Sophie Morris: Help women and you can save the world

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The Independent Online

I usually take no notice when days are arbitrarily dedicated to one cause or another. No Smoking Day next Wednesday, for example, I shall be giving a wide berth to. National Chocolate Week makes more sense, but do I need an official excuse to break out the Green & Blacks?

But this Sunday is International Women's Day, which carries a bit more weight. And it's as good a springboard as any to call for the creation of a United Nations Women's Agency. The demand for such an agency is no outmoded feminist plea. In the 60-odd years of its existence, the UN has worked its way into pretty much every nook and cranny of international life, while executing a conspicuous disservice to women. Who working outside of a bureaucratic or policy-wonkish environment has even heard of Unifem, the United Nations Fund for Women?

The "fund" is woefully under-funded, existing on $129m a year and 47 staff. It has no actual programmes operating in specific countries, and as such is not really equipped to do anything practical. It has two straitjacketed stablemates, the Division for the Advancement of Women and the Office of the Special Adviser on Gender Issues. By comparison, Unicef (the United Nations Fund for Children, as you all know) has a budget of $3bn spread around 8,000 staff and 190 country programmes. Yes, children are our future – but they need someone to raise them first.

Women's issues are central to a whole range, from the economic and the social to health, education and the environment, and experts in different fields are behind calls for a new agency.

Stephen Lewis, a former UN Envoy for HIV/AIDS, for example, was among the first to support the move three years ago. Of his five years working with HIV/AIDS in Africa, he says, "The single most intractable dilemma has been the excruciating vulnerability of women, the huge and disproportionate numbers of deaths they face, their overwhelming responsibilities for the sick and orphaned."

As the new chief executive of Voluntary Service Overseas, Margaret Mayne's interests reach into all areas of international development, and she is making the campaign for a new women's agency her first priority. "The current UN system is failing women," she says. "They hold the key to development around the world and until their skills and time are effectively used we will never live in an equal world."

But even small steps towards equality make for heartening statistics. For every year a girl attends school in the developing world, her family's income will increase by 20 per cent. If women were permitted to own the land they break their backs working, food production in Africa could receive a 20 per cent hike.

Ban Ki-Moon is behind the idea. You can ask your MP to write to Lord Malloch-Brown if you want to support it yourself. The only thing standing in its way seems to be certain G77 nations. The finger has been pointed at Pakistan and Egypt, among others. They resent any conditions imposed upon donor money, which is fair enough. But they seem most worried about precious UN funding transferring from "development issues" (read "economic issues") to "women's issues". Did they miss the memo about women driving development?

As usual, it all comes down to money, and the agency itself won't work if it doesn't get a decent wedge – at least $1bn (half Unicef's budget). Some of the hundreds of groups campaigning on this issue are willing to accept a smaller amount to get it off the ground. Settling for less sends out the wrong message. A history of doing just that is the reason we need the agency in the first place.

What are you doing with this guy, Rihanna?

Today is the day the American singer Chris Brown is due to appear in court for allegedly using his fists to hospitalise his girlfriend, R&B starlet Rihanna.

Two weeks ago 21-year-old Rihanna ended up with a bruised and bloodied face. Her crime? Apparently she dared to argue with Brown when he received a text message "booty call". This is the same Brown who has spoken out against domestic violence in, having watched his mother suffer at the hands of her own boyfriend. "I don't want to put a woman through the same thing that person put my mum through," he said in 2005.

Any story of domestic violence is tragic (though this one is remarkable in that it started in a Lamborghini), but Rihanna's tale took a turn for the worse a few days ago when she reportedly kissed and made up with Brown, 19, after he called on her birthday and sent her an iPod Touch. RIP Romance.

Since she burst on the scene with the irritating "Umbrella", Rihanna has been a role model for teenage girls. It is not the responsibility of everyone in the public eye to set a good example, but Rihanna has just appeared in a Gucci ad campaign for Unicef, an organisation which would never condone an abusive and exploitative relationship like Rihanna and Brown's.

The pub landlady isn't a community leader

Thirty-nine British pubs are closing every week, and John Grogan, chair of the all-party Parliamentary beer group and MP for Selby, blames the crisis on the rising price of beer, subject to increased taxation, rather than the wily credit crisis which is crunching other industries.

It would be safer for drinkers if there was a smaller margin between the price of beer in pubs and in supermarkets, argues Grogan, because "social control" is exercised in a pub, and the landlord or landlady will look out for your wellbeing.

Are there are no Wetherspoon's in Selby then? Apparently not: a controversial plan to build one of the cruise ship-like superpubs has just been abandoned.

Good for Selby, but elsewhere Grogan is a few decades too late to save his nostalgic ideal of the community landlord.