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A step back for the world's women


Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Chilean President Michelle Bachelet exchange copies of bilateral agreements at a ceremony at the Presidential Palace in Santiago, Chile in 2007. (Ryan Remiorz/CP)

One more UN irony: the same day a United Nations commission adopted a hard-fought plan to end gender-based violence, the head of the organization formed to spearhead women’s rights quit her job.

Michelle Bachelet, heralded as a figurehead for the world’s women when she was appointed executive director of the newly founded UN Women just three years ago, is said to be priming for a return to the presidency of her native Chile.

As an undeclared candidate in the November 2013 election, the former Chilean leader is polling ahead of right wing hopefuls, and social democrats are crossing their fingers that she’ll soon be back to the post she left in 2010.

On the East River, reactions are mixed.

In a tweet after Bachelet’s resignation Friday, Washington’s UN Ambassador, Susan Rice, called it a “major bummer,” and added that Bachelet had rescued the anti-violence conference, which was foundering when Egypt’s new Islamist-led government insisted on a loophole allowing states to ignore the agreement where it clashed with cultural and religious practices. It was joined by the Vatican, Iran and Russia.

In the end, diplomats agreed to prevent and condemn violence against women and girls regardless of "any custom, tradition or religious consideration.”  UN chief Ban Ki-Moon called it  “a heinous human rights violation, global menace, public health threat and moral outrage,” and urged “concrete action to prevent and end violence against women and girls.”

But here’s the thing.

UN Women’s budget is a modest $220 million – a fraction of the multi-billion-dollar budgets of other international agencies. And UN insiders say, the widely-respected Bachelet fell short of expectations on the fundraising side of her job.

Women’s advocates also lament the frugal approach of countries to funding women’s rights, touting them as the answer to international development, but giving them the poor relative treatment when the hat is passed.  

“It’s as though the donors had decided to starve UN Women,” says Stephen Lewis, a co-director of the charity AIDS-Free World. “The contributions have been pathetic, especially when you compare them with agencies like UNICEF. Almost everything UN Women is supposed to do can’t be done on that kind of budget – including combating sexual trafficking and sexual violence as well as promoting economic empowerment.”

Can things change?  Some who heard early rumours of Bachelet’s departure, put feminist powerhouse Hillary Clinton on their speed dial. But sadly, the answer was “no.”  A hint that the former U.S. Secretary of State is already looking ahead to 2016.

In the meantime, see Help Wanted: UN. 

Olivia Ward was the Star's UN correspondent from 1990-92. She has covered conflicts, human rights and politics from the former Soviet Union to the Balkans, Northern Ireland, the Middle East and South Asia. She has won both national and international awards.



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