office, headed by a high-profile Under-Secretary-General, and enable greater coordination and synergies.  It would also ensure women's issues were at the nexus of U.N. debates, as the new Under-Secretary General would participate in all senior policy-making bodies and serve as a watchdog for the interest of half the world's population.  

The proposal enjoys broad support among non-governmental organizations, including 340 groups around the world that are part of the Gender Equality Architecture Reform (GEAR) campaign.  They view this as the best possible outcome in the current environment, in which some member states still ask what all the fuss is about.

In fact, the real solution is a full-time, well-financed specialized agency with universal reach, a so-called UNICEF for Women. But pragmatists believe this is a bridge too far in the present fiscal climate, and a deal is emerging that would simply appoint a high-visibility Under-Secretary-General and leave the rest of the details to be worked out under her direction. 

Since this structure is to be left in place for up to five years before being reviewed, however, the potential impact is all about the details.  As GEAR points out, to make this change really matter for real women, the following commitments must be secured from the beginning: 

  1. Women in civil society around the world - and especially from conflict-related countries - must have a genuine voice in the new entity, not just on an ad hoc consultative basis, but through a formal decision-making role. The principle must be, "Nothing About Us Without Us."
  2. There must be time-bound goals for achieving reductions in violence against women, participation of women in peace processes, allocation of reconstruction resources to projects of interest to women and other steps.  Progress must be measurable, and governments, U.N. offices, and individuals must be held accountable for achieving them, with stiff penalties for failing to do so.
  3. As much as $1 billion more dollars a year - or about 30 cents per woman - must be dedicated to these issues.  This will allow a presence for the new entity in all war-impacted countries, supported by projects that can make a difference.  And if the money must come primarily from voluntary contributions, as now seems likely, pledges should be taken now and the Secretary-General must go from capital to capital to collect them.  
  4. The new Under-Secretary-General must be a world-class figure, able to generate not only public attention and mobilize political will among governments, but with substantial knowledge of the U.N. system.  The Secretary-General must give this leader the respect and resources needed to do her job, and the access to the U.N. General Assembly and Security Council to achieve progress.

Negotiations over the next month will say much about whether the world is prepared to keep faith with half its population, or whether the promise of protection and participation will be just one more dream deferred.  

Podcast / Global

Can War Be Feminist?

This week on Hold Your Fire!, Richard Atwood and Naz Modirzadeh are joined by Crisis Group’s gender and conflict expert Azadeh Moaveni for a special International Women's Day episode where they untangle the complex relationship between gender and conflict – from Cameroon to Pakistan to Syria and beyond.

Both our political mapping of conflict and peacebuilding efforts too often neglect the powerful role of gender dynamics in driving war. The identities of men and women shape their motivations and strategies at times of conflict, as well as the ways they experience violence, whether as victims, fighters or peacemakers. 

This week on Hold Your Fire!, Richard Atwood and Naz Modirzadeh are joined by Azadeh Moaveni, Crisis Group’s gender and conflict project director for a special episode for International Women’s Day to discuss the complex relationship between gender and conflict. They highlight some of Crisis Group’s recent work – discussing how women and girls experience Cameroon’s Anglophone crisis and their roles as insurgents and peace activists, as well as the story of women’s peacebuilding in Pakistan’s North West tribal belt, and how their hard-fought struggle for rights has shaped the prospects of a region mired in militancy and cultural conservatism. They also talk about the outlook for women across Afghanistan in the wake of the Taliban’s takeover, and the ongoing detention of ISIS-affiliated women and children in Syria, forbidden from returning to their home countries. They explore how considering gender can enrich our understanding of conflict resolution. They end with a discussion on several countries’ adoption over recent years of feminist foreign policies, what those policies entail and the value of framing foreign relations through a feminist lens. 

Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

For more of Crisis Group’s work on gender, make sure to explore our Gender and Conflict page and check out our recent reports: “Women and Peacebuilding in Pakistan’s North West” and “Rebels, Victims, Peacebuilders: Women in Cameroon’s Anglophone Conflict”.


Executive Vice President
Naz Modirzadeh
Board Member and Harvard Professor of International Law and Armed Conflicts
Project Director, Gender and Conflict