The Magazine

Trick or Treat for Feminism

UNICEF's not about children anymore.

Mar 5, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 24 • By DOUGLAS A. SYLVA
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Two years into Ann Veneman's tenure as head of the U.N. Children's Fund, it is clear that she is following in the footsteps of her predecessor, Carol Bellamy. Bellamy spent a decade reorienting the agency from its core mission--child survival--so that UNICEF could pursue the dual ideologies of children's rights and radical feminism.

Since the United States is UNICEF's largest funder, the selection of the executive director in theory reflects the priorities of the American president. Sure enough, the Clintons gave the children of the world a radical feminist lawyer and former New York politician in the person of Bellamy. When the Bush administration followed with Veneman, she was a former secretary of agriculture with no public record on anything more controversial than genetically modified corn.

Veneman's initial press conference as executive director was watched closely by both left and right, and the right--those seeking to return the agency to the no-nonsense approach that had saved millions of children's lives through massive immunization drives, oral rehydration therapy, and other basic medical interventions in the 1980s--came away hopeful. When asked if she would continue Bellamy's reproductive rights agenda for adolescents, Veneman responded, "I don't believe that these issues are relevant to the mission of UNICEF." She even quoted Mother Teresa.

But whatever her intentions, Veneman has failed to take the agency in a new direction. Its recently released annual report represents the triumph of Bellamy's legacy, so much so that the document isn't even about children. It's about women. The thumbnail account on the UNICEF website says, in its entirety:

The State of the World's Children 2007 examines the discrimination and disempowerment women face throughout their lives--and outlines what must be done to eliminate gender discrimination and empower women and girls. It looks at the status of women today, discusses how gender equality will move all the Millennium Development Goals forward, and shows how investment in women's rights will ultimately produce a double dividend: advancing the rights of both women and children.

The authors seem to realize how absurd this is, acknowledging on the very first page of the report: "A logical question that arises from the topic of this report is, 'Why does UNICEF, an organization that advocates for children, monitor women's rights?'"

In what can only be considered her public capitulation, Veneman herself answers the question:

As these pages will make clear, the day when women and girls have equal opportunities to be educated, to participate in government, to achieve economic self-sufficiency and to be secure from gender violence and discrimination will be the day when the promise of gender equality is fulfilled and UNICEF's mission of a world fit for children can be realized.

UNICEF and, apparently, Veneman believe that it is now UNICEF's mandate to empower women, since empowered women lead to healthy children, especially girls.

The report is thus a study in the rationalizations necessary to justify replacing UNICEF's mandate with one of women's empowerment, which UNICEF defines as liberation from oppression in the household, in the workplace, and in the political sphere. Many pages are devoted to establishing just how terrible the condition of women is. A sample of what passes for proof: "Along with children, [women] account for 80 per cent of civilian casualties during armed conflict." Never mind that men make up virtually 100 percent of military casualties. "Elderly women may face double discrimination on the basis of both gender and age." Why? "Women tend to live longer than men." Even Mother Nature seems to have it out for women: "In Burkina Faso, for example, where members of the household simultaneously cultivate the same crop on different plots of similar size, evidence shows that, on average, yields are about 18 per cent lower on women's plots compared to men's plots."

Women (and their children) are victims because men are bad. Women want to feed their children, while men do not: "Women prioritize nutrition. Survey results from Cameroon show that income-earning women typically spend 74 per cent of their funds to supplement the family food supply, while men spend only an estimated 22 per cent of their income on food." And women want to treat their children with real medicine, while men do not:

A study conducted in the Volta region found that men, typically the household decision-makers in rural villages, tend to treat malaria in children with local herbal remedies and generally regard formal medical treatment as a last resort. Women, in contrast, prefer to treat children immediately with antimalarial drugs from formal medical clinics.