UNDEF side event during UN Commission on Status of Women: Empowerment, Democracy, Civil Society, Innovation
3 April 2018
“UNDEF is a unique model in the UN system, doing great things with small amounts, creating enabling environments for civil society around the world” – Ambassador Kelley Currie, United States
“UNDEF’s support has allowed us to test ourselves. Thanks to UNDEF’s support, the Governments in our project countries saw our organization move from mere outputs to a transformative large-scale intervention” -- Luisa Córdoba, Director of International Cooperation, TECHO
“UNDEF’s support helped show refugee women that democracy meant something to them. It helped demonstrate that being a refugee is not an identity, to establish democracy as a concept where the individual has a voice and agency” -- Lina Abou Habib, Executive Director, Women’s Learning Partnership
“Supporting women’s efforts to be self-determining in these contexts is incredibly difficult work. Nevertheless, UNDEF and the organizations represented by our panelists have found ways of making effective interventions in precisely these contexts” – Dr. Wairimu Njoya, UNDEF Board member
An UNDEF-hosted side event during the March 2018 session of the UN Commission on Status of Women showcased UNDEF projects on the theme Empowerment Through Democracy, Civil Society and Innovation. UNDEF Executive Head Annika Savill was joined by Ambassador Tanmaya Lal, Deputy Permanent Representative of India to the UN; Ambassador Kelley Currie, U.S. Representative for Economic and Social Affairs to the UN; Dr. Wairimu Njoya, UNDEF Advisory Board member and Assistant Professor of Political Science and Gender Studies, Williams College.
A panel discussion featured UNDEF project implementers Ms. Bhavani Rao, Director, Ammachi Labs, India, representing two UNDEF projects: Women as Champions of Sanitation and Innovative Vocational Education; Ms. Lina Abou Habib, Executive Director, Women’s Learning Partnership, representing the UNDEF project Participation and Empowerment of Syrian Refugee Women in Frontline States; Dr. Abiola Akiyode-Afolabi, Executive Director, Women Advocates Research and Documentation Centre, Nigeria, representing the UNDEF project Community Dialogue for Girls’ Security and Safety in Nigerian Schools; and Ms. Luisa Córdoba, Director of International Cooperation, TECHO, representing the UNDEF project Empowering and Organizing Slum Dwellers in Argentina, Colombia, El Salvador, Peru.
Annika Savill opened the meeting with a recap of UNDEF’s history, noting that India and the United States “could be described as the founding mothers of UNDEF; it was these two large democracies who sowed seeds of UNDEF’s creation by taking a joint initiative 15 years ago that led to Kofi Annan’s establishing the Fund in 2005. This makes UNDEF one of the youngest entities in the UN family. UNDEF is also the only UN entity to have democracy in its name – as you know, the word “democracy” does not appear in the UN Charter, nor is the concept embraced by all Member States. Most important, UNDEF the only entity with primary mandate to support democracy through civil society. Ten years have passed since first UNDEF projects became operational. Our number of projects have now surpassed 700, all of them two years long.”
The role of women had been crucial throughout UNDEF’s history, Annika Savill stressed: ”Needless to say, across all categories of our projects, it is women who tend to be the boldest, the most innovative – and also the most steadfast in implementing initiatives and ensuring sustainable outcomes. Today, we will hear from some of those women in our fantastic panel, representing a few of UNDEF projects in Africa, Arab States, Asia, and Latin America. As our project implementers will show you, these are initiatives that go far beyond workshops and seminars – they have outcomes so measurable and tangible you can actually see, hear and touch them. And they address acute issues of our time – from sanitation challenges in India to security threats to school girls in Nigeria; from slum-dwellers in Latin American cities to the refugee crisis in the Arab states.” Full remarks can be read here.
Dr. Njoya, who moderated the panel, told the meeting: “The twenty-first century has also brought with it a number of daunting challenges. The right of self-determination, which is the foundation of democracy, is endangered by persistent poverty, the escalation of civil conflicts, and an increase in the number of refugees and displaced persons. Supporting women’s efforts to be self-determining in these contexts is incredibly difficult work. Nevertheless, UNDEF and the organizations represented by our panelists have found ways of making effective interventions in precisely these contexts.” Full remarks can be read here.
Ambassador Kelley said the “United States is proud of its partnership with UNDEF, which is a testament to what the UN can do when it breaks the norm”. UNDEF was “an incredible, unique model in the UN system, doing great things with small amounts, creating enabling environments for civil society around the world, supporting space for civil society.” She added that “the US has consistently been a top donor -- more than double the amount of the next donor.” She stressed that UNDEF support for civil society was inherently a way to directly support women, because civil society was an excellent avenue for development that helped women build skills in all areas of political leadership, from organizing to speaking to fundraising. Ambassador Lal noted that “India is an ancient civilization, but a young nation in democracy”. It had a rich and vibrant civil society, and had developed a strong tradition of women’s participation in local government. India looked to UNDEF to support the nuts and bolts of democracy, including electoral processes.
Lina Abou Habib spoke of the challenges facing women in refugee communities in frontline states, where sexism and racism thrived inside the home as well as in society. UNDEF’s support helped to bridge the schism between humanitarian aid and support for empowering women’s development. Above all, UNDEF’s support “helped show refugee women that democracy meant something to them” – not only something stratospheric involving politicians. UNDEF’s support also illustrated to the world that “being a refugee is not an identity, by helping collect narratives on the journey of displacement”. The UNDEF project led to a rethinking of democracy and what it meant for a woman: unless a woman understood the right for her to be safe, a country could not claim to be a democracy. This helped “establish democracy as a concept where the individual has a voice and agency.”
Abiola Akiyode-Afolabi explained that UNDEF’s support had come at a key moment for Nigeria in the context of the kidnapping crisis, prompting the question: what happens the morning after? The rest of the country was preoccupied with thinking in the moment about what should the military do. The UNDEF project made the Government ponder the question of what future action to take. When the next kidnapping happened, the UNDEF project had again came to the surface.
Bhavani Rao stressed that the UNDEF project has brought home the importance of women’s full democratic participation, and how they could leverage what the Government had to offer. "With UNDEF we understood the power of democracy. The importance of civic duties along with civic rights. There are so many government schemes that are available for the rural poor. Enabling to access their civic rights empowers them in so many ways. Also, the fact that a body like the UN cares to look out for the rural poor in and of itself gives them great strength. They feel they have the power of the UN behind them. It creates great aspiration and removes apathy."
Luisa Córdoba concluded that for TECHO, “UNDEF’s support has allowed us to test ourselves. Thanks to UNDEF’s support, the Governments in our project countries saw our organization move from mere outputs to a transformative large-scale intervention. It also opened the door for support from large organizations, who became interested in us because of UNDEF’s support.”