More than 50 former staff members of UN Women sent a pointed open letter to the new executive director of the agency, Sima Sami Bahous, an ex-Jordanian diplomat, on Sept. 28. They suggest a comprehensive agenda for her, undertaking managerial reform and more actively and successfully promoting gender equality across the world.
“UN Women is the most significant example globally of institutionalizing the commitment to gender equality at the heart of a multilateral institution,” Anne Marie Goetz, a former director of peace and security at the agency, said in an email interview with PassBlue. “The rank of its executive director, her position on the secretary-general’s executive committee — these are signs that gender equality and women’s rights are recognized to be central to global governance, peace and development.” Goetz is a signatory to the letter.
The letter sets an ambitious goal: “UN Women’s task is to disrupt patriarchal power in the UN, in countries, and internationally, via the ways it delivers support, programs and policy initiatives,” it says. “Its task is to use its seat in the UN’s Senior Management Group and Executive Committee to center gender equality in everything that the UN does.” It should monitor and track the organization’s performance, the letter adds, and empower the relatively small agency’s country offices, many of which are understaffed.
The letter asks Bahous to spend her first 100 days in office listening to women’s rights activists and defenders everywhere while amplifying “the voice and influence of feminist civil society in the governance of UN Women and in the UN system.” Bahous was appointed to the post in September, for a four-year term.
The governance and management of the agency have been a problem for years, former employees say. The letter to Bahous reflects and reveals what needs to be fixed in tough terms:
“Installing a zero tolerance policy to end bullying, abuse of power, sexual harassment and exploitation by staff members, and ensuring inclusion, diversity and difference” should be priorities, the letter says.
While it advises that “The mantra that ‘we have enough feminists, what we need now are managers’ should never be a key message for UN Women,” it calls for upgrading management though recruitment of administration professionals who are “top notch feminists” to review and recommend changes “to internal procedures and Human Resources functions from a feminist perspective.”
Throughout the letter is the realization that women are losing ground in many ways, including from the rise in domestic and gender violence during the Covid-19 pandemic. That is a situation often raised publicly by Secretary-General António Guterres, who has also been drawing attention to the dangers of a resurgent or unshakeable patriarchy worldwide.
Copies of the letter to Bahous were also sent to Guterres and Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed.
Joanne Sandler, formerly the deputy director of Unifem, UN Women’s predecessor, and a signatory to the letter to Bahous, said to PassBlue: “Never has the world more desperately needed determined feminist leadership at UN Women and the UN to prevent the erosion of so many hard-won rights for women and girls.”
This article was updated to reflect more accurately the signatories to the letter.
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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.