Can António Guterres make good on his promises to advance gender equality as UN Secretary-General, or will “politics trump gender” once again in an organization established to stand for all the world’s people?
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By Ourania S. Yancopoulos
Throughout the Secretary-General selection process, António Guterres publically committed to achieving a gender-balanced United Nations. “The UN must be at the forefront of the global movement towards gender equality,” he wrote in his vision statement dated February 2016, “Given that previous commitments to gender parity were not fulfilled, the SG should present and implement a road map for gender parity.”
The occasion of Guterres’s appointment on 13 October 2016, served as yet another visible reminder of just how far the United Nations needs to come. Despite remarks by both the General Assembly President, Peter Thomson, and current Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on women’s empowerment and their historic role in this year’s selection process, only one woman crossed the stage to welcome Guterres to his new position.
However, the UN’s only woman Permanent Representative serving on the current Security Council – US Ambassador, Samantha Power – took the opportunity to deliver a hopeful message, “[W]hile being a woman is not among Mr. Guterres’s many qualifications, he has pledged gender parity at all levels of the United Nations, with clear benchmarks and timeframes.”
As the work of his transition team gets well under way expectations are high for Guterres to make good on his pledges. UN Women’s former Chief Advisor on Peace and Security, Anne-Marie Goetz told openDemocracy, “Mr. Guterres has been careful to mention gender issues in recent public statements. But now is the time to send a convincing message about his intentions, a confidence-building indication of the steps he will take to strengthen the UN’s flagging work on gender equality and to build women’s leadership.”
The UN has an obvious and complex gender problem – and it’s up to Guterres to provide clear indication that he will move the United Nations in the right direction. And quickly.
The United Nations was founded seventy-one years ago. Since then, 28 women have chaired one of the UN’s six main committees (compared to 424 men); 3 women have served as General-Assembly President (compared to 68 men); and zero have ever held the position of Secretary-General.
Recent revelations about the organization’s failures to empower women within its senior staff show that the roots of gender bias run deep. Moreover, the UN’s selection last month of comic-book character Wonder Woman as its first honorary ambassador for women and girls’ empowerment is a graphic reminder of the UN’s failure to take gender issues seriously. Protests by UN staff erupted immediately. One of the protest organizers who spoke to openDemocracy on the basis of anonymity explained,“[F]or something that is this important, you need a woman or a man who can speak, who can travel, who can champion these rights.” “If you’re looking for a woman with long black hair, toned arms, […] great legs- pick Michelle Obama,” she exclaimed. “She’s out of a job on the first of January – and she kicks ass!”
For another protestor, Cass DuRant, what Wonder Woman stands for goes completely against the core values of the UN, “She is a warrior and those are male values. The UN is not about going in and fighting to resolve issues, it is about talking and compromising and agreeing, so on every imaginable level we think she is a poor choice.”
The nearly 30,000 people who have signed the online petition, started by U.N. staffers, agree. The petition reads, “The message the United Nations is sending to the world with this appointment is extremely disappointing.”
Wonder Woman’s appointment is a reminder that in an organization that has made gender equality a stated “top priority,” today, women make up just twenty percent of Permanent Representatives, twenty-one percent of Senior Managers, six percent of military experts, and three percent of military troops.
It could not be more obvious—from reports of sexual violence by UN Peacekeepers, to the persistent gender imbalance in the UN’s senior management, and now the seemingly tone-deaf appointment of Wonder Woman—that the United Nations desperately needs an overhaul in its attitudes about women.
That task will fall to António Guterres.
The work Guterres has performed in the areas of gender parity and women’s empowerment both as a politician in Portugal and as an official in the UN is well recognized. But while he has a laudable feminist record, there are aspects to his career that give gender equality advocates pause.
Even before becoming Portugal’s Prime Minister in 1995, Guterres was committed to gender equality. In an email to openDemocracy earlier this fall, Guterres reflected on his early exposure to gender issues, “I became aware of these issues as a teenager doing volunteer work in poor neighborhoods of Lisbon. I witnessed the extra burden that weighed upon women living under precarious conditions, doing menial jobs and still carrying the responsibility for keeping extended families, often on their own. I wanted to help change this and other harsh realities in my country. That is why I went into politics—to effect change.”
As leader of Portugal’s Socialist Party he enacted a quota system to impose a minimum threshold of representation of women in party offices. The thirty percent quota was far from parity but still quite impressive almost two decades ago in a country that had only recently transitioned to democracy.
Such change did not come easily. In the email exchange, Guterres noted, “Reactions … ranged from harshly opposed to mildly indifferent. We had to go the extra mile to convince people that this was important and this was the right way to go.”
At the same time, however, Guterres publicly opposed a referendum on Portugal’s strict law against abortion, instead favoring a law that mandated jail time for Portuguese women who performed the procedure. According to the New York Times, while a majority of the Socialist Party favored the move to reform abortion laws, Guterres opposed it based on his Catholic faith.
While his stance on abortion may call into question his stance on gender equality, Guterres’s commitment to women’s empowerment did not waiver when he became the UN’s tenth High Commissioner for Refugees in 2005. During his tenure, he worked to shift UNHCR’s focus from perceiving refugee women and girls as vulnerable victims, to promoting their empowerment.
The successes of Guterres’s programs during this time abound. In Pakistan, UNHCR arranged for mass information campaigns to ensure women are aware of individual registration to guarantee their security, access to essential services, and political rights. In Liberia, guidelines on refugee election procedures now ensure that fifty percent of the camp leadership is women. To advance gender equality in food security in Afghanistan, women are now prioritized for food distribution. And in Jordan, separate pick-up areas and times for food distribution are designated for women.
Not only did Guterres work to advance a different narrative about women and girls on the ground, but he also worked to achieve gender parity at all levels of institutional leadership. When Guterres came into office in 2005, women made up not even thirty percent of the UNHCR’s senior positions. According to UNHCR records, gender parity was fully met within his Senior Management Committee by the end of his tenure—with ten women and ten men—and rose to forty-two percent among all senior leadership positions. “If I had to choose just one measure during my years at UNHCR that really had an impact and triggered substantive change I would say parity at the Senior Management Committee,” said Guterres in an email to openDemocracy. He does regret however, that during his tenure the proportion of women among junior levels staff appeared to drop.
Now, Guterres has committed to achieving full gender parity in the United Nations. In an interview with openDemocracy in early September, he provided more detail, saying he would start with the UN’s most senior levels—a tactic he believes will have the greatest and swiftest impact.
But some gender-parity advocates worry that these rhetorical commitments are empty, and that promises of a feminist agenda from a male Secretary-General may not amount to much. In a recent interview with openDemocracy, Shazia Rafi, UN Expert and former Secretary-General of Parliamentarians for Global Action, said, “[Men] have had their chance for seventy years, they have not created a more equal or peaceful world, they have not kept their commitments on gender equality made over twenty years ago at the Beijing Conference 1995; I was there, I helped write the words. There is no reason to believe the men will do so now.” After the appointment of Mr. Guterres, Rafi says her views have not changed per se. “But, I am open to them doing something completely different from the pattern of the last 70 years,” she wrote in an email on 3 November.
The UN has committed itself to fifty-fifty gender parity in top senior managerial posts since February 1996. The closest it ever got in those twenty years was twenty-four percent in 2012. In fact, if the current trend continues, the UN will favor men in its senior positions for the next 110 years.
The UN’s gender problem is much more than just staffing issues.
Gender equality activist groups such as the United Nations Feminist Network, and the International Center for Research on Women, have outlined clear, concrete proposals for the next SG. These feminist agendas include targets from achieving gender parity to preventing and addressing sexual harassment, and even repurposing the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women.
Changes in staffing, however, can be delivered almost immediately.
On the occasion of the appointment of a new Secretary-General, all high-level employees submit letters of resignation. This gives Guterres the chance to take bold action toward parity. If Guterres appoints a gender-equal Senior Management Group—just as Canada’s Justin Trudeau appointed a gender-equal Cabinet upon taking office in 2015—the move would be a brave step forward toward a gender-equal UN. He might next consider sending seventy-five-year-old Wonder Woman back into retirement.
Ourania S. Yancopoulos, a United Nations intern in 2015, earned her Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and Statistics from Columbia College at Columbia University this May. Follow her on twitter @niayancopoulos.
This article was originally published on OpenDemocracy and is available by clicking here. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of TransConflict.