A Call to Action! UNIFEM and All Women and Development Activities Under Threat

Friday, July 23 2010

A Call to Action! UNIFEM and All Women and Development Activities Under Threat

In early November 2003, women worldwide were alerted to the fact that the Dutch
government has decided to eliminate their funding for UNIFEM. Currently, funding from The Netherlands represents 20% of UNIFEM's core budget. What does this mean for UNIFEM? According to Executive Director Noeleen Heyzer, the loss of these funds could lead to cutbacks in all regions and programmes, including up to a 50% cut of UNIFEM funding in the African region alone. It appears that the government of The Netherlands decided to prioritise support for "gender mainstreaming" over support for women-specific programs, inferring that women's agencies have not been successful in mainstreaming gender equality.

The cutting of funds to UNIFEM is further evidence of a change in heart and policy among major government donor agencies that have until now been such strong supporters of women and development activities. Since the first United Nations World Conference on Women in Mexico 1975, when the world sat up and took notice of the needs, concerns and issues of women worldwide, The Netherlands has led the way in this respect. Major non-governmental organization (NGO) initiatives such as the Women's Global Network for Reproductive Rights and the International Women’s
Tribune Centre could not have achieved all that they have without this support and encouragement. Yet sadly, both of these groups have now lost their Dutch funding along with other government donor agency funding and are in danger of having to close their doors.

In the words of Peg Snyder, founding Director of UNIFEM, "we have invested gender mainstreaming with too much promise, to the neglect or even disparagement of women-specific institutions and organizations that have been and still are the fount of ideas and innovative actions, and a source of women's collective strength". Peg goes on to say: “Women and development transformed development thinking about women, who had previously been seen as wives and mothers only in the history of UN assistance. That transformation, giving visibility to women's profound economic and political contributions to their families and societies, needs to be celebrated, not denigrated, as we move forward to support women's peace actions, and to assist women and men workers who are trapped by the negative effects of the global economy.

Just last week, women worldwide mourned the passing of Sharon Capeling-Alakija, UNIFEM Director from 1989-1994. Sharon worked to put UNIFEM and women's rights solidly on the UN map and at UN tables. She held a gender lens to mainstream issues such as the environment, refugees, and human rights, and strongly advocated the idea that women's rights are human rights. She also struggled to frame violence against women as a legitimate focus of UNIFEM's efforts.

All this comes at a time when the rise of religious fundamentalism in all its forms already threatens to set back many of the gains made in 25 years of UN world conferences on women. Women activists and advocates who have used the UN conferences to leverage change dare not allow the re-opening of already agreed-upon policy documents, such as the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action (BPFA), for discussion and possible updating, not with retroactive forces poised to take away many of women’s hard-won gains as represented in these documents. Most affected
would be reproductive health rights for women, rights that could not be more important in a world facing an AIDS pandemic that threatens to destroy all the development gains of the past 25 years. Never before have women’s lives and livelihoods been under such serious threat. Never before have women’s activism and advocacy been more needed.

The possibility of seeing focused efforts to implement both the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), agreed upon by all Member States of the UN in 2000, and the BPFA, has also been dealt a severe blow by the threat of donor support withdrawal. In fact, many of the goals enshrined in the MDGs have been brought to the world’s attention by women’s activism and advocacy efforts in the past 25 years. Would violence against women have become a central item on the global human rights agenda without UNIFEM and the worldwide activism of women’s NGOs? Would Security Council resolution 1325 on women, peace and security (2001) have become a reality if UNIFEM and women peace activists had not lobbied hard in every world region, and in the halls of the UN? These are just two among hundreds of issues that the combined efforts of women in NGOs working in concert with UNIFEM have brought to the UN and governmental decision-making tables. As the late Sharon Capeling-Alakija, director of UNIFEM 1989-1994, frequently commented, "If UNIFEM does not speak of these issues, who in the UN will?

It is not difficult to imagine that perhaps we women have been too successful in putting gender concerns at the core of the world’s agendas. Perhaps we are threatening the powers that be in ways they have not been threatened before? Suffice to say that women’s networks and organizations everywhere, whether UN agencies such as UNIFEM, government gender units, or NGO networks, are facing a backlash that is now making itself felt worldwide by the withdrawal of essential funds. We must take action before we lose our hard won gains.

For those who feel they would like to support actions to stop the withdrawal of funding for UNIFEM and other women and development organizations, we are including here an URGENT ACTION, originally called for by the Women’s Environment and Development Organization (WEDO).

Urgent Action Needed

We urge you to:

Please act this week! Below, find a sample letter and contact information for the Dutch Minister for Development Cooperation, Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Sample letter

To: The Honorable Anna Maria Agnes van Ardenne-van der Hoeven, Minister for Development Cooperation, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, The Netherlands



Dear Minister van Aardenne,

We are/I am writing to you out of our concern over pending budget choices of your office that will effectively weaken UNIFEM as a strong voice for women within United Nations policymaking and implementation processes, and as a staunch proponent of women's advancement at the country level.

UNIFEM is the only UN agency with a mandate to advance women's rights and empower women. It was created not from the bureaucracy itself but from the demands of the women's movement. Any reform should be in the direction of strengthening UNIFEM with more resources for regional level activities and more political clout within the UN itself. UNIFEM is also one of the few UN agencies that actively supports the work of NGOs working in women and development.

While I/we share the frustration of many over the slow progress of gender mainstreaming within the UN system, we view this as a failure of the institutional leadership to give serious recognition and resources to women and gender concerns. The weakening of UNIFEM, therefore, will only result in the further marginalization and diminution of women's concerns, throughout the UN system and globally.

I/we stand ready to work with you, UNIFEM, the UN and other stakeholders to truly integrate women's concerns into UN policy and programmes.

Yours sincerely,

(Put your name and organization contact information here)


In English:
Minister Anna Maria Agnes van Ardenne-van der Hoeven
Minister for Development Cooperation
Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Postbus 20061
NL-2500 EB Den Haag
The Netherlands
Fax: 31 70 - 3 48 4848

In Dutch:
Minister Anna Maria Agnes van Ardenne-van der Hoeven
Ministerie van Buitenlandse Zaken
Postbus 20061
NL-2500 EB Den Haag
The Netherlands
Fax: 31 70 - 3 48 4848

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