Intersectionality, Accountability, and the United Nations

It’s time U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres accepts and takes on recommendations for making intersectionality central to the U.N.’s mandate.

Intersectionality, Accountability, and the U.N. System
Kimberlé Crenshaw. (Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung / Flickr)

“Intersectionality is not additive. It is fundamentally reconstitutive. Pass it on,” tweeted Kimberlé Crenshaw—lawyer, writer and scholar who coined the term “intersectionality.”

Over the past few years, the global women’s rights community has adopted intersectionality—and “intersectional feminism”—into its everyday lexicon. UN Women has issued an explainer on the term, writing:

“Intersectional feminism centers the voices of those experiencing overlapping, concurrent forms of oppression in order to understand the depths of the inequalities and the relationships among them in any given context.”

It’s about time, isn’t it? For far too long, mainstream conversations around gender equality centralized just that: gender. To their own detriment, they lacked substantive recognition of gender’s interaction with race, class, ability, sexuality, ethnicity, religion and the multiple identities that affect our everyday lives and experiences.

While frequent references to intersectionality—especially by governments, U.N. agencies and organizations in the Global North—are worth celebrating, they also give me pause.

They remind me of the oft-critiqued “add women and stir” approach, which presumes that inviting women to excluded programs, settings and analyses will necessarily lead to better outcomes. But simply “adding women” doesn’t transform the exclusive structures and ways of thinking that marginalize women in the first place.

This makes me wonder: Is increased attention to intersectionality meaningful and potentially transformative? Or are we risking an “add intersectionality and stir” approach? As Crenshaw points out, intersectionality isn’t additive; it warrants critique, imagination and overhaul of existing norms and institutions.

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To centralize intersectionality and pursue transformative change, we must urge greater accountability for our leaders and institutions. Where are they succeeding, lacking and what needs to be done away with entirely?

Since 2017, the Feminist U.N. Campaign has been doing just that—tracking the U.N. Secretary-General’s efforts to advance progress toward a more gender-equitable world and U.N. system via an annual “report card,” our own mechanism of civil society-led accountability. Our recently-released report, covering actions taken in 2020, issues Secretary-General Guterres an overall ‘B.’ This is his highest score in the past four years, but still leaves significant room for improvement.

Intersectionality, Accountability, and the U.N. System
Secretary-General António Guterres. (United Nations Photo / Flickr)

Overall, we found that the Secretary-General’s focus on gender equality remained or perhaps even increased in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Guterres repeatedly raised attention to gender-based violence, calling it the “shadow pandemic,” and even included gender among key criteria in the COVID-19 Response and Recovery Fund.

Compared to previous years, we also found that the secretary-general’s rhetoric on gender issues grew more substantive. He consistently recognized gender inequality as a “question of power,” critiquing underlying structural and systemic barriers to achieving women’s rights.

But Guterres fell short of acknowledging intersectionality as necessary to both U.N. reform and gender equality worldwide. His remarks reaffirmed the gender binary and, as our report lays out, “his references to race and racism were often separate from his references to gender—and he had very few references to race at all.”

If Guterres’s words are insufficient, then his actions must be too. An area of both praise and criticism is Guterres’s attention to gender parity. While he has achieved gender parity in senior leadership and in areas under his direct purview, critics point out that Guterres risks equating achievements in gender parity with achievements in gender equality more broadly.

Like “add women and stir,” gender parity doesn’t necessarily mean the U.N. is working better, and towards the interests of women, girls and marginalized populations. As the report points out, “It is equally important to ensure that all people in leadership roles embrace feminist values and pledge to challenge the patriarchal, colonialist culture pervading the U.N. system.”

The Feminist U.N. Campaign urges Secretary-General Guterres to ensure that intersectionality serves “as the foundation of future policies, programming and leadership decisions.” While the report lays out a number of recommendations in pursuit of this goal, Guterres can start by expanding space for civil society throughout the U.N. system, promoting greater transparency and financing for gender equality, rooting out sexual harassment, exploitation and abuse and working with member states, U.N. agencies and all sectors to centralize feminist response and recovery to COVID-19 and beyond.

Secretary-General Guterres recently announced his intentions to run for a second term, and 2021 leaves no shortage of opportunities for him to exert feminist leadership. With the upcoming Generation Equality Forum and Commission on the Status of Women, Guterres must amplify civil society voices, engage with a diversity of stakeholders, encourage system-wide participation in these processes, and—most importantly—accept and take on recommendations for making intersectionality central to the U.N.’s mandate.

If the U.N. is to “leave no one behind,” it must fully grasp the multiple forms of discrimination holding people back.

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Spogmay Ahmed is a global policy advocate at the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW).