Antonio Guterres takes the Oath of Office at UN. Credit: Luiz Rampelotto SIPA USA/PA Images
Last fall, many of us watched closely as the occasion of selecting the ninth Secretary-General of the United Nations ushered in unprecedented public demand for the world’s first female — and feminist — leader of the international body, one who would recognize and tackle head on entrenched patriarchal norms, violence and discrimination both within and outside of the U.N. system.
A feminist leader at the head of the U.N. is not only essential if we are to achieve the Global Goals and the United Nations’s founding principles of human rights, peace and dialogue, but also critical at a time of increased, and worrying, global trends in nationalism, xenophobia and crackdowns on women’s rights. And while the continual rotation of geographic regions from which the world’s top diplomat has been plucked has led to a system highly effective at ensuring equitable geographic representation of the preceding secretaries-general, no such measure has existed for gender representation.
Surely, it was thought, by 2017 it was time for a woman to run the United Nations. Apparently not so —despite unprecedented calls from civil society and governments alike. The quick selection of António Guterres, who took the helm on January 1st, put that movement to rest. Or did it?
Initial statements from the new Secretary-General seem to imply that these calls have had some impact in bringing gender issues to the surface and, it at least appears at this early stage, in shaping his agenda. At his swearing-in ceremony and ensuing press conference in December, Secretary-General Guterres committed to achieving gender parity in the United Nations’s top posts by the end of his term, and to making this a key priority for his first hundred days.
Secretary-General Guterres will no doubt be extremely busy in his first hundred days, focused on a number of pressing security and human rights concerns worldwide. It is encouraging to see him embrace gender parity as part of his agenda, from even before his first day at his post. But a comprehensive women’s rights agenda goes well beyond better numbers and representation at the top. It means — among a host of other things — taking on thorny and highly-politicized issues like violence against women by U.N. peacekeepers, reversing trends among some member states to shut out or clamp down on women’s rights activists and using all possible levers of influence to ensure sufficient investment in the gender equality commitments the U.N. has made to date.
To chart a comprehensive path forward on these and other issues, ICRW convened a discussion among leading feminist thinkers in civil society, philanthropy and academia, as well as current and former U.N. staff. Together, the group articulated these six overarching recommendations for Secretary-General Guterres, if he truly means to lead the United Nations to gender equality:
1. Articulate and begin to implement a feminist agenda for the U.N. Secretary-General Guterres should set out an ambitious 100-day agenda, leading to a full-fledged women’s rights agenda for the duration of his term.
2. Ensure feminist implementation and accountability for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs represent the single largest opportunity to focus concerted effort on achieving gender equality and to mainstream a focus on gender across global, sustainable development efforts, but they lack a meaningful accountability framework. Secretary-General Guterres should express his support for the full implementation of Goal 5 (gender equality) and the mainstreaming of gender throughout all 17 goals.
3. Finance for gender equality. Currently, the funds committed to gender equality in programming by all U.N. agencies, as well as within internal system operations and processes, are insufficient. Secretary-General Guterres should commit to promoting greater transparency in spending by publishing how much the U.N. spends on gender equality, gender mainstreaming and economic policy, and by working to secure full funding to support system-wide gender mainstreaming and the full funding of U.N. Women.
4. Utilize feminist leadership. The Secretary-General should increase the number of women and feminists in U.N. leadership positions, and protect women’s rights across the system. The U.N. has a wide set of existing policies to ensure equal access and representation within the U.N. system, but many are not followed. Secretary-General Guterres should ensure policies are clearly articulated to staff and followed by all of those who work in the United Nations.
5. Enable a feminist transformation for U.N. Women and the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). U.N. Women and the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) are at once the symbol of all that is possible for feminism at the U.N. and emblematic of all that is wrong with the system as it currently stands. The bodies’ very existence is the result of feminist organizing and they should be a platform for civil society to access United Nations dialogues, petition for their states to act and to work in coalition to meet common goals. Secretary-General Guterres should take concrete steps to reverse the closing space for feminist civil society at the U.N. and empower these platforms to be all they were envisioned to be.
6. Promote the freedom of information throughout the U.N. system. Understanding that transparency and integrity are feminist principles, within the first hundred days, announce system-wide reforms to increase transparency within the United Nations to build and reinforce public trust in the U.N. system.
The new Secretary-General is off to a good start, but must embrace and sustain efforts on a broader gender equality agenda if meaningful — and long overdue — progress is to be achieved.
Without intentional reform, the entire U.N. system risks failing in its mission and reinforcing entrenched inequalities that will destabilize social and economic development, perpetuate ecological imbalance and undermine the fulfillment of universal human rights. The United Nations also risks its own irrelevance and complicity in further exacerbating power asymmetries, chief among them gender inequality. Taking up these actions would constitute a much-needed signal of Mr. Guterres’s intent to carry early promises to full fruition.