UN Secretary-General António Guterres speaking at a press conference in New York. Photo/UN Women
António Guterres takes office on 1 January as the ninth Secretary-General of the United Nations; the ninth man to take this role. He faces a greater concentration of crises than anyone can remember, at a time of growing skepticism about multilateral solutions, while the UN’s credibility as a trustworthy humanitarian actor has been crushed by sexual exploitation and abuse by peacekeepers. As the world’s 'secular pope’ he will have to deal with inflated expectations about his capacity to resolve these crises and repair the UN in the process. Trump’s win in the November US presidential elections makes it urgent that the new SG fronts a powerful feminist agenda to hold firm against a rising tide of misogyny in the US and elsewhere. For Guterres to do this effectively, he must distinguish clearly between an internal UN project of achieving gender parity, and a wider project of democratising gender relations and enabling women’s leadership in national and global problem-solving.
Implications of the Trump win for multilateral work on gender equality
Feminist multilateralists campaigned in 2016 for the appointment of a woman as SG. One of the factors mitigating their disappointment was a widely-shared hope, rising dangerously to the status of an expectation, that the next US president would be Hillary Clinton. The possibility of a feminist US president who had, as Secretary of State, framed increases in the US’s spending on women’s rights, autonomy and wellbeing as investments in national and international security, was expected to usher in a new era of funding and inclusion for the UN’s marginalised work on engaging women in peace processes and peacebuilding, and for its beleaguered ‘women peace and security’ (WPS) specialists.
A feminist US president might also have spurred the UN to become a much more convincing leader on women’s sexual and reproductive rights, rights to property, decent employment and fair pay, freedom from gender-based violence and access to opportunities to compete for public office.
Trump’s win threatens the precise opposite. It makes feminist achievements seem much less secure than we had thought. Trump’s win, coasting on global trends favoring pugilistic leadership styles, xenophobic and racist nationalism, has massively increased the burden of expectations on the new SG. Trump’s win has brought with it a range of threats to multilateralism in general, and specifically to efforts to slow climate change, promote human rights, cooperate on resettling refugees, and even, astonishingly, to freedom of expression. Trump’s win has also featured a threat to women’s rights. Trump’s own history of sexual harassment, his threat to de-fund Planned Parenthood, his dismissal of efforts to fight gender or sexuality-based discrimination as ‘political correctness’, his predilection for older white men - some with domestic violence charges - in government leadership roles, are expressions of an unapologetically Hefneresque reduction of women to sex objects. His vague proposals on paid maternity leave reflect not a feminist policy platform, but the hard ‘peak marketplace feminism’ of his daughter Ivanka; less about justice than about grooming women to consume.
Ominously, Trump’s transition team has made gender the focus one of its astonishingly few requests for information about how the government works. Just before Christmas it asked the State Department and USAID employees to outline “existing programs and activities to promote gender equality, such as ending gender-based violence, promoting women’s participation in economic and political spheres, entrepreneurship, etc.” The Trump transition team also requested a list of positions “whose primary functions are to promote such issues”, as well as how much funding was directed to gender-related programmes in 2016. Considering how relatively isolated this request is in the context of his inexperienced transition team, that it was made at all suggests it is an area of significant interest.
If the intention of the probe into the US’s gender equality work is to trim fat, Trump will be disappointed. Gender equality work in fragile and developing countries is not exactly a major money drain for the US. But if the intention is to contort or cut the US’s women’s rights work internationally, this is a much more serious concern. While perhaps the best known US policy on gender and foreign aid is the regularly renewed Helms Amendment barring federal funding for abortion services, the US otherwise plays an unsung but crucial leadership role in multilateral policy-making on women’s rights. An attack on the US’s role in this area could have repercussions around the world.
The US has been at the head of efforts to push the UN to promote women’s rights since Virginia Gildersleeve was the sole woman on the US delegation to the 1945 San Francisco United Nations Conference, where she helped draft the UN Charter. In the annual Commission on the Status of Women the US has played a vital role in facilitating normative advances, but it often negotiates from behind partner countries from the South, building global coalitions on women’s rights to show that women’s rights are not just an advanced industrial nations preoccupation. In the Security Council, the US has been a consistent supporter of the ‘Women Peace and Security’ resolutions, in particular those aiming to prevent the use of sexual violence as a tactic of warfare. The US provides core financial support to the office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict. And though the US is hardly the biggest donor to UN Women, it was one of the prime drivers of the 2010 resolution creating it. Hillary Clinton personally interceded on its behalf to persuade Michele Bachelet, currently the president of Chile, to become its first Executive Director, a move that significantly elevated its profile.
Time for a feminist surge at the UN
In light of the seeming inevitability of a dilution of the US’s support for gender equality and LGBTI rights, and in the context of reversals of women’s rights achievements by regimes that may be nationalist, populist, authoritarian, post-Soviet kleptocratic, or influenced by fundamentalist religious ideologies, the UN must step up as the standard-bearer for women’s rights. This will be tough. As noted by a group of feminists convened in the autumn by the International Center for Research on Women in Washington DC: ‘the institution that has catalyzed […] breakthrough processes to secure visionary commitments to gender equality has consistently failed to implement these commitments in its internal policies and practices, as well as in the programs that it advocates for and supports.” Bringing attention to gender issues into top decision-making at the UN will require internal reforms to address the way this is constantly marginalized and sidelined, to significantly increase funding for women’s empowerment programming, to sharpen the influence of UN Women, and to address one of the UN’s most egregious failings: the impunity with which both uniformed and civilian peacekeepers as well as UN humanitarian staff sexually abuse host populations.
Long before Guterres was selected, a range of UN observers and international civil society organisations began to generate priority agendas for the new SG’s consideration. Arguably these started with former Assistant Secretary-General Anthony Banbury’s blistering March 2016 Op Ed in the New York Times, blaming the UN’s ‘colossal mismanagement’ on a sclerotic personnel system and spineless caving-in to political pressure in senior appointments. Disappointingly, Banbury called for an outside panel to review the situation – a classic UN method of doing nothing. Later, the Center on International Cooperation produced a paper on methods of overhauling the personnel system and bringing real talent, not individuals owed a favour by their governments, into senior management. A priority list from the UK Overseas Development Institute addresses migration and the SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals). The International Crisis Group prioritizes reviving multilateralism, mediation in the Middle East, making the African Union more effective, building conflict prevention systems, and reviewing the UN’s counter-terrorism work. The Center for International Relations and Sustainable Development calls for revising peacekeeping towards light-weight information-driven missions to make the UN more responsive to rapidly-evolving crises. Mark Seddon of the Guardian boils it all down to fixing Syria, ASAP.
Not one of these many sets of suggestions mention gender issues, save sometimes to note the extent to which the UN’s credibility is sullied by impunity for sexual exploitation by peacekeepers. Failure to mention gender equality by observers deeply steeped in the UN’s work shows that they consider it irrelevant to the desperate crises of the moment, as something to be dealt with later.
This should make gender equality advocates worry. A great deal of research and advocacy has shown that gender equality is not a matter to be addressed at some point down the line, but an urgent immediate priority for poverty reduction and achieving the SDGs, for democracy-building, and for conflict prevention and building peace. But clearly the data have failed to convince the many smart people puzzling out solutions to crises of our time.
Guterres’s immediate actions on women in leadership
If Guterres is the feminist he says he is, then he has to bring gender equality more centrally into the priorities for his tenure. In doing this, he also has to make a distinction between gender parity in staffing, and substantive efforts to advance women’s leadership, wellbeing and rights.
Guterres has been careful to mention gender issues in his speeches since his appointment, most recently when he was sworn in as SG on December 13th. He has commited to gender parity in staffing, and makes a priority of the issue of women’s protection in the context of crisis and social upheaval. He made an immediate symbolic gesture cementing his commitment to women in leadership by appointing, right after being sworn in, Amina Mohammed (formerly Minister for the Environment in Nigeria) as his Deputy Secretary General; Maria Luiza Ribeiro Viotti as his Chef de Cabinet; and Kyung-wha Kang as special advisor. In a move never taken by any other incoming SG, he has appointed a gender adviser to his transition team, someone widely respected among gender specialists, the manager of the 2015 Global Study on Women Peace and Security. He has put the sexual exploitation and abuse problem centre-stage, appointing a senior adviser in this area. He has also asked the UN's human resources teams, particularly within the stubbornly male-dominated Secretariat, for proposals to bring forward the current gender parity deadline of 2030 to something closer to 2020.
He is right to push: in 1993 the UN set itself a goal of gender parity across all staffing categories by 2000. Almost a quarter of a century later the UN has less than 22% women in senior management of the Secretariat. The percentages of women in some areas, such as UN peacekeeping and political mission management, has actually flatlined at under 25% level for years.
This faltering progress means that Guterres is going to need to spend some political capital on moving beyond ‘best intentions’ efforts. That means rejecting candidate lists proposed by Member States for senior positions until there are more women on them. That means recruitment panels cannot get away with saying that not enough qualified women applied. They will have to go out and look for them. Recruitment panels will also need training in how to combat reflexive sexist discounting of women’s achievements. Even stronger measures such as insisting on all female shortlists for some stubbornly male-dominated positions will be needed. This will trigger howls of outrage from staff unions and Member States.
The gender imbalance is even more extreme among the UN’s uniformed peacekeepers. Suggestions made in the UN’s 2015 Global Study on Women Peace and Security on creating financial incentives for Troop Contributing Countries to send more women soldiers and police have not been taken seriously because of a longstanding aversion to privileges for specific categories of personnel (and also because of fear of male backlash). It is time to get over that.
It’s going to take a lot more than gender parity
But gender parity in staffing cannot be a main pillar of Guterres’s feminist project, and he seems to know that this is a long route to empowerment. While more women at all levels of the UN’s bureaucracy is desirable for the sake of diversity, it will not necessarily generate feminist policy actions. Also, a focus on gender parity in staffing risks being perceived as an elitist project; ‘jobs for the girls’ but not necessarily justice and opportunities for women around the world under harsh patriarchal regimes.
So another priority for Guterres will be to bring gender priorities to his reiterated commitments to peace, sustainable development, and management reform. During his campaign, Guterres promised a ‘surge in diplomacy for peace’. He meant not just that he would be getting on a plane to Damascus, but that he would mobilize the finest diplomatic talents the world over to build bridges in seemingly intractable conflicts. He should engage women peace-makers in this effort too. From the community to national level, women mediators are left out of conflict resolution efforts, even though there is evidence that peace deals last longer when they are involved. Sustainable development will have to address the world’s greatest source of inequality and exploitation which is women’s unpaid labour and the impunity men enjoy for violence against women. Management reform efforts cannot leave out an urgent push to bring justice to victims of sexual abuse by UN personnel. While there are massive challenges in holding uniformed perpetrators to account, the UN can at least ensure that its own civilian staff answer for these crimes.
Proposals to action these measures are found in the ‘to do’ lists offered to the new SG by feminist groups, such as the ICRW one, one by Equality Now, and, unusually, one from a feminist network of UN staff. But these are all missing something. For the new SG to bring gender equality concerns to the front of the UN’s top decision-makers’ agendas, he needs a stronger internal gender equality advocate. UN decision-making needs a powerful feminist brain behind it, and only UN Women is mandated to provide it. UN Women itself needs to be much better positioned to influence all aspects of the UN’s work. Rivalries between gender units in different parts of the UN continue to lock UN Women’s efforts into ineffective cajoling, while stranding gender equality work at lower staff grade levels, away from strategic decision-making. Strengthening UN Women does not have to mean weakening all of these gender units, but it does mean that they have to accept monitoring by UN Women – something that they all resist. Strengthening UN Women also means opening the possibility for it to receive a portion of assessed funds (the required, rather than voluntary contributions that Member States make to the UN). Above all, it means building UN Women’s strategic analysis and planning capability so that it can engage effectively in the off-screen crisis response processes in top decision-making.
Guterres needs an early high visibility gender equality ‘win’
At a mid-December informal meeting convened by the International Peace Institute, about thirty five civil society organisations, had the opportunity to pitch their concerns to the new SG and his team for an hour and a half. A surprising majority of the statements insisted on the importance of sustaining the UN’s gender equality work. One of the first points raised was about the need to defend women’s reproductive rights and not lose ground on abortion rights. Others raised alarms about the growing threats to women human rights defenders, the need to salvage the UN’s reputation in fragile state contexts, and the need to pair the gender parity drive with a demand that senior leaders at the UN are accountable for promoting women’s rights. He listened intently, and while the reproductive rights issue was not addressed, there was little doubt that his new team is eager to identify an early high visibility ‘win’ on gender to demonstrate the UN’s intention to resist the global wave of misogynistic nationalism. Guterres’s first appointments are reassuring, but do not speak to the need for a specifically feminist achievement. Gender parity in staffing will not be reached for a long time. More visible, and more immediately reassuring to women around the world, would be a strong gender equality component in his ‘surge of diplomacy’- for instance through supporting women’s peace movements to engage in mediation efforts. Another high visibility action would be decisive steps against UN staff involved in sexual exploitation and abuse. It could make the UN a more credible defender of women’s rights.
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