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The Current Crop of Women Leaders Shows Political Shifts to the Right


Katalin Novak, President of Hungary at the UN on Sept 18, 2023
Katalin Novak, president of Hungary, moderating a United Nations “leaders’ dialogue” on the Sustainable Development Goals, Sept. 18, 2023. She was the first woman to speak at the annual opening debate of the UN General Assembly, starting on Sept. 19, and was one of only 21 women to speak among 192 leaders overall. Representing a conservative government, she talked about Europe’s “demographic decline,” among other subjects. JOHN PENNEY/PASSBLUE

Only 21 of the 192 speakers participating at the annual “high level” week of the United Nations General Assembly in September were women, a far cry from the UN’s gender equality ambitions included in the Sustainable Development Goals. Some of the women represented countries where women’s rights are not a priority or are being rolled back and as young people’s belief in the value of democracy is waning.

Yet the UN executive office and its agencies and programs can do only so much to promote the rights of women in each country, and it is up to their own leaders to push for progress and stick to their SDG commitments, using UN resources and expertise. In the foreseeable future, international forums may continue to reflect the abysmal number of women leaders overall and the stagnant state of gender equality. The UN Women agency, for example, predicted that gender equality would not be reached until 2309 at the current rate of progress.

“Don’ t fall in the trap of gender essentialism. Don’t assume women are a political monolith,” said Gabrielle Bardall, a visiting professor at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs. “We should expect women leaders to represent an even spread of political ideologies.”

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The high-level week this year, which ran from Sept. 19 to Sept. 26, featured, as usual, speeches by heads of state, government or cabinet ministers. It was kicked off with a two-day summit in which government leaders agreed to redouble their efforts to achieving the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) by 2030. Eleven goals have benchmarks incorporating gender equality. At the halfway mark to the deadline for reaching the SDGs, most countries are far behind.

Of the 21 women who spoke at the General Assembly’s annual opening debate (UNGA), nine represented countries that are considered only “partially free” or “not free” at all, according to Freedom House’s Global Freedom Status list. Twelve came from countries considered “free.” Freedom House, a nonprofit organization mostly funded by the United States government, analyzes political freedoms and civil liberties across the globe, grading countries on a 100-point scale, with 100 being “most free.”

Norway was represented by Anne Beathe Tvinnereim, its minister for international development, at UNGA. Her country ranked the highest on the Freedom House scale; the authoritarian regime of the United Arab Emirates, represented by the Minister of International Cooperation Reem Al Hashimy, ranked lowest.

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Among the countries represented by a woman this year but not last year, there were more right-leaning states than left-leaning, reflecting the authoritarian turn of politics globally, especially in Europe. Among the countries who were represented by women this year, Italy, Jamaica and Peru, which now lean right, outnumbered the only new left-leaning country, Slovenia. Three centrist countries, Norway, Mexico and France, were also represented by women in 2023 but not in 2022. (Ideological assessments were based on sources from the Council on Foreign Relations, the Economist Intelligence Unit, the Inter-Parliamentary Union and Freedom House.)

“Persuasive, socially conservative women are a political asset for right-leaning parties,” Bardall said. “Especially for parties advocating to restrict rights, both male and female politicians realize that it’s more convincing to have women express policies that may potentially limit the rights of women.”

President Katalin Novak of Hungary, which Freedom House ranks as partially free and which the Inter-Parliamentary Union ranks as low in the number of women represented in its national government, was the first woman to speak at UNGA. While her speech began by recognizing Ukraine’s right to territorial sovereignty and the criminality of Russia’s invasion (150,000 Hungarians live in Ukraine’s Transcarpathian Oblast), Novak also addressed Europe’s “demographic winter.”

Her speech, which emphasized motherhood, appealed to “us mothers” to “protect the children” and hewed to Hungary’s conservative agenda regarding women’s rights. She referenced Europe’s “demographic decline” and Elon Musk, the owner of Twitter/X, who has been tweeting extremist views and has called “population collapse due to low birth rates” a greater concern than the climate crisis. Demographers say the global population is growing, despite declines in some parts of the world, and collapse is not imminent.

The women leaders at UNGA show near parity among ideologies. Nine of the countries represented by women were centrist; of these, four leaned left: Barbados, Honduras, Mexico and New Zealand. Four — Norway, Liechtenstein, Indonesia and France — straddled the center, while Bangladesh toed the line between centrist and right.

Six left-leaning countries were represented by women — Australia, Iceland, Moldova, Samoa, Slovakia (though October elections moved Slovakia to the right) and Slovenia. Women spoke on behalf of six countries with right-leaning ideologies: Hungary, Italy, Jamaica, Peru, Uganda and the United Arab Emirates, or UAE.

According to Bardall, autocratic regimes may try to “gender wash” their public image to project more progress on gender equality than is happening. This manipulation can open public resources, such as development funding or even positioning on key UN bodies.

The UAE, for example, is represented by a woman ambassador, Lana Nusseibeh, at the UN. The country is a current member of the Security Council and the Sustainable Development Goals Group. It is also president-designate for COP28, the UN-led climate talks to be held in Dubai from Nov 30 to Dec 12.

Bardall also pointed out that a free democracy, where women enjoy relatively strong gender equality, does not necessarily mean a left-leaning political ideology. She noted that right-leaning governments and political parties regularly embrace women who support socially conservative platforms.

Italy’s conservative prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, spoke at UNGA for the first time this year. Freedom House ranks Italy among the 12 democracies that are free, and the country is in the top third of the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s ranking of the number of women represented in national parliaments. Yet earlier this year, the Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, Dunja Mijatovic, called on Italy to do more for gender equality. “It is urgent to face the glaring rift between legal guarantees and the reality of gender-based violence and widespread inequalities suffered by women and girls,” Mijatovic said.

The status of women, especially those in Afghanistan and Iran, was covered by many male and female world leaders in their speeches. Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi ignored the ongoing protests by women back home by instead concentrating on the treatment of women in other countries, including Afghanistan. (Narges Mohammadi, an activist serving a 10-year sentence in a Tehran jail, was awarded the 2023 Nobel Peace Prize on Oct. 6 for her work on women’s rights and banning the death penalty.)

No one spoke for Afghanistan this year, as the country’s seat is contested by the Taliban regime, which cannot get official accreditation by UN member states to participate in UNGA.

Bardall said the women, peace and security (WPS) agenda at the UN is linked to democracy: “This is why WPS and democratization are so important: there is a trend for post-conflict or post-authoritarian states to slip back into old patterns of gendered leadership.”

She noted that for any country’s transition to democracy to be successful, diverse women’s voices must be heard, adding, “Gender equality cannot be a second-tier human rights in peace-building and democratization.”

Thordis Reykfjord Gylfadottir, Iceland’s minister for foreign affairs, told the General Assembly in her speech: “The shocking treatment of women by many countries, and the blatant inequalities in even more countries, are not only a terribly sad and unfair situation for these women. Quite frankly it makes no sense.”

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts on the state of gender equality?

Laura E. Kirkpatrick is an editor, writer and researcher who has covered international, national and civic social enterprise and development, women’s issues and the media for Gannett Publications, ESPN and other media outlets. Based in Buffalo, N.Y., Kirkpatrick wrote PassBlue’s most popular article in 2015, “In New York State, a City Willing to Settle Refugees the Right Way”; in 2017, her story on sexual harassment at the UN was also among the top 5 for the year. Kirkpatrick also manages social media and audience development for PassBlue. She received a New Media Editorial Fellowship from the Columbia University Graduate School of Business and has a graduate degree in journalism from Columbia University and a B.A. in English from Hamilton College.

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The Current Crop of Women Leaders Shows Political Shifts to the Right
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Mary Kuhn
Mary Kuhn
8 months ago

Outstanding, eye-opening piece on the relative presence of women officials, democracy and left-leaning policies in UN members.

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