|TIME FOR A WOMAN: Womens groups campaign for female UN secretary-general|
|Monday, 03 April 2006 13:33|
Sixty years after the founding of the United Nations (UN), three Europeans, two Africans, one Latin American and one Asian have been appointed secretary-general. None of them were women.
With Kofi Annan’s term expiring at the end of the year, the search is on for the next person to head the UN, and women’s groups are saying that it is high time that a woman occupy, or at least, be considered for the post.
Campaigning for a woman on top
Equality Now, an international organisation working for the promotion and protection of women’s rights, has started a campaign calling on the UN Security Council to recommend a woman candidate as Secretary-General to the UN General Assembly.The campaign organiser has drawn up a list of nominees to show that there is no dearth of qualified women to choose from. The list includes current and former heads of state, foreign ministers, and UN under-secretaries, such as the executive director of the UN Population Fund, Thoraya Obaid of Saudi Arabia; the former Chilean defence minister Michelle Bachelet Jeria; the current Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga; and Leticia Ramos Shahani, former UN Assistant Secretary-General and former Philippine Senate President.
Equality Now’s campaign takes on new urgency in the light of the recent announcement that Annan’s deputy, Louise Fréchette, appointed in 1998 partly because she was a woman, will leave in April to return to her native Canada.
Currently, several candidates have already declared their interest for the post. However, all of them are men: Jayantha Dhanapala, Annan’s former Under-Secretary-General for disarmament and now a senior adviser to the new Sri Lankan President; Ban Ki Moon, the South Korean Foreign Minister; Aleksandr Kwasniewski, the former Polish President; and Surakiart Sathirathai, a Harvard-educated lawyer and Deputy Prime Minister of Thailand.
Is the UN ready?
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour, who is also included in the list, welcomed the campaign. "I think that women have a very important contribution to make to development and to peace and security. They have a voice that has a lot of resonance throughout the world on these issues, which are at the core of the United Nations," she said.
But Arbour is convinced that the UN is not yet ready for a woman secretary-general. She said that it will probably take another five to 10 years for that to happen; but when it does, it will be a symbolic victory for gender rights everywhere.
"It would create in itself a change because it signals a more equal world," Arbour stated. She added: "The simple fact of having women at the top sends a signal to younger women that there is a place for them in positions of leadership and it reflects a world which is more just and more equal, where power is not hijacked by a few."
For Sir Emyr Jones Parry, the British UN Ambassador, the selection is not a matter of gender. According to him, “We are looking for the best person capable of meeting the demands of the job, including the capability to lead the reform of the UN. If this analysis produces the best person being a woman, there we are.”
But women’s groups don’t see the issue quite so simply. Women do not want just any woman for the post either—or for any leadership position for that matter—just by virtue of her being female. However, they say it is important to examine the underlying reasons why the glass ceiling, even in an organisation committed to gender equality, seems as impregnable as ever.
“The question is not whether or not women will do a ‘better job’ at the helm of the UN,” Taina Bien-Aime, executive director of Equality Now, explained. She elucidated further, “[t]he question is why, since the founding of the UN 60 years ago, has a woman never been selected—or at least publicly considered—to serve as secretary general, despite the fact that there are many qualified candidates and despite the promises made by governments to reach gender equality within the UN?”
FYI: Women at the UN (as of 30 June 2005)
Since 1993, the UN has committed to address the issue of women’s representation at the UN Secretariat and has noted the intention of the Secretary-General “to bring gender balance in policy-level positions to 50-50 by the 50th anniversary of the UN.”
Two years later, at the UN Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, 189 countries adopted a Platform for Action on gender equality which included a call for the development of "mechanisms to nominate women candidates for appointment to senior posts in the United Nations." Yet, according to Equality Now, there is still no such mechanism, and "in fact no transparency in the process of elections to the highest post of secretary-general, making it impossible to know who is under consideration as a candidate and on what basis."
The Beijing Declaration likewise called on the United Nations to "achieve overall gender equality, particularly at the professional level and above, by the year 2000." However, as of the latest UN statistics, only 37.1 percent of its professional staff are women. Compared to last year, this actually represents a decrease of 0.3 per cent. And women comprise only six out of 37 under-secretaries-general (16.2%).
Barriers at the UN
The latest “UN Report by the Secretary-General on the Improvement of the Status of Women in the UN System” (2004) cites both external and internal barriers to achieving gender balance within the organisation.
According to the report, as candidates for recruitment, women are discriminated against by external factors unfavourable to them, including “global limited access to labour markets, information and communication technologies, to technical and substantive training and education and to decision-making.”
Moreover, the report emphasised the need to review systems within the UN to ensure non-discrimination of women. It cited the need to effectively address the problem of the disproportionately small number of women entering the organisation, to put in place accountability mechanisms of heads of departments and offices for gender balance, and to improve transparency and monitoring.
Other barriers which the report identified were: the restriction of women staff members’ mobility and career progression due to family constraints; “women’s lack of access to informal networks and sponsors;” and a working climate and culture which views work/life policies — which were introduced to attract and retain quality staff, especially women — as a “barrier to efficiency and productivity” and as “incompatible with career advancement and the performance of managerial level posts.”
Even as the UN issues recommendations to surmount these barriers, women are getting impatient. For Bien-Aime, "[i]t is not enough for the UN to issue resolutions every year lamenting its lack of progress in achieving gender balance in the staffing of the Secretariat." She added, "Sending a message that women's equality is crucial to economic development, peace and security is important, but it is not enough if the UN itself does not take equal representation within its system seriously." For Equality Now, putting a qualified woman at the helm is indeed a very good start.
For more information on Equality Now’s campaign, email <firstname.lastname@example.org> or visit their website at <www.equalitynow.org/english/actions/action_1102_en.html>.
Bone, James. January 4, 2006. “UN under growing pressure to appoint a woman leader.” The Times (London).
Litzlbeck, Barbara. “UN gender equality starts at the top.” Inter Press Service News Agency <www.ipsnews.net>.
“The status of women in the UN Secretariat as of 30 June 2005” from the Office of the Focal Point for Women in the United Nations <www.un.org/osagi>.
UN Secretariat. 20 September 2004. “Improvement of the status of women in the UN system: Report by the Secretary-General.” 59th Session of the UN General Assembly.