The UN secretary general isn’t yet what feminists were looking for

António Guterres showed real leadership on gender equality in 2017, but his first year in office fell short of our hopes for transformative change.

Spogmay Ahmed Lyric Thompson Sarah Gammage
12 January 2018

United Nations secretary general Antonio Guterres.

United Nations secretary general Antonio Guterres at a press conference in September 2017. Photo: Albin Lohr-Jones/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

One year into his five-year term, United Nations secretary general António Guterres isn’t yet what feminists were looking for.

Guterres took office in January 2017 amid unprecedented calls for feminist leadership at the UN, which has never had a woman at the helm. In his inaugural speech, he pledged to achieve gender parity at the highest levels of UN leadership; to tackle violence, exploitation and abuse in the UN system; and to listen to women’s voices around the world.

Women’s rights advocates called on the secretary general candidates to challenge sexism, racism, colonialism and nationalism globally and within the UN system. We released a report, Toward a More Feminist United Nations. We compiled specific ideas for how Guterres could advance this vision in his first 100 days, and we've been monitoring his progress with periodic report cards.

At the end of 2017, we asked feminist civil society activists round the world, as well as UN staff and observers, to evaluate his performance and what promises he kept. We surveyed 118 organisations from more than 40 countries, reviewed 176 speeches by the secretary general, and tracked his political appointments.

Our evaluation shows mixed progress: with Guterres displaying strong momentum in some areas, like gender parity within the UN’s leadership, while taking little to no action in others.

Strong on parity, weak on rights?

Guterres regularly mentions gender equality and women’s empowerment in his speeches. Most UN staff and advocates we interviewed find him genuinely supportive of gender equality and women’s rights, and believe that he is working towards his stated commitments.

His statements could stand to be more rights-based, however, referring to women not just as victims of violence and discrimination but also as agents of change worthy of meaningful engagement and investment. Guterres has not provided the vocal and visible support that the agency UN Women needs. Overall, his first year fell short of our hopes for transformative change.

'His first year fell short of our hopes for transformative change.'

The Feminist UN Campaign called for greater women’s leadership and women’s rights protections within the UN, but also more accountable financing for gender equality, more space for feminist, women’s rights advocates, and increased freedom of information.

We wanted to see the secretary general improve accountability for gender inequality within the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) agenda and its links with the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women and the Beijing Platform for Action.

Guterres did pledge to have gender-equal representation in UN senior leadership by 2021, and across the UN system “well before 2030.” To help achieve this, he endorsed a new System-Wide Strategy on Gender Parity.

But a recurring theme of our evaluation is that women’s leadership is not the same thing as women’s rights. Yes, the secretary general is building a more representative team, but that team must still support women’s rights throughout the UN and hold rights violators accountable.

'Women's leadership is not the same thing as women's rights'

Some have questioned where appointments of women were clustered: largely in departments with smaller budgets, or as special rapporteurs, and not at the helm of larger agencies such as the UN development programme (UNDP), peacekeeping or the World Food Program.

That being said, Guterres’s appointments including Amina J. Mohammed (deputy secretary general), Maria Luiza Ribeiro Viotti (chef de cabinet), and the first-ever senior gender advisor, Nahla Valji, have elevated accomplished women within the UN.

He also established a new executive committee to advise on strategic decisions, including the head of UN Women as one of 13 permanent members.

Maria Luiza Viotti, Chef de Cabinet to UN secretary general Antonio Guterres.

Maria Luiza Viotti, Chef de Cabinet to UN secretary general Antonio Guterres, October 2017. Photo: Luiz Rampelotto/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

The secretary general’s record was weaker on promoting freedom of information. This is a feminist issue essential to the accountability of institutions. Guterres made no progress on our call to institute a UN-wide freedom of information policy or to publish more detailed information on financial contributions by member states.

He hasn’t done enough to strengthen women’s rights institutions at the UN or to ensure that women’s rights are integrated across the SDGs. Guterres did not push for greater accountability for gender mainstreaming, or links between the SDGs and CEDAW or the Beijing Platform for Action.

He did host a largely-celebrated ‘town hall’ meeting to hear from women’s rights advocates at the 2017 Commission on the Status of Women – but this is not the regular feedback mechanism that’s needed.

Last year Guterres made tremendous progress in building a team that can help him develop a more feminist and rights-based agenda for gender equality at the UN and beyond. This year will be about implementing that.

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Join us for a free live discussion on Thursday 22 October, 5pm UK time/12pm EDT.

Hear from:

Paolo Gerbaudo Sociologist and political theorist, director of the Centre for Digital Culture at King’s College London and author of ‘The Mask and the Flag: Populism and Global Protest’ and ‘The Digital Party: Political Organisation and Online Democracy’, and of the forthcoming ‘The Great Recoil: Politics After Populism and Pandemic’.

Chantal Mouffe Emeritus Professor of Political Theory at the University of Westminster in London. Her most recent books are ‘Agonistics. Thinking the World Politically’, ‘Podemos. In the Name of the People’ and ‘For a Left Populism’.

Spyros A. Sofos Researcher and research coordinator at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Lund University and author of ‘Nation and Identity in Contemporary Europe’, ‘Tormented by History’ and ‘Islam in Europe: Public Spaces and Civic Networks'.

Chair: Walid el Houri Researcher, journalist and filmmaker based between Berlin and Beirut. He is partnerships editor at openDemocracy and lead editor of its North Africa, West Asia project.

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