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It’s Down to Latin America v. Africa to Lead UN Women


Alcinda Abreu, environment minister of Mozambique
Alcinda António de Abreu, environment minister of Mozambique, is a contender for leading UN Women.

After several months of public speculation at the United Nations, two candidates are now in tight contention for the executive director post of UN Women, the main agency tasked with promoting the treatment and rights of women worldwide since it began operating in January 2011.

Rebeca Grynspan, 57, is one contender. Since 2010, she has been associate administrator of the UN Development Program, with the rank of under secretary-general. From 1994 to 1998, she was vice president of Costa Rica, a leader in human development among Latin American nations.

The second candidate is one of two Africans: Alcinda António de Abreu, the environment minister of Mozambique who jockeyed for the UN Women job in 2010, when Michelle Bachelet, a former president of Chile, won the spot; and Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda, a human-rights lawyer from Zimbabwe and the general secretary of the World YWCA, a network encompassing 108 countries and 25 million women and girls.

A decision is to be announced by the UN imminently, said one source close to the process. The secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, has sole discretion over the choice, though his advisers have been vetting candidates for three months, since Bachelet resigned in March.

Grynspan, Abreu and Gumbonzvanda faced stiff competition from the outset for the UN Women post, after Bachelet, the first UN Women chief, left to return to Chile to run for a second term as president. Bachelet, who was handpicked by Ban’s inner circle, left after two years in the job, which she was reluctant to accept, given her well-known desire to revert to Chilean politics. Presidents of Chile can have more than one term but not consecutively.

The shortlisted candidates for UN Women edged out many other respected candidates, including women who competed for the position in 2010, like Abreu; the current UN Women deputy chief, Lakshmi Puri of India; and Tarja Halonen, the first woman to become president of Finland. Radhika Coomaraswamy, a Sri Lankan human-rights leader who teaches law at New York University and formerly ran the UN’s office on children and armed conflict, was favored by many influential people, though she denied that she had been approached to be considered as a candidate.

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Acknowledged candidates were Kim Campbell, a former prime minister of Canada and the first and only woman so far to hold that position; and Patricia Francis, a Jamaican who is the executive director of the International Trade Center, part of the UN and the World Trade Organization.

Grynspan is highly visible at UN headquarters in New York. She is married to Saul Weisleder, the deputy permanent representative of Costa Rica to the UN and a Costa Rican president from 1997-1998. Grynspan is the daughter of Polish Jews who immigrated to Costa Rica after World War II, first to the Soviet Union and then to Palestine, where they were married, and on to Central America. (Weisleder’s parents were also Polish Jews.)

In an online interview with the Association for Women’s Rights in Development, Grynspan was asked why she wanted to run UN Women. She said, in part: “I really believe that the achievement of gender equality, girls and women’s rights and women’s empowerment is the defining challenge of the decade. It is a prerequisite and a driver for sustainable development, peace and security, democracy and human rights. It has been an elusive goal and the reality of gender discrimination and gender inequalities touch the lives of every woman and girl in the world.”

Rebeca Grynspan, associate administrator of UNDP
Rebeca Grynspan, foreground, associate administrator of UNDP and a Costa Rican, visiting El Salvador in May 2013. MAURICIO MARTINEZ/UNDP

As the associate administrator of UNDP, Grynspan is second in command to Helen Clark, a New Zealander and the first woman to lead the agency. Grynspan also has much support for the UN Women post from Latin Americans at the UN, even though Bachelet, a South American, held the job previously. Since she did not finish her term, Latin Americans have lobbied Ban that they should continue to have the spot.

Before her appointment at the UN Development Program, Grynspan was the regional director of the agency’s bureau for Latin America and the Caribbean. She previously worked within the UN system as the director of the subregional headquarters in Mexico of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (known as Eclac) from 2001 to 2006.  She held several ministerial posts in Costa Rica before being elected vice president.

Grynspan has a master’s degree in economics from the University of Sussex, England, where her husband also earned a degree. Her bachelor’s degree in economics is from the University of Costa Rica, and she studied economics and sociology at Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The couple have a daughter and a son.

Abreu, the environmental minister of Mozambique since 2008, is one of the most popular women in the country, a former Portuguese colony with a long coastline in eastern Africa and a history of slave trading before Portugal banned it in 1842. A coup in 1974 after a rebellion by Marxist guerrillas in the Mozambique Liberation Front (Frelimo) led to the country’s independence in 1975. It weathered a civil war from 1977 to 1992.

In May, Ban visited Mozambique and praised the country’s progress in reaching some of the Millennium Development Goals, like raising women members in Parliament to 40 percent, a level swept along by constitutional quotas. Abreu officially greeted Ban at the airport in Maputo, the capital, during that trip. Various sources put her age at 59 or 60. She has a degree in psychology and pedagogy; a certificate in gender planning from the University College London and a diploma in development management from University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

She is the widow of Maradali Mamadhusen, who was killed in a plane crash in 1986 with Samora Machel, the country’s first president after liberation from Portugal; he was married to Graça Machel, who is now the wife of Nelson Mandela, the former president of South Africa. Abreu has two grown sons, Chivambo and Dingane, who are listed as executives on the board of Grupo Videre, a holding company for services in energy and mining and other business.

Abreu was minister of foreign affairs from 2005 to 2008 and of social welfare from 1994 to 1997; additionally, she was a deputy general secretary of the government’s youth association and a Parliament member for 17 years. She has spoken at major climate change conferences worldwide as the environment minister, where she emphasize Mozambique’s vulnerability to extreme weather patterns, such as drought and flooding. These conditions contribute not only to the country’s desperate poverty but also hurt women disproportionately in rural areas. Not too long ago, land grabs by foreign investors were encouraged by the government and the World Bank, but the country has turned its attention back to domestic land management after controversy over property rights and related issues.

As to why Abreu wants to lead UN Women, she said in the same online interview that Grynspan participated in that “achieving gender equality and women’s empowerment has become an imperative as we continue to live in a world where poverty has a woman’s face, where violence increases women’s vulnerability and the impact of climate change weakens efforts to advance women’s rights.”

Raised in a country that until recently had been saddled with centuries of patriarchal laws, Abreu added, “Limited access to basic services compromises women’s ability to raise their voice and demand their rights, such as the right to participate and contribute to the economic, social and political decision making processes.”

Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda of Zimbabwe
Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda of Zimbabwe, the general secretary of the World YWCA.

Gumbonzvanda of Zimbabwe had more than 15 years’ experience working for the UN before she joined the World YWCA in 2007, in Geneva. She was the regional director for the UN Development Fund for Women (Unifem), one of four agencies that folded into UN Women, and a human-rights officer with Unicef in Liberia and Zimbabwe. She is currently the president of the NGO Committee on the Status of Women, also in Geneva.

Gumbonzvanda, in the same online interview as her competitors, said she was qualified to manage UN Women based on her childhood trials: “Born and growing up in rural Zimbabwe during the war, raised by a widow and supported by my siblings to access education and become a human rights lawyer, I see myself in every statistic that speaks to the struggles that women and girls go through in life to claim their voice, rights and dignity. The issue of empowerment and rights for women is not only theoretical for me, these are practical, urgent issues that require both short and long term strategic and real transformative interventions.”

Gumbonzvanda, who is married and has two children, holds a master’s degree in law from the University of South Africa. She has a bachelor of law degree from the University of Zimbabwe and studied conflict resolution from Uppsala University in Sweden.

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We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.

Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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10 years ago

Lakshmi Puri from India and Radhika C from Sri Lanka were eminent choices, bypassed possibly because of a bias in favour of geographical quota/representation in UN bodies, which often times is at the cost of merit. A balance needs to be worked out

Jane Roberts
10 years ago

I would change only one thing to the quote by Grynspan, i.e. instead of OF THE DECADE, I would say OF THE AGES. Grynspan was asked why she wanted to run UN Women. She said, in part: “I really believe that the achievement of gender equality, girls and women’s rights and women’s empowerment is the defining challenge of the decade. It is a prerequisite and a driver for sustainable development, peace and security, democracy and human rights. It has been an elusive goal and the reality of gender discrimination and gender inequalities touch the lives of every woman and girl in the world.” And for me, as cofounder of 34 Million Friends of the United Nations Population Fund, reproductive health in all of its aspects, is absolutely necessary for gender equality to take hold in any reasonable way.
10 years ago

I strongly support Mrs.Abreu from Mozambique, a country where I served shortly after independence
and have followed with interest its social, political,educational,econoimc, human rights,etc. achievements, giving women their due place in all spheres of society. The important role of women is tradiional in the Country: witness, for instance,the “obolo” or “reward” a pretending husband has to pay the mother, in appreciation for having prepared the young woman for the responabilities at home as well as her role as a citizen. I learnned to have great respect for Moxambican woman when my neighbor, a national, demanded from the father of one ofher duaghters baby to first make sure he has a decent home for her, which stimulated him to work hard and construct fast! Inthe meantime, he could visit his child and future wife, which he did very often.
I’m also impressed with Mrs. Abreu’s carreer and interests. And am all for bringing into the job someone from outside the Un System. The renewal of blood is usually healthy.
Trust my comments useful… Sincerely,
Eva van Ditmar, PhD, retired from UNDP 20 years ago, after 10 years of African experience, including the Coordination of the Regional Program: Women and Approriate Food Technoligies . Also had an important previous carreer in Latin America,

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