Sima Sami Bahous, until recently Jordan’s ambassador to the United Nations since 2016, has been chosen as the next executive director of UN Women. Her appointment may be announced as soon as Tuesday, Sept. 7, according to numerous people who have been closely following the search for a successor to Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka of South Africa. She held the post for two terms, from August 2013 to August 2021.
Bahous, 65, has been involved mostly in development issues in her career in Jordan and at the UN, rarely touching specifically on the rights of women, however, in her statements and public speeches. This aspect of her career will likely disappoint feminists and others who have called for the appointment of a strong women’s rights advocate. UN Women has not been that voice for several years, some prominent feminists on global women’s rights have pointed out.
“The qualifications that matter to feminist civil society organizations — experience and courage in pushing for women’s rights — may not matter to governments,” wrote Anne Marie Goetz and Joanne Sandler, both experts on UN Women, in an essay for PassBlue in July.
The soon-to-be leader of UN Women is described in her official biography as having “a distinguished career in public service, politics, multilateral diplomacy, media and communication, and international development cooperation.”
Her appointment occurs as violence has been rising dramatically around the world, worsened by the domestic and societal pressures and strains of the Covid-19 pandemic, as documented by the UN and other authorities on gender equality.
From June 2012 until her appointment as Jordanian ambassador to the UN in 2016, Bahous was assistant administrator of the UN Development Program and director of its regional bureau for Arab states, in charge of 18 country offices. From 2008 to 2012, she was assistant secretary-general for the League of Arab States and headed its social development sector. Bahous was in charge of communications for Unicef in Amman, the capital of Jordan, from 1994 to 1995. She is married and has a daughter.
In a speech and public policy forum with experts in 2016 at the International Peace Institute in New York City, a think tank associated with the UN, she focused on the rule of law and its reliance on good politics, praising Goal 16 of the Sustainable Development Goals, or Agenda 2030, which calls for the building of “effective, accountable institutions at all levels.”
Goal-trackers point out that two relevant measurements of success or failure — homicides and conflict-related deaths — have no agreed targets. Negative cultural beliefs and practices affect women more than men and are rarely disaggregated in economic and social development, while access to law and justice may be denied. This is a hot topic now as the Taliban build their political and social order in Afghanistan.
Bahous was awarded a Ph.D. in development communication from Indiana University; has an M.A. in literature and drama from Essex University, in Britain; and a B.A in English language and literature from Jordan University.
Before coming to the UN as a diplomat, Bahous also served in ministerial positions in Jordan and was an adviser, at one time, on media to King Abdullah II. She also held various positions in royal family foundations.
At the UN, she has been close to Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed, who, it is widely known, promoted the candidacy to the leadership on UN Women. Mohammed has demonstrated cautious reluctance to delve far into social issues affecting women and LGBTQ people. Now in charge of development policies at the UN, she led the drafting of the Sustainable Goals.
UN Women was created in 2010 as “an entity dedicated to gender equality and the empowerment of women,” its website proclaims, elaborating: “A global champion for women and girls. . . . It works with governments and civil society to design laws, policies, programs and services needed to ensure that the standards are effectively implemented and truly benefit women and girls worldwide. It works globally to make the vision of the Sustainable Development Goals a reality for women and girls and stands behind women’s equal participation in all aspects of life,” focusing on four strategic priorities:
“Women lead, participate in and benefit equally from governance systems
Women have income security, decent work and economic autonomy
All women and girls live a life free from all forms of violence
Women and girls contribute to and have greater influence in building sustainable peace and resilience, and benefit equally from the prevention of natural disasters and conflicts and humanitarian action.”
These are all goals that are still waiting to be met.
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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.