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UN Special, International Women's Day Issue: UNRISD Weighs in on Gender

16 Mar 2011



UNRISD Researcher Shahra Razavi comments on the role of the newly formed UN Women and on gender parity within UNRISD on the occasion of International Women's Day for the March 2011 No. 704 issue of the UN Special Magazine

What is the Role of UN Women?

The establishment of UN Women marks a historic moment for the international women’s movement. Bringing together different bodies of the UN system that work for gender equality into one coherent and powerful organization has been a significant achievement— and one that has the potential to put the struggle for gender equality on a more secure footing. Equally encouraging has been the strategic appointment of Michelle Bachelet as the first executive director of this new organization, given her outstanding record in Chile.


The role of UN Women is to raise the many concerns, issues and claims that animate women’s rights struggles, be it at the global, regional, national, subnational or grassroots levels, and to give these concerns the policy priority they deserve, effectively building on the achievements of the global conferences of the 1990s (Vienna, Cairo and Beijing).

This is no small task. We just have to hope that the resources and standing given to this new body will be commensurate with its mandate. We know that gender inequality intersects with other types of inequality, such as income inequalities as well as with ethnic, religious and racial discriminations that pervade all societies, both “developed” and “developing”. In recent decades, these inequalties have been reinforced in the context of increasingly prevalent crises and insecurities. Subsequently, UN Women will be advocating for gender equality in very complex situations.

UN Women can contribute to the design of more effective policies for gender equality and women’s empowerment by using research that considers multiple and overlapping inequalities, that is context-specific and comparative, and that grapples with complexity and diversity. There is a great deal of work being done by national-level researchers and women’s organizations to scrutinize policy implementation on the ground. There is also important comparative work being done by many scholars and research organizations across national and regional contexts (for example, by UNRISD). UN Women should go beyond the general or rhetorical, to draw on and effectively use research and knowledge to demonstrate how gender equality norms and legislation play out in different economic, social and political contexts, what works where, and when and why. The theme of International Women’s Day this year is “Equal access to education, training, and science and technology: Pathway to decent work for women”, which in itself highlights the importance of research, and the generation and sharing of knowledge.

I am sure there is a lot of thinking and discussion going on within UN Women itself on these issues. A critical complement to this will be for the new organization to keep a close ear to the ground by consulting with women’s movements and organizations that have a track record in furthering the women’s rights agenda.

What do you need to do within UNRISD to promote gender parity?

UNRISD is in some ways ahead of many other organizations in terms of gender parity in its staffing. As you may know, UNRISD now (finally after 47 years!) has a female director, and women are also strongly represented within its Board. Some could argue that this is because of our “soft” mandate—social development. However, I think there are other organizations within the UN system and beyond with equally “soft” mandates, but where women have not been able to break through the “glass ceiling”.


As far as substantive issues are concerned, research on gender has a central place within UNRISD’s research programme, even though some specific projects have not always been able to include a strong gender dimension. Today, we, like many other organizations, especially research organizations, face the challenge of securing funds for our work in a tight fiscal climate. When budgets are constrained, research can be seen by some as an unnecessary “luxury”. This is short-sighted thinking. Ideas matter and without critical thinking and critical policy analysis, we may end up putting public funds into dubious policies, programmes and projects that yield poor results — or even worse, that harm rather than do good to those they claim to serve.


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This article reflects the views of the author(s) and does not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.