Building a bridge to the future: towards a feminist UN

What will it take for the world’s women to shift the UN away from its paradigm of patriarchy and gender inequality and implement the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

Kavita N Ramdas
23 August 2016



UN officials at a General Assembly Debate, UN New York. Photo: UNIt is August and it is hot everywhere, but it may be particularly sticky and uncomfortable in the halls of the United Nations as the institution faces its next general assembly meeting in September. That is because the UN is being grilled, and not for the first time in its history, by the women of the world, who want to know why the organization charged with implementing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights  (UDHR), seems to be so woefully stuck in its current paradigm of patriarchy and gender inequality.  The most visible manifestation of this discomfort has taken place in the discussion about the choice of the next UN Secretary General and the loud calls for this next leader to be a woman. Ironically, the entire process of governance and decision making at the United Nations, which is supposed to uphold and work by the principles of the UDHR, is profoundly undemocratic and secretive, and remains frozen in its post World War II division between dominant powers and lesser nation states. Thus, while the UN Secretary General may not be from any one of the 5 nations representing the permanent members of the Security Council, their power and influence is barely veiled in the selection process and has already led to elimination of all but the most non-controversial candidates. 

This is not where we thought we would be in 2016.  Over a decade ago when I was still leading the Global Fund for Women feminists around the globe were pushing for something that is now called UN Women - a UN entity that would have the clout and influence to move a holistic and intersectional gender analysis through every single one of the UN's multi-faceted programs and agencies.  An entity that would seen as central to the advancement of the UN mission and goals, be generously endowed with the means to make a difference, and be led by a feminist of power and influence whose mandate was to advance a women's rights agenda both within the UN and across the globe among all its member states.  The Global Fund and other like minded foundations, invested in the process led by pioneers like Charlotte Bunch and were delighted when we found ourselves celebrating its launch in 2010 and welcoming its inaugural director - the remarkable Michele Bachelet, the former President of Chile.

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The "Step It Up" campaign for gender equality. Photo:UNWomen/Ryan Brown

Yet, today, UN Women remains unable to fulfill its potential within the United Nations, severely constrained by funding limitations and a fiercely competitive, sometimes hostile and resolutely patriarchal environment where fiefdoms are carved out on the basis of funding or political power and where nations openly claim their stake on particular agencies of the UN.  So, it is common knowledge that the United States exercises control over UNICEF as it is clear that France refuses to relinquish control over the arena of UN Peacekeeping Forces.  Even the liberal Nordic governments whose values we feminists appreciate, cavalierly use their funding in support of women's rights or empowerment to exercise control and wrest critical positions of influence within entities like UN Women and UNFPA. The UN and its staff is notoriously protected from any regulations that could ensure even a modicum of public accountability with full diplomatic immunity, no ability to sue, and very little transparency in its internal matters.  As one colleague mentioned recently: "there are three locked doors that you have to pass through before you can enter a meeting of the Fifth Committee - the Budget/Finance committee of the UN". 

What could change this reality? What opportunities do feminist activists, scholars, economists, funders see to put some serious cracks in a structure that is outdated, inadequate for today's complex challenges, and fails to represent both the voices of the non-western, so-called developing world as well as 50% of its population - girls and women. These were the questions that a small yet determinedly diverse and passionate group began to tackle this past week.  Thanks to the convening efforts of the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) we began to drill down on a series of specific challenges, but also acknowledge the spaces where change has been made, barriers have been removed, and the status quo has been challenged. Voices from groups like JASSWEDO, and the African Women's Development Fund (ADWF) urged us to think about an approach that put women's movements and women's rights defenders front and center and to strategize about how to leverage the growing impatience and anti-colonial sentiments from many nations in the developing world with a more feminist agenda for the United Nations. We reiterated the power of working class women with organizations like Solidarity Center reminding us that alternative governance structures were possible such as within the International Labor Organization (ILO) where tripartite agreements ensured space for workers voices as distinct from nation states. We challenged ourselves to find allies in this cause within the UN system itself and among leaders in philanthropy who have called for dismantling the structures that perpetuate inequality globally. We explored the opportunities to create safe spaces for whistleblowers, to ensure more transparent processes, and to expand the space for civil society within the UN, which still primarily serves the interests of governments and not peoples.

Many of us come from the world of activism and know something about turning up the heat when it is needed.  But we hope first to lean a little harder on the well- intentioned and caring people within the institution that needs to be remade for the 21st century.  We decided that we are going to focus our energies on building a bridge to a shared future - a feminist future.  We will be reaching out to many of our networks and potential allies both within and outside the United Nations - we have only one planet and only one transnational governance structure - it needs to be the very best it can be.

Getting there may feel almost as hard as crossing the bridge in Selma, Alabama, but just like those champions of equality, "we are on our way to justice and we shall not be moved."

Kavita Ramdas will be speaking at the forthcoming AWID Forum Feminist Futures: Building Collective Power for Rights and Justice, 8-11 September, Bahia  Brazil.

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