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The new UN secretary general is poised to show the world what a feminist looks like

There has been real progress at this year's UN Commission on the Status of Women, and the new Secretary General has asked women around the world to "keep our feet to the fire". 

Lyric Thompson
24 March 2017

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This article is part of our coverage of the United Nations' Commission on the Status of Women, New York, March 2017

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Secretary-General holds a 'town hall meeting' for civil society associated with CSW. Credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten

As the United Nation’s 61st session of the Commission on the Status of Women concludes, headlines about hate groups on the US delegation have threatened to overshadow some real progress on women’s rights at the United Nations: unprecedented leadership by a Secretary-General who, while not female, is poised to show the world what a feminist looks like.

The Secretary-General took office at a time of unparalleled public and member state pressure for feminist leadership at the UN—pressure that appears, in this limited window of time, to be working. Most recently, in a speech at the opening session of the 61st CSW, Mr. Guterres invited civil society to hold the United Nations to account on these promises. “Do not let us in the UN off the hook,” he instructed. “Keep our feet on the fire. Keep pushing. Keep inspiring. Keep making a difference.” 

These are unusual words from a Secretary-General, made further noteworthy by his actions days later to organize, for the first time in history, a town hall meeting with civil society advocates on women’s rights issues. With this unprecedented move, the Secretary-General made a space for women’s rights advocates to present their concerns and recommendations—in short, he provided us with our first opportunity to hold his feet to the fire. 

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Secretary-General António Guterres at the town hall meeting with representatives of Non-Governmental Organisations. Credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten

Held the first Friday of CSW, the town hall featured the Secretary-General and his senior cabinet leaders—three women, a visual representation of his commitment to gender parity in his appointments—fielding questions from the floor for a full hour, moderated by the Executive Director of UN Women Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka.

The Secretary-General faced questions on thematic issues, such as sexual and reproductive health and rights, and operational ones, such as financing for gender equality, or violence against women in the UN.system. Here’s a roundup of what we learned during that conversation and throughout the CSW: 

1.     There is a firm commitment to gender parity and women’s leadership

This is the area that has seen the most attention from the Secretary-General, perhaps understandably given the open pressure from governments (the Group of Friends for Gender Parity is now more than 90 members strong). At his swearing-in ceremony in December 2016 Mr. Guterres pledged to establish gender parity in all appointments to the Senior Management Group and Chief Executive Board, as well as at the Under-Secretary-General (USG) and Assistant-Secretary-General (ASG) levels, including special envoys and representatives. Upon assuming office, he named three women to top UN posts (Deputy Secretary-General, Chief de Cabinet and a new post, Senior Policy Adviser—not coincidentally, these were the three women in attendance at the town hall). At the town hall Mr. Guterres announced that Senior Policy Adviser Kyung-wha Kang is working with UN Women to develop a roadmap for achieving gender parity across the UN system at all levels by 2030. 

Mr. Guterres also announced that he would be joining the International Gender Champions (IGC) at the launch of its New York network and encouraged senior leaders to follow suit. IGC is a leadership network of female and male decision-makers who have committed to integrating gender parity across all organizational sectors. IGC Champions must make three commitments towards gender equality (one of which is refusing to participate in so-called ‘manels’, or all-male panels) in either executive management or programmatic work, that can be measurably achieved in one year. The Secretary-General was previously a member of IGC’s Geneva network while serving as High Commissioner for Refugees.

When pressed by one activist as to what he would do to ensure the next Secretary-General is a woman, Mr. Guterres struck a comedic tone, indicating the best thing he could do would be to resign tomorrow. “I’ll consider it,” he joked. 

2.     There are new commitments to tackling discrimination, violence and abuse in the UN system

Progress on this is long overdue and urgently needed throughout the UN system. While headlines tend to focus on infractions by UN Peacekeeping, the Secretary-General has also committed to taking on violence and abuse by staff and others system-wide, including through a whistleblower policy. In January 2017, the Secretary-General announced the convening of a High-Level Task Force to Improve United Nations Approach for Preventing, Addressing Sexual Abuse. The latest announcements shed light on the details, which are articulated in the newly-released report, Special measures for protection from sexual exploitation and abuse: a new approach, which outlines a four-part strategy to improve the UN’s system-wide prevention and response approach. The proposal also includes a new ASG-level position for a system-wide victim rights’ advocate; a victims’ assistance protocol for testing in the field; organizing a high-level meeting on sexual abuse and exploitation before the end of 2017; establishing a circle of leadership, including Heads of State, and standing advisory board, including civil society and external experts; asking the Department of Public Information to establish a system whereby credible reports of sexual exploitation and abuse are released publicly on a regular basis, and resuming monthly meetings of the High-Level Steering Group on sexual abuse and exploitation, among other commitments. At the town hall, he further clarified that these efforts would apply to all forms of violence across the UN system and expressed support for an independent investigation of these crimes. 

3.     The Secretary-General will help defend ground in the closing UN space for civil society

At the town hall the Secretary-General was asked specifically about attacks on women’s human rights defenders and the closing space for civil society at the United Nations. Mr. Guterres acknowledged the increasing backlash against women’s human rights defenders and the shrinking space for civil society groups worldwide. For his part, the invitation to the town hall was billed as the “first of many such opportunities,” during which the SG also committed to appointing an ASG to serve as a civil society liaison, as well as, in response to questions from a girl, to appoint a new, female, youth envoy. On the CSW, the Secretary-General called for the “maximum possible participation and the maximum possible impact” of the annual event.

4.     The Secretary-General provided updates on financing for gender equality

At the CSW town hall, the Secretary-General was pressed to put the UN’s money where its mouth is regarding gender equality, including through system-wide gender budgeting, convening a high-level panel on financing for gender equality, and championing increased investments in feminist civil society organizations and full funding ($1 billion) for UN Women. While we did not hear specific commitments in this regard, the Secretary-General expressed support for gender mainstreaming across the UN and indicated he is working with his senior gender adviser to review proposals for how the UN could achieve this, suggesting some or all proposals may be on the table. The Secretary-General did point to the news—presumably to the release of the US President’s budget (which was also released last week and calls for reductions by a third to foreign spending)—as a form of expectations management for what might be possible in the current environment. At this point, it is unclear which tack he will take, but this is an area to watch in the near future. 

What’s next?

As we round out 61st session of the Commission on the Status of Women, two other comments the Secretary-General made in the course of the town hall merit note: 

1)     The United Nations can only utilize the instruments it has at its disposal to advance our common goals. This is an important reminder that we must base our proposals in reality, whether that be the declining financial support from member states or the narrowness of the mandate of the world’s top diplomat; and

2)     “I know many women that are not feminists, and I know some men that are." While we were certainly eager to see the world’s first female Secretary-General, there is still ample room for this one to show us what a feminist looks like.

Indeed I think he just might.

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