UN Women: still in pursuit of justice

Earlier this month UN Women, the new United Nations gender entity, launched its flagship report, ‘Progress of the world’s women: in pursuit of justice’ in both London and New York (see WVoN coverage).

I met John Hendra, the newly appointed Assistant Secretary General for UN Women, at the London launch event and talked to him about the report.

Justice for women, says Hendra, makes strong financial sense for the simple reason that improving women’s access to justice will help countries tackle the ‘productivity gap’, when women have limited access to resources such as land and credit.

This means women are not as economically productive as they could be and the whole country loses out.

A recent report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that closing the gender productivity gap would reduce the number of undernourished people in the world by 12 to 17 per cent. That translates into 100 to 150 million fewer people living in hunger.

But the message isn’t getting through to politicians who, Hendra says, need to add money to the rhetoric on women’s rights. And if there isn’t enough money, then priorities need to change.

Take the example of the World Bank. Between 2000 and 2010, he points out, it allocated $126 billion to public administration, law and justice projects.

Over the same period, 21 projects included components on gender equality and the rule of law but the total allocated to the gender equality components came to just $7.3 million.

Hendra insists that 50% of funding for judicial reform must go to projects designed to support women and girls. The quicker we get there, he says, the better.

But donors also need to keep track of what the money is being used for. For example by installing ‘gender markers’ to ensure the resources really do go to gender projects.

So can gender responsive budgeting (GRB) help? UN Women is clear that it can have a substantial impact on gender equality.

Hendra argues that GRB is key to women’s access to justice and gender equality more generally.

Based on the idea that government policies are not ‘gender neutral’ and can often disadvantage women, GRB identifies shortfalls in national and local government policies, plans and budgets and seeks to identify and address those gaps.

It does so partly through unveiling the hidden costs of social problems, like violence against women and is useful in arguing the ‘business case’ for gender equality.

Hendra gives the example of violence against women, a central theme in the report.In the USA alone, Hendra tells me, the cost is estimated at  $5.8 billion.

The majority of these costs are medical bills, the rest is lost wages (due to ill health etc). Yet although 125 countries have laws to ban domestic violence, there are 66 that don’t. Hendra argues that ending violence against women makes financial as well as moral sense.

So what role can UN Women play in ensuring that women worldwide don’t bear the brunt of the recession?

Hendra responds that the strength of UN Women is not in how much they can spend (the agency is still struggling to get UN member states to come up with the $500 million they need). Instead, its power lies in public advocacy, advocacy in terms of how states, development banks and other donors spend their money.

As Michelle Bachelet (the new head of UN Women) says –  investing in women’s economic empowerment is not only the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do.

Photograph by Anna Reitman

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