The widely shared hopes in 2016 that a woman could finally be elected secretary-general of the United Nations at the end of Ban Ki-moon’s two terms were crushed when the big powers chose a man from a large field of candidates from across the world — seven women and six men.
The General Assembly formally confirmed the Security Council’s choice. Unbroken male dominance of the job since the founding of the UN was preserved.
The winner, António Guterres, a former prime minister of Portugal and later UN High Commissioner for Refugees for a decade, acknowledged the disappointment and declared himself a “proud feminist” committed to working for women.
How did that go?
Not badly, according to a new report published today by the International Center for Research on Women for the Feminist UN Campaign: “Progress in a Pandemic: Toward Feminist Leadership in a Time of Crisis — A Report Card on the Secretary-General’s Fourth Year from the Feminist U.N. Campaign.” The results were mixed, however.
In 2016, the Feminist UN Campaign produced a six-point agenda for the incoming secretary-general that it uses as a base for annual report cards measuring Guterres’s performance since he took office on Jan. 1, 2017. (The six agenda goals, from more funding for gender initiatives to more accessible information, are reviewed extensively in the 2020 report.)
Overall, Guterres’s cumulative grade for 2017 was C+. In 2018 and 2019, he moved to B- . The report card for 2020 gives him a B. It was a year worked virtually, amid the trauma of a pandemic that disrupted important anniversaries for women on peace and security, reproductive rights and new Sustainable Development Goals. It was also the 75th birthday of the UN. Commemorations and celebrations had to be postponed or curtailed – and held online.
Lyric Thompson is the senior director of policy and advocacy at the research center and Spogmay Ahmed is its global policy advocate and lead author of the 2020 report card on Guterres. In a joint interview with PassBlue, they discussed from their base in Washington how they gathered information for the report and why they look forward to the continuing efforts of the Guterres team to meet the objectives of the feminist agenda, should he win a second five-year term.
“Absolutely, his second term should be conditioned on his performance on this agenda, which he has consistently said is one of his top priorities,” Thompson said.
His focus on women’s issues, among his other initiatives, as well as the struggle to increase UN funding and deal with the pandemic partly explain, she added, why there has not been a 2016-style rigorous campaign for a woman to succeed him — so far. Renewing the term of an incumbent also tends to be a UN tradition.
But, Thompson said, “I think we will see an unprecedented drive for a female SG after his second term.” That is a long way off, ending in 2026, which means the UN will not have had a woman leader across its 81-year-history.
Ahmed responded to criticisms that the report cards have not met scientific polling criteria by saying that they survey the experience of civil-society groups who know the UN and are not polls of a general population. A section in the 2020 report explains the methodologies.
Paradoxically, attitudes toward Guterres, 71, seem to have become more positive among some women advocates as the situation around them got worse. Guterres turned sustained attention to women’s inequalities in a year when their vulnerabilities were most tragically exposed.
When the pandemic was raging in China and beginning to take hold in Italy, Guterres described in a speech in New York City on Feb. 27, 2020, how women were struggling and losing ground in a patriarchal world.
“Just as slavery and colonialism were a stain on previous centuries, women’s inequality should shame us all in the twenty-first,” he said at the New School, a progressive university located in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village (and a partner of PassBlue). Patriarchy “is not only unacceptable; it is stupid.” He described the situation of women globally as “dire.”
“There is strong and relentless pushback against women’s rights,” he noted.
By April 2020, Guterres was raising alarms about the exponential rise of violence against women in the home and an emerging economic catastrophe for them in the job market.
Fine words, critics of Guterres say, but where is any mitigating follow-up?
“What they’re really assessing is the SG’s words, not his actions,” a critic skeptical of the feminist reports cards said in an email to PassBlue, referring to Guterres as the “SG.”
Despite his success in achieving gender parity in UN high-level positions ahead of schedule, the 2020 report card notes perennial institutional flaws that remain ignored in the UN, affecting women personally and professionally.
Financing for UN Women, the agency created 10 years ago, remains insufficient to enhancing its presence internationally. On this agenda measure, Guterres’s score dropped.
“Sexual harassment remains a key issue,” the report card concludes. “The culture of power and privilege pervades the U.N. system, requiring a major cultural shift.”
A pattern of closed justice procedures in the organization, which rarely releases its findings, and fear of losing jobs limit the reporting of offenses.
“Sexual harassment, exploitation and abuse continues to permeate the U.N.’s peacekeeping operations,” the report adds.
Above all, outsiders continuously face the challenge of trying to find information they need from the UN, including current data.
“The Feminist U.N. Campaign considers freedom of information to be a feminist issue, especially when much of the information we seek to document on the status and advancement of women’s rights and gender equality in the U.N. system and the world more broadly is difficult to come by,” the 2020 report card argues.
“The U.N. itself has long been criticized for its archaic and bureaucratic structures; its complexity and decentralization have prevented system-wide monitoring, coherence, data collection and accountability,” the report says. But change is not impossible.
Access to information was rated a D+ for Guterres in his first year in office, in 2017. It is now a B-.
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.