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Working as Women’s Rights Director for the UN [Interview]


We caught up with a former UNIFEM (United Nations Development Fund for Women) Country Director – Hendrica Okondo to find out what it is like to work directly on women’s rights from within the UN system. Mrs. Okondo worked for UNIFEM for almost one decade and prior to that she was a Senior Gender Advisor to the UN World Food Programme, she holds a Masters in Public Health and Environmental Science and a BA. in Agricultural Sciences and Entomology. She is now a Global Programme Manager at the World YWCA working on Women’s Sexual and Reproductive health rights, VAW (Violence Against Women) and HIV.

UN Women was born through a UN reform agenda merging together different UN agencies that previously worked on women’s rights. One of these agencies was the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM). In 1976 UNIFEM was created to support women’s empowerment and gender equality. It worked extensively on developing gender responsive budgets Southern Africa, East Africa, Southeast Asia, South Asia, Central America and the Andean region. UNIFEM was the pioneer in raising awareness throughout the UN system of gender responsive budgets as a tool to strengthen economic governance in all countries.

What did your role in UNIFEM consist of and what specific issues did you address?

I was the Country Director for UNIFEM Tanzania and I managed the one UN Gender Programme. It focused on gender and governance, gender budgeting, sexual gender based violence (SGBV) and gender audits. We also chaired multi stakeholder gender working groups and a gender and HIV working group. This was made possible by using the ILO toolkit: Participatory Gender Audit. A gender audit enhances the collective capacity of the organisation to examine its activities from a gender perspective and identify strengths and weaknesses in promoting gender equality issues. It monitors and assesses the relative progress made in gender mainstreaming.

What was the most challenging part of your job?

Personally, I have to say that the most challenging part was definitely trying to negotiate space for gender and women empowerment issues with big UN agencies such as United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) because they did not recognise our mandate and also had very competent gender officers they did not give financial and moral support.

Why did you decide to leave and work in the civil society sector?

The bureaucracy of the UN was a barrier for reaching women at community level and it seemed as if we giving more money to the government system rather than creating an enabling environment for women’s empowerment. As we know, women need economic assets, social protection and justice to claim their rights so while engendering the policy frameworks and developing accountability mechanisms for delivery on gender equality commitments is important. We need to put women and girls in a space where they have opportunities to claim those rights. Therefore, in short I missed sitting under the tree, just talking to women and girls.

How is working for an NGO different to working for the UN?

I like working in a NGO- civil society organisation (CSO) as the space is more dynamic, it is easier to link the local to global and in general most processes are less formal. Furthermore, it is easier to advocate without having to worry about a UN member state position and easier to get consensus on advocacy issues thus there are more opportunities to innovate.

What advice would you give to young people who want to work for the UN?

I highly recommend that young people especially young women do internships at the UN because it is a very useful experience. However, we need to advocate for paid internship as too many UN agencies are using free labour of youth to meet their funding gap and that is not fair! We need more developed countries to provide JPO funding for least developed countries (LDC) in order to promote diversity and give youth from the global south access to UN careers. Reflecting on my time as a UN staff member, I enjoyed the good pay obviously and the easy access to many countries through the use of the UN LP – a valid travel document, which can be used like a national passport (in connection with travel on official missions only). Ascompared to now I need a new passport every year full of visas. I am sharing this as I want to mention a key point that this has made me reflect upon very much: we need to lobby for work mobility for all young people! You ask me what advice I have for young people and I really think that it is not fair that young people from the global south have no access to schools, universities and workplaces in the global north because of migration policies that discriminate poor countries. Yet at the wealth in the north was made and still is made by exploiting the south, we cannot talk of globalisation when politicians through fear mongering are blocking mobility of youth employment. Therefore, considering all of this my advice to young people is not to give up. I am from the global south and through education, determination and support I have made it this far. Together, we must lobby for changes on national, regional and global policies to generate more economic opportunities for young people from the global south especially young women!

About the author

Marcia Banasko

Marcia Banasko is a Human Rights activist and performer. She holds a bachelor in International Development and Latin American Studies. For several years she worked alongside the United Nations for an international women's rights organisation as their communication and advocacy officer. Marcia has campaigned globally to end child marriage, all forms of violence against women including domestic violence and for women to fully enjoy their sexual reproductive health and rights. She is now the co-founder of One Love Soul, a global humanitarian project for refugees, Roma communities and those most vulnerable, using music, dance and sport to promote human rights and well-being.