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UN System-wide Gender Focal Point Study

Executive Summary

As a part of the follow-up to the Beijing Platform for Action and the implementation of the Agreed Conclusions on Gender Mainstreaming, the Inter-agency Committee on Women and Gender Equality (IACWGE) decided at its third meeting on February 25-27 1998 to undertake a survey to review the functions of gender focal points in the United Nations system. UNFPA was appointed task manager for the study with the following terms of reference:

  1. An inventory of gender focal points and identification of a typology of gender focal point's functions;
  2. An organizational profile of gender focal points including their structural locations, linkages with internal and external structures;
  3. An assessment of the existence of policy statements to guide the work of gender focal points, including management dimensions, and the work of the focal point as catalyst;
  4. Review of the scope of responsibilities of gender focal points, their job descriptions, skill profile, qualifications and appointment process;
  5. Identification of resources available to gender focal points.

In developing the methodology UNFPA was assisted by a working group comprising of UNAIDS, UNICEF and UNDP. Two types of self-administered questionnaires were developed - one for gender focal points and the other for supervisors. After pre-testing they were sent out through the office of the Chairperson of the IACWGE. The total number of questionnaires that were finally analyzed were 288 consisting of 179 for gender focal points and 109 from supervisors.

Major findings

  • Most of the agencies have responded to General Assembly resolutions on gender mainstreaming by taking actions to improve either gender balance among staff, addressing gender concerns within respective substantive mandates and enacting appropriate polices. Almost three quarters now have specific gender policies and strategies, and only less than ten percent do not. A few also now incorporate gender concerns in office or individual work plans and in performance appraisal reviews.
  • All agencies now appear to have gender focal points. However over ninety percent are women. They are drawn overwhelmingly from the junior cadre of staff (i.e. assistant programme officers, junior programme officers and some national programme officers). Three quarters are officially designated as gender focal points, but one quarter are not. Half were nominated by their offices, regardless of their level of competency, specialization or professional interest. Only one-fifth were recruited against a formally established position.
  • One third of gender focal points function without the benefit of a description of their roles and responsibilities. Less than one fifth stated that their organizations' policies accurately reflect their work plans. For the majority, working on gender issues is not expected to be a full time function. Only 7 percent stated they are expected to spend 100 percent of their time to gender issues. In general, only one quarter of the gender focal points spend their time exclusively on gender issues.
  • The majority combine gender focal point functions with as many as five as other sectoral responsibilities such human rights and/or reproductive rights, information and communication, interagency liaison, NGO, youth, HIV/AIDS, refugee/internally displaced persons, education, environment and agriculture.
  • Tasks are also very diverse and diffused widely. They include provision of technical and advisory support to other units, advocacy support, project management, inter-agency coordination, participating and/or organizing gender-related meetings, organizing training workshops and seminars, organizing conferences and recruitment. Most supervisor's recognize that gender focal points carry a very heavy workload.
  • Accountability for gender mainstreaming remains ambiguous at all levels - among supervisors as well as among gender focal points. This is reinforced by the regular use of an eclectic collection of methodologies, all measuring very different things, for assessing or evaluating gender mainstreaming interventions. The commonest appears to be a minimalist approach, using a checklist.
  • The level of gender focal points' involvement in decision-making remains low and it is largely a function of 1) position within the organization as determined mostly by job titles; 2) sizes of departments and 3) sizes of duty stations. There is more involvement in smaller departments or duty stations. Almost one fifth have no involvement in decision-making on gender issues at all.
  • Although gender training is provided by a large number of agencies, its direct impact on the tasks and outputs and of the focal points is not clear. The content is too diverse. Many supervisors still consider the expertise of gender focal points insufficient.
  • There is an overwhelming dependence on short-term consultants to perform normative work. This forestalls the accumulation of a stock of knowledge among regular staff and may probably introduce too many new approaches and conceptual issues, sequentially, that could be confusing.
  • Gender focal points work with extremely scarce financial resources. Besides the small amounts that are usually allocated, most do not have earmarked funding. This therefore precludes a systemic approach to gender mainstreaming in favour of small disconnected projects. Tracking the cumulative experience of gender mainstreaming, including distilling best practices, therefore becomes very difficult.
  •  Both supervisors and gender focal points identify earmarked human resources allocation, not matter how limited, as essential to an organization's gender mainstreaming manadate.

Main recommendations:

  1. The terms of reference for gender focal points should clearly spell out their technical functions, roles and responsibilities and should also distinguish between two different types of focal points - the cooperate senior gender advisors and the technical gender focal points. The role of gender focal points should be understood as that of a facilitator, catalyst and advisor, and not as the accountable for the implementation of gender mainstreaming in their organizations.
  2. It is vital that gender training and recruitment to ensure gender balances be located and institutionalized in the personnel, training or human resource units or divisions. These units/divisions should develop a cluster of core gender competencies and skills that should be acquired by staff at various levels, including gender focal points and senior managers. Staff induction should include gender-mainstreaming knowledge and promote peer support and team building.
  3. Responsibility and accountability for gender mainstreaming should rest with senior managers who should develop the necessary commitment and competencies to lead policy-making for gender mainstreaming, which gender focal points can draw on for operational guidance.
  4. It is necessary to close the gap that has been observed in location and level within individual organizations, whereby the majority of gender advisors and gender focal points do not have access to decision-making that impact on gender mainstreaming. Entry points should be created to involve them in internal decision-making processes.
  5.  It is recommended that staff on regular posts be designated as gender focal points in order to create a durable stock of knowledge and experience on gender mainstreaming. The existing high dependency on junior staff employed for limited durations and on short-term consultants should be reduced. Diversity should be ensured also by designating more men as gender focal points.
  6.  It is evident that there is a great demand from government and partner organizations for the technical services that gender focal points can provide. The many positive contributions of gender focal points to the realization of gender mainstreaming should be recognized. To better respond to demands for gender services, agencies should strengthen the gender networks in the field and pool their resources on gender (focal points, senior gender advisors etc.) together as much as possible.
  7. The provision of budgets earmarked for BOTH WOMEN AND GENDER activities is an essential instrument for the implementation of the ECOSOC Agreed Conclusions on Gender Mainstreaming.

[1] Presented by Task Manager UNFPA, at the Sixth Meeting of the IACWGE: February 27March 2, 2001


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