The United Nations—an institution dedicated to global peace, security and justice—has often felt like an all-boys club. Since 1946, eight men have occupied the hallowed position of secretary-general of the U.N. From Norway’s Trygve Lie to Korea’s Ban Ki-moon—the current secretary-general who will step down at the end of 2016—these men have played a central role in global affairs.
Seventy years on, it’s high time for a woman to assume the role of U.N. Secretary-General.
There are growing calls for this to happen. Here in the United States, Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) is leading 57 members of the House in advocating for the next secretary-general to be a woman who has a strong record of promoting gender equality globally.
The U.N. has serious catching up to do across the board. Only two women have held the position of deputy secretary-general. And of its 88 under-secretary generals—the next-highest level of leadership—less than a quarter are currently women. The next Secretary General must be a feminist—committed to women’s rights as a core dimension of human rights.
Early on, feminists recognized the United Nations as a venue where they could advance women’s rights. The U.N. Commission on the Status of Women, established in 1946 at the urging of Eleanor Roosevelt, broke early ground. The 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the landmark conferences of the 1990s (including the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, and the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing) have marked the U.N. as a space where feminist activists have been able to push for cutting-edge law and policy on women’s human rights, including their sexual and reproductive rights.
Just this past year, the new Sustainable Development Goals (adopted by 193 governments) recognized that gender equality and women’s leadership are essential for the health and well-being of all people and for the planet. Women’s rights activists from around the globe worked tirelessly to ensure this result. These new goals are important tools to push for meaningful change at the country level.
There is much urgent work to do. In many countries—including the United States—women’s rights are under increasing attack. Women and girls continue to experience endemic levels of gender-based violence and face restrictions on their sexual and reproductive autonomy. They continue to be targets of abuse and torture during conflict, and bear a disproportionate burden of the consequences of economic crises and natural disasters.
Women’s rights organizations are struggling under government-imposed restrictions on their ability to operate independently and effectively. In many countries, women human rights defenders at the forefront of the fight for gender equality are risking their lives: In 2015 alone, 31 women human rights defenders were murdered because of their activism.
Given this, the next secretary-general must be an unequivocal champion for women’s human rights, including their sexual and reproductive rights. She must work to address inequality in all its forms and address the multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination that many women and girls face. She must commit to ensuring that women’s movements are not just observers in U.N. policymaking, but active and equal participants. She must ensure that women are in senior roles throughout the U.N. system. She must call out the threats to women’s organizations and women human rights defenders around the world.
It’s beyond time. To paraphrase Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, “Because it’s 2016.”
Françoise Girard is president of the International Women’s Health Coalition.