We Need a Feminist Secretary-General at the United Nations


In its 71-year history, a woman has never served as Secretary-General. This time around, clamor had grown and momentum had built for a woman to take the helm. But a woman was not selected to become the next Secretary-General of the United Nations—in fact, women were apparently not even seriously considered.


A record seven highly-qualified women applied for the position. Among them: a former Prime Minister of New Zealand and current Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP); a former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Croatia; the Director-General of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO); and a former vice-president of the World Bank and current European Commissioner for Budget and Human Resources. Four of them were from Eastern Europe, whose “turn” it allegedly was.

In the end, in each of the six straw polls conducted by the Security Council, these competent, experienced and impressive female candidates ranked low, unable to break through.

The man who was chosen, Antonio Guterres, has solid experience and many qualities that prepare him for the role. A former Prime Minister of Portugal and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Mr. Guterres has demonstrated courage in actively pushing wealthier countries to take more responsibility for addressing the refugee crisis. He can think outside the box and defy convention, as demonstrated by Portugal’s decriminalization of drug possession for personal use, which occurred during his tenure.

But is he a feminist?

Mr. Guterres has made strong statements on women’s rights, including during his run for the Secretary-General role. Discussing women in crises, he has said: “Working together we must move progressively from perceiving women and girls only as a subject of protection, […we must] do everything we can for their empowerment.” He has articulated his commitment to gender equality, saying it is “an inalienable and indivisible feature of all human rights and fundamental freedoms.” He has said that the Secretary-General should mainstream human rights across the whole UN system, and he has affirmed the importance of women’s participation in peacemaking in order for these efforts to be successful.

Mr. Guterres also clearly recognizes things have to change at the UN itself. Although gender equality features prominently in the Sustainable Development Goals—thanks to the pressure exerted by the women’s movement—the UN remains stuck in the Mad Men era. The Deputy Secretary-General is a man. A quarter of Under-Secretary-General (USG) positions are held by women. At the Assistant-Secretary-General level, this only goes up to one-third.

Mr. Guterres has said, “The UN must be at the forefront of the efforts of the international community for gender equality, and let’s be honest, it was not always exactly the case.” He promised to present in the early months of his tenure a roadmap for gender parity at all levels of the institution, with clear benchmarks and timeframes. He has committed to respecting parity in relation to senior management. A shift is necessary, he said, because we “have been moving backwards in recent time.”

On sexual and reproductive rights—core issues for women’s equality—his record while Prime Minister of Portugal is worrisome. Mr. Guterres invoked his Catholic faith to oppose the attempts by his own Socialist party to legalize abortion, a law that only passed once he left office. He objected to same-sex marriage for the same reasons. Reports are that he has since changed his stance on LGBT rights.

He now needs to send a clear signal that he recognizes the right to a safe abortion as central to women’s equality and security. Since he is known to support contraception and sexuality education, there may be hope. Mr. Guterres must embrace the latest statement by UN experts under the aegis of the High Commissioner for Human Rights: “The criminalization of or other failure to provide services that only women require, such as abortion and emergency contraception, constitute discrimination based on sex, and is impermissible.”

The 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals promise to significantly improve the health and lives of women and girls around the world. The Goals include a commitment to reproductive rights. We need a Secretary-General that will hold countries accountable to their commitments on all aspects of women’s rights—someone who will champion women’s sexual and reproductive health and their right to make decisions about their own bodies and futures, freely and safely.

We now know the next Secretary General won’t be a woman, but will he be a feminist? Women’s groups expect no less.

Françoise Girard is president of the International Women’s Health Coalition.

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We Need a Feminist Secretary-General at the United Nations