Assessing the UN Secretary-General’s Feminist Agenda

During his third year in office, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres made incremental progress towards a more gender-equitable United Nations, while the Feminist UN Campaign calls for more urgent action in the final two years of his term. According to an annual report card, the Campaign recognized the Secretary-General’s efforts for a second year with a grade of B-, finding he forged ahead in some areas and stalled or slipped in others.

Scenes from the 63rd session of Commission on the Status of Women, held at the United Nations headquarters in New York. (Amanda Voisard for UN Women / Creative Commons)

The report finds Secretary-General Guterres’ public messaging on women’s rights and gender equality actually increased in 2019, tripling the number of speeches he gave on gender equality and continuing to tout his bona-fides as a “feminist.” Previously strong progress towards gender parity within the UN continued at pace, although backlash and internal opposition also increased. Progress seemed to have stalled or reversed in efforts to respond to the UN’s own #MeToo moment, although interviews with staff presented conflicting reports documenting continued rollout of new policies and procedures in this area. In the context of the UN’s severe funding shortfall and resulting austerity measures, prior efforts on financing for gender equality have been severely delayed, perhaps in danger of coming to a standstill.

Middling results for the Secretary-General in this middle-year of his first term. Guterres and his team have continued to make some progress, but much as we see enormous backlash against women’s rights defenders around the world, so too is his leadership in this area being hobbled by bureaucratic inertia, funding shortfalls and overt opposition internally. As the United Nations turns 75 this year—a year that will see the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action and the 20th anniversary of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1325—now is the time to redouble his efforts and see this agenda through.

This agenda requires not only the Secretary-General’s visible and proactive leadership, but also system-wide reforms to overcome internal obstacles at the UN. While this agenda continued to be a focus of the Secretary-General in 2019, the significance of 2020 as a major women’s rights anniversary year should be matched with equally visible, meaningful steps towards women’s rights and equality.

“We are well-aware of the challenges the Secretary-General is facing. He is pushing up against the same ceiling women have been pushing on for years,“ said Teresa Casale, who authored the report with me. “In order to keep from stalling out completely, now is the time to put the pedal to the metal.”

The Campaign created the initial report card in early 2017, in response to Secretary-General Guterres declaring himself a “feminist” as he took the helm at the United Nations and invited civil society to “hold his feet to the fire” on his commitment to gender equality. Outlining six areas for action over the course of his term—in which only two years remain—the Campaign has evaluated him in each area at the end of his first hundred days and each subsequent year in office. In 2019, Guterres scored high on efforts to advance gender parity in UN leadership but lower on rights protections, where momentum slowed in addressing sexual harassment, exploitation and abuse within the UN.

Since 2018, there is still considerable work to be done to improve transparency and financing for gender equality, as well as gender mainstreaming, across the Sustainable Development Goals. It is also urgent to promote marginalized voices and protect civil society access to U.N. processes going forward, given dramatically shrinking civil society space around the world.

2020 is the year for the Secretary-General to shine brightest for women’s rights. It’s a major anniversary year, and as he heads into his final two years of the term with a potentially legacy-making moment.

If this Secretary-General truly wants to be remembered as a feminist champion, he must challenge his team and all agencies, entities and world leaders to embrace the hard issues, accelerate progress and deepen impact for women and girls around the world. We simply cannot afford to wait.

About

Lyric Thompson is the Director of Policy and Advocacy at the International Center for Research on Women. Previously, she served as a primary expert and strategist for Amnesty International USA’s women’s human rights program, senior policy manager at Women for Women International and project manager for overseas development contracts at DAI. She writes regularly on gender and foreign policy for the Thomson-Reuters Foundation, openDemocracy and Huffington Post.