On 3 April 2009, students from the Freie Universität Delegation were fortunate enough to spend an hour with Mr Antonie de Jong and Ms Hazel Gooding from the Outreach and Business Development Team of United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM). UNIFEM is the women’s fund at the United Nations providing financial and technical assistance to programmes and strategies, to promote women’s empowerment and gender equality. Areas of focus include fostering women’s economic rights and their security as well as assisting in securing gender equality in democratic governance in times of peace and of war.
Mr de Jong began by describing his personal background home in the Netherlands and how this led eventually to his career within the United Nations system. He then moved on to summarising the history of UNIFEM, which owes its existence to the women’s movement that preceded it. Mr de Jong made reference to the initial temporary nature of the Fund, (initially set up for the duration of the United Nations Decade for Women, 1975–85). The budget grew from US$ 15 million in the Nineties to US$ 100 million in 2007 and US$ 200 million in 2008.
The mandate of UNIFEM is, according to Mr de Jong, twofold: firstly, to work with Member States to promote women’s employment and gender equality in general and; secondly, to work with other UN agencies to implement gender mainstreaming. This mandate is fulfilled through various tasks, one of the most significant being that of ending violence against women; secondly, UNIFEM works on reducing women’s poverty and exclusion (and ending the pay disparity between genders). In addition, UNIFEM works to promote gender-responsive budgeting. Mr de Jong offered a concrete example at this juncture: as an attempt to jumpstart the US economy, President Obama had recently mentioned the use of infrastructure as a vehicle for this. As improvements to infrastructure will require construction workers (most of whom are men) gender-responsive budgeting offers the platform to redress the imbalance through the introduction of new policies and/or policy amendments. A further task of UNIFEM is in relation to the ‘feminisation of HIV/AIDS’. Young women are 1.6 times more likely to be living with HIV than young men. Young women make up over 60 per cent of 15–24-year-olds living with HIV and therefore, the gender dynamic should not be ignored: married women are also a ‘high-risk’ group. Furthermore, UNIFEM seeks to advance the political participation of women – Mr de Jong noted that only about 18 per cent of parliamentarians worldwide are women.
By way of example of the kind of work that UNIFEM is involved in, Mr de Jong spoke about the UN’s ‘Say NO to Violence’ campaign, and actress’ Nicole Kidman’s work as UNIFEM’s goodwill ambassador. Fundraising and awareness-raising are the aims of the campaign, particularly as this year plays hosts to several important anniversaries such as the 30th anniversary of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), and the 10th anniversary of Security Council Resolution S/RES/1325 (2000) on Women and Peace and Security coming up next year.
At this point, Ms Gooding spoke to the work of UNIFEM with the donor countries. She noted that UNIFEM is a small organisation in relation to other UN Funds and Programmes, however, UNIFEM works towards improving the lives of women and girls in more than 100 countries around the world in partnership with various stakeholders including donor governments. As the FU Delegation of 2009 represented Australia, Ms Gooding also mentioned UNIFEM’s close partnership with the government of Australia, particularly in dealing with the issue of violence against women, which is a challenge in various Pacific Island countries. The UN Trust Fund (managed by UNIFEM) was noted here as having a key role to play in terms of financing innovative and catalytic interventions.
After giving us a quick round-up of women’s rights and where they were first realised in various parts of the world (e.g. New Zealand was the first country to afford women the right to vote) as well as commenting on the most progressive countries, one of which was Austria, Ms Gooding moved on to discuss gender mainstreaming, which is a big issue in gender politics. Mr de Jong and Ms Gooding then opened up the floor to questions – an opportunity fully taken advantage of by the FU Delegation.
In response to the question regarding how UNIFEM works in individual countries – i.e. whether by invitation or otherwise – the importance of negotiation was highlighted. In the Gulf States, UNIFEM has not had such a great presence but negotiation is slowly changing this, in addition to various local projects which demonstrate what success may be ahead. Similarly, the reception of UNIFEM’s programmes in various countries depends on the cultural sensitivities at play. One student noted that, in some countries, women themselves often expressed no dissatisfaction with the kind of discrimination UNIFEM seeks to prevent. In this regard, the Millennium Development Goals – more specifically, education for all– were mentioned.
One student asked about the sensitive issue of female genital mutilation and whether this was part of UNIFEM’s remit, to which the answer was given that UNIFEM works in collaboration with various stakeholders including other UN agencies that, for instance, focus on this particular issue (such as the UN Population Fund).
Next, the discussion moved to trade and to the effect the global economic crisis may have specifically on women. For example, there has been a significant migration of Asian-Pacific women to the Gulf States – there is a danger that women might be sent back to their countries of origin due to the current economic crisis. The issue of ‘brain drain’ out of many developing countries was also discussed.
One example of co-operation could be seen with female entrepreneurs in local communities, whether refugee or otherwise. It was noted that – although often illiterate – they are resourceful and capable of independently running their own businesses. In general, UNIFEM works on a wide variety of topics, some of which may indeed thematically overlap with other agencies’ work and which therefore requires close inter-agency collaboration not only in terms of efficiency but ultimately to achieve maximum impact on the ground. In working towards securing gender justice in peacebuilding, for example, changes may be necessary in the area of land law and in the legal system in general to foster equity and equality, for the benefit of all.