Does the United Nations have a real feminist in the next Secretary-General, António Guterres?

| October 2016
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Summary: António Guterres has made good on his commitments to advance gender equality both in his government and at the United Nations Agency for Refugees. But can he make good on his promises as UN Secretary-General, or will “politics trump gender” once again in an organization that is supposed to stand for all the world’s people?

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 week 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, excoriating the choice of “a large breasted, white woman of impossible proportions, scantily clad in a shimmery, thigh-baring body suit with an American flag motif and knee high boots—–the epitome of a ‘pin-up’ girl,” as one petition signed by nearly 3,000 staff members stated. 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 nine percent of UN Security Council Members, 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. This is all the more true in an organization that is supposed to represent all the world’s people and act as an international bearer of standards.

That task will fall to newly appointed Secretary-General, 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.

 So, while gender advocates must continue to push Gutterres to prioritize women’s empowerment in the face of political pressures on the one hand, from Guterres, we need a bold, clear sign that he will immediately follow through on commitments to parity upon taking office.

Even before becoming Portugal’s prime minister in 1995, Guterres was committed to gender equality. In an email correspondence with me 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 our 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 as actors.

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 over email.

Now, Guterres has committed to achieving full gender parity in the United Nations. In his interview with Member States for the position of Secretary-General, Guterres said, “If elected, I will present a road map for gender parity at all levels with benchmarks and time frames.” In an interview with openDemocracy, 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, 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.”

“We want[ed] a woman Secretary-General,” said another advocate, Jean Krasno, Chairwoman of the Campaign to Elect a Woman UN Secretary-General, “not someone who promises to do better, when none of the male SGs have ever achieved gender parity in the UN system.”

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.

And yet, change can come.

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.

nia-headshotOurania S. Yancopoulos is a journalist for Open Democracy and writer on the United Nations. She is also both a Consultant and Project Manager with the Permanent Mission of Colombia to the United Nations. She graduated from Columbia University magna cum laude in May 2015 with a dual-major in Political Science and Statistics, and is the winner of the 2016 Carnegie Council Student Research Conference.


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