At Large

The road taken to UN Women

/ 12:08 AM September 11, 2015

After two hours of negotiating the distance from the Batasan in Quezon City to Manila, we found ourselves stuck in unmoving traffic in the Paco/Pandacan area. We were smack dab in the middle of gridlock that left us crawling the remaining distance from Quirino Avenue to the Sofitel Philippine Plaza, normally just a short drive, for more than an hour.

By the time I reached the hotel at past 7 p.m., the subject of my interview, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, executive director of UN Women, had already left. It was my misfortune to have missed her on her first visit to the Philippines. It would have been interesting, to say the least, to hear her views not just on the changing status of women in the Philippines and the rest of the world, but also on the changes that governments and economies need to institute to elevate the status of women and make them truly equal partners in development.


But there was a silver lining to my traffic horror story—increasingly common and not so tragic compared to others’. And that bright spot was finding friends from the women’s movement, clustered, like ardent disciples, around former senator Leticia Ramos Shahani. As we exchanged beso-beso, I remarked on Manang Letty’s appearance, which, despite recent health challenges, was pretty remarkable. Remarkable because, in reply to my compliment, she confided: “Yes, for someone who has just come from chemotherapy, I do feel energized and alert!” That’s the stuff that lifelong feminist activists are made of!

So energized was Manang Letty, in fact, that she took me aside to urge me to still write about Madame Mlambo-Ngcuka’s visit and the just-concluded panel discussion on “Economies that Work for Women” in which she, with an array of women from civil society, government and the private sector, took part.


* * *

“You have to write about the women of Africa,” Shahani said, “because, as I said in my remarks to Mlambo-Ngcuka (who hails from South Africa), it was the women of Africa who got together and worked to reach consensus in Nairobi that paved the way to the International Conference of Women in Beijing.”

Shahani was a key figure in the 1985 Nairobi Conference on Women, which produced the “Forward Looking Strategies” that highlighted gender concerns that had previously been obscured in previous gatherings of women dominated by geopolitical issues. “It was these Forward Looking Strategies that paved the way for the Beijing Platform for Action,” reminded Shahani. The 1995 Beijing conference in fact laid the basis for many of the initiatives adopted by the world’s governments to address the growing gaps between men and women, especially in terms of economic and political representation and participation.

But it wasn’t until 2010 that a “blueprint” for UN Women emerged. UN Women, says a backgrounder, sought to “strengthen the United Nations’ institutional arrangements for gender equality and women’s empowerment.” In time, this resolution required the “consolidation of four distinct parts of the UN system that focused exclusively on gender equality and women’s empowerment into a composite entity to be led by an Undersecretary-General.”

This, added Shahani, is no small feat, considering that in her time serving the UN System, women’s concerns were subsumed under a division (which she headed) on “human rights and human development.”

* * *

Four UN bodies were merged to constitute UN Women: the Division for the Advancement of Women (DAW); the International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women (Instraw, established in 1976); the Office of the Special Adviser on Gender Issues Advancement of Women (Osagi, established in 1997); and the United Nationals Development Fund for Women (Unifem, established in 1976).


Michelle Bachelet, former president of Chile, was appointed head of UN Women. The body is currently headed by Mlambo-Ngcuka, who was sworn into office in 2013, bringing with her “a wealth of experience and expertise … having devoted her career to issues of human rights, equality and social justice.”

From 2005 to 2008, Mlambo-Ngcuka served as deputy president of South Africa, “overseeing programmes to combat poverty and bring the advantages of a growing economy to the poor, with a particular focus on women.” She worked in government, in civil society, and with the private sector.

During her visit here, the UN Women executive director emphasized “not only quantitative but also qualitative and substantive progress in achieving gender equality.” While “gains are notable,” she told local audiences, with the Philippines ranking in the top 10 most gender-equal countries in 2014, she pointed out that “challenges remain,” with need for closer collaboration among government, nongovernmental organizations and civil society partners.”

In the discussion on “Economies that Work for Women,” Mlambo-Ngcuka emphasized the need to transform economies to be more inclusive and harness the full potential of women as equal partners with men in economic development.

Or as Shahani noted with a laugh: “We have to involve the men, too.” As they and governments have realized, only by tapping the full potential of women can national, regional and global economic systems enrich everyone, resulting in an arrangement that, in the full meaning of the saying, “raises every boat.”

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TAGS: Leticia Ramos Shahani, Michelle Bachelet, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, UN Women
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