UNIFEM Executive Director Ines Alberdi. Photo by: UNIFEM

Ines Alberdi envisions a world where gender equality is part and parcel of policies and social attitudes.

As executive director of the U.N. Development Fund for Women, she is in a unique position to make that dream a reality.

“The world that I foresee is one where no woman in any country, for instance in India, has to worry when a daughter is born,” Alberdi, a Spanish national, told Devex in a recent interview. “I think that we’re working for this kind of world and are looking forward to it.”

Alberdi became aware of Spain’s deep-seated inequities while undertaking a doctorate degree in political science and sociology at Complutense University of Madrid during the 1970s. The former Eisenhower fellow took up UNIFEM’s top job in June 2008 after teaching for 15 years at her alma mater. She served as an elected deputy in the Madrid Assembly from 2003 to 2007 and, much earlier – 1986 to 1989 – was a board member of the United Nations International Research and Training Institute, one of four U.N. agencies to merge under a current plan to create a new U.N. gender entity.

In an interview with Devex, Alberdi talked about the new gender entity and worldwide efforts to promote women’s empowerment and development.

UNIFEM is helping to spearhead efforts for a new U.N. gender entity. Could you elaborate on UNIFEM’s role and what gender strategies the organization is pushing for?

UNIFEM is very involved in [the entire] process, and we are willing to get a new gender entity. I think there is a good opportunity now for strengthening the U.N. system in the areas of women’s rights and gender equality. And we know that the [U.N. secretary-general] and the [deputy secretary-general] are really committed to ensure that the U.N. does its best for this promise to be fulfilled.

There is big expectation also from the NGOs and women’s organizations because it’s been accepted that there is a need for a stronger agency with more authority and more resources that will address the concerns of women. There are clear expectations both from the member states and the U.N. system that capacity will be enhanced with the establishment of this entity. Also, there are expectations for efficiency and effectiveness.

It is expected also that funding will be increased and this means, of course, programming that advances gender equality will also be enhanced with this new gender entity. We have expectations that the new gender entity will lead innovative and catalytic country-driven programs and provide better technical cooperation and capacity building and also underscore global, regional and national advocacy for gender equality and women’s empowerment.

How do you anticipate the entire reform process will affect the internal architecture of UNIFEM itself?

We are very – well, I don’t know how to say it – optimistic about the process. We understand that it will be a transitional period that could be difficult but, you know, we are willing to have the opportunity to do a better and much bigger job. My understanding is that the four gender entities now being part of the U.N. will be merged as one. And especially in the countries, UNIFEM is the only agency of the U.N. right now that has activities in-country, programming and catalytic activities in the countries. And then we see that all our effort, all our resources, all our capabilities will be part of this new gender entity. … We foresee the process to go on, continue on in matching and offering a bigger response for the need we have, for the demand we have from member countries.

Gender violence is one of your key focus areas. Can you tell us more about UNIFEM’s recently launched Global Virtual Knowledge Center? How can women’s groups or individuals make use of or contribute to it? What kind of impact or results are you expecting to have?

UNIFEM launched a global virtual knowledge center in March during the 54th session of the CSW and this center is on how to address violence against women and girls. Based on country data, we estimate that up to 70 percent of women experience physical or sexual violence from men in their lives. And worldwide, it is recognized that violence against women constitutes a gross violation of human rights with enormous physical and economic costs. And, more and more, many countries have passed laws and adopted policies to address the problem. However, the major challenge lies in translating national and international policy commitments into practice.

Then, this center is meant to help the groups that are working against violence, governments, the groups of women, to better [fulfill] this purpose. Policies and programs to address gender-based violence must be based on good works. Then, the virtual knowledge center will now serve as a go-to search engine, sort of Google, on ending violence against women. It’s a one-stop center to support policymakers, activists and advocates around the world in effective design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of policies and programs. It’s a web-based site that brings together virtual learners from a big network of groups, practitioners, governments and also the work of UNIFEM. And, we are trying to capture in this virtual center the living experience from all regions of the world, and it’s primarily intended for advocates in the developing countries where there is less information or not much opportunity to learn this kind of information.

Are there any specific organizations or private-sector groups that you’re looking to work with on this? Which organizations are already on board?

You know, this center has been made for UNIFEM with the help of a big network with which we’re already working [with] – the network that has been made through our past work to end violence against women, through our activities in many countries where we get in touch with women’s organizations, men and young folks working to end violence against women, lecturers, academics. And then all this information is put on the web for open news of everyone that needs to, for instance, to lobby for a law reform on violence against women, or to organize men’s groups to conscience themselves about the issue. It’s a kind of research center open to everyone on the web.

Can you give examples of successful partnerships that UNIFEM has brokered in advancing women’s empowerment? What types of partners is UNIFEM currently on the look-out for?

Partnerships with governments, with civil society and private sector are of a very [high] importance for us, and we work in every region of the world for these partnerships. For example, in Egypt, UNIFEM is working with the private sector to advance women’s work and career opportunities through the RBI [results-based initiative] gender equity field program. There are 10 private companies already engaged in the gender field and committed to gender equality in the companies, including equal pay and addressing sexual harassment in the work place. The government of Egypt is now committed to scale up the initiative and will be targeting 60 companies of the investment zone. Another example I can talk about is in Jordan, where two bylaws to protect women migrant workers, especially those doing domestic work, [were] passed in 2009. It was, as you can imagine, from years of advocacy by civil society groups and UNIFEM’s support to make these laws a reality.

How are these partnerships initiated?

For instance, with business, some big companies offer to help UNIFEM and then we partner with them and we receive support – but at the same time, we ask for them to be aware of these human rights and women’s rights. There are other partnerships with civil-society organizations that start working with women’s groups and then go, for instance, to work with government, [for instance a group] with gender budgeting experience that started in some local cities, local administration, local authorities in Ecuador, and then it’s been opened up and is expanding to many, many national governments in other countries.

There’s been a lot of emphasis on success in areas such as primary education when it comes to gender issues. However, many fear that delivery on the implementation side is lacking. What advice do you have for businesses, civil-service groups, governments and international organizations looking to integrate and implement gender policies?

There is not only one way of implementation because every country is different and every partnership also is different. But, we try to advance our partnership and our collaboration with civil society, and government and business. For example, with businesses we launched recently in March the Women’s Empowerment Principles, which has seven concrete steps for companies … to advance the position of women in the work and marketplace, including committing to promoting women to higher positions, which is lacking in most countries.

There is another way of work. For instance, I remember, one of our priorities is to increase women’s political participation. And, for instance, in Albania last year, we worked with the election commission and civil society, with some women’s organizations, to not only get more women to become candidates, but also to get more women to come out and vote. UNIFEM put a lot of effort; the hard work made results. The number of women elected in parliament shift to 14 percent and the country had the highest vote amount in democratic times.

2010 has been an important year in many respects with regards to it being the 15th anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action, and also since it’s been a decade since the MDGs were rolled out. What are some of the key messages and issues that you think should take center stage at the U.N. High-level Plenary Meeting on the Millennium Development Goals in September?

Yes, 2010 is a very important year for women’s rights. I think in the area of achievement of the MDGs is the issue of accountability to the commitments made at international forums. This has been an enormous challenge in terms of normative and legal frameworks over the 15 years since the Beijing conference. And the question now – and our work on the ground tells us – that we are still lagging behind on implementation and accountability. For women’s rights to become a reality and for them to bring significant change into the lives of women, we must be able to fully participate in decision-making at all levels and hold those responsible to account when the rights are infringed or the needs ignored.

What does it mean, accountability? You know, our last publication on women of the world in 2008-2009 was dedicated to accountability. How institutions and governments and international organizations respond to women’s needs and especially how they respond to the commitments made to women. Accountability means that power holders, whether public authority or public corporation, must be responsible to women for their actions and they way they define their priorities and allocate resources to meet them. This is critical for development processes to move out of the realm of charity and into that of obligation. And fundamental to this process is independent reporting, monitoring and demanding that efforts to advance women’s rights are well-resourced and there is adequate financing for gender equality.

The U.S. is working on overhauling its foreign aid apparatus. As someone who advocates gender-responsive budgeting, what, in your view, should the U.S. take into consideration throughout the foreign aid reform process?

Not only the U.S. – I think every country should look carefully at the inequities and gender gaps across the globe and how it affects development. For example, in Haiti, where many women are heads of household, we can demand, we can ask: How are they represented in the reconstruction efforts? Are their needs, such as place to shower or clean the children, part of the planning for the temporary camps? Are there vulnerabilities to sexual violence – we know that increases after disasters – being factored into the plans for shelters? These are issues that any country allocating foreign aid has to keep in mind.

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