UN celebrates a 'watershed day' for women

Global body launched: The fight against rape, female circumcision, child mortality and poor healthcare takes on a higher priority.

Some 65 years after it was founded, and after decades of reports on every species of sex discrimination and its wasteful effects, the United Nations has decided to set up a single, powerful body to promote equality for women around the world.

The General Assembly voted unanimously on Friday to launch a new agency called UN Women. It will begin its work in January, have a high-level leader, probably twice the $250m annual budget now allocated to gender issues, and will be tasked with challenging governments on women's plights and rights.

UN Women will press hard for women to have a more widespread and prominent role in politics, and also try to reduce some of the world's more glaring discriminations. These include lack of access to health and education, forced marriages, rape, female cicumcision, and trafficking. Diplomats at the Assembly greeted news of the new body with spontaneous applause as the decision was announced with a rap of its president's gavel. "This is truly a watershed day," said UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. "Member states have created a much stronger voice for women and for gender equality at the global level. It will now be much more difficult for the world to ignore the challenges facing women and girls or to fail to take the necessary action."

And Christine McCafferty, a former Labour MP who chaired the Council of Europe's health and reproductive health and rights committee, last night said: "This finally puts women where they always should have been: at the very heart of development. Countries where women's rights are not at the heart of development are those that have developed the slowest. This new UN entity must work closely with the finance ministries of every ... country, so that everyone understands the huge economic benefits of investing in women."

Although the UN has in the last two decades gone some way to being less dominated by socially conservative men, progress has been fiftul. A 1995 agreement by 189 nations in Beijing to work towards equality put down a marker, but, in the words of UN deputy secretary-general Asha-Rose Migiro, "inequalities remain deeply entrenched in every society".

Women's issues were split between different UN agencies of varying effectiveness. Then, four years ago, a push for a UN body for women was launched as the Gear Campaign. Eventually numbering more than 300 groups, and led by the European Union, it agitated for a single, dedicated agency which would have a high-powered leader, a greatly increased budget and some real clout. This, with Friday's vote, they have now won, providing the practice matches the intent.

Harriet Harman, acting leader of the Labour Party, said yesterday: "Women are a new phenomenon in international politics and diplomacy, who can offer additional and different dimensions to conflict resolution, the economic agenda, democracy and development. UN Women is not just about protecting women victims from underdevelopment, it is about the UN helping to support and sustain women who have fought their way forward into governments across the world, and who have much to offer across every single UN agenda. The UN is a male-dominated institution which reflects patterns of the past; it has been left behind while the world changed. This new entity must be led by women if it is to bring change."

Marianne Mollmann, women's rights advocate at Human Rights Watch, said: "The creation of this agency is a testament to the resilience of women's rights activists ... So much of the promise of the new women's agency depends on finding a leader who can secure the funding and enhanced support that has been pledged."

Three names already floated to lead UN Women are the former Chilean president Michelle Bachelet, Rwanda's Foreign Minister, Louise Mushikiwabo, and the UN special representative for children in armed conflict, Radhika Coomaraswamy. It is believed that eight names have been submitted.

Khalida Salimi, co-founder of the Pakistani human rights NGO Sach, said: "It is a wonderful achievement that our demands for an under secretary-general – someone with real decision-making power in the UN – has been met. The patriarchal mindset of the UN has always tried to protect patriarchal interests. This is reflected by simple things, such as the men always talked about girls and power, whereas the women talked about peace and development. The new entity is an encouraging step forward, but it must take care not to reflect the same scenario. UN Women must expand outreach strategies and help to strengthen civil organisations that, for a long time, have stepped in because governments have failed to provide for people's basic needs."

Additional reporting by Pavan Amara.

The verdict: One giant leap for womankind

Harriet Harman, Labour MP: 'Ten years ago there were very few women in governments, now they are an emerging force who can bring something to every agenda'

Annie Lennox, Musician: 'It has been a long time coming and is well overdue. It's time for us to stand up for the young child brides forced into marriage'

Ban Ki-Moon, United Nations: 'UN Women is recognition of a simple truth: equality for women is a basic human right and a social and economic imperative'

Shazia Mirza, Comedian: 'I think it's great, it's progress. They have recognised that women suffer more than men in certain countries and addressed that'

Susie Orbach, Psychotherapist: 'We have had enough theorising about what can be achieved if we bring gender perspective to conflict resolution'

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