Feminist U.N. progress under threat


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Anne McPherson

Vice President, Global Communications email [email protected]

Second year sees improvement in the face of considerable challenge

WASHINGTON, Jan. 23—In his second year in office, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has begun to deliver on many of his promised changes to make a more gender-equitable United Nations, according to an annual report card from the Feminist U.N. Campaign. The Campaign recognized his efforts with a grade of B-, up from C+ at the end of his first year.

Secretary-General Guterres has increased public messaging on women’s rights and gender equality, is on track or ahead of schedule to achieve gender parity in U.N. leadership and is rolling out a number of efforts to address sexual harassment and gender-based violence — although internal backlash and bureaucracy threaten progress in a number of areas.

“Secretary-General Guterres’ efforts in 2018 show slow but steady progress across all areas of our Campaign,” said Teresa Casale, global policy advocate at the International Center for Research on Women and lead author of the review. “He has clearly responded to critiques that he was insufficiently focused on women’s rights and agency, as well as the power imbalances that enable discrimination, harassment and inequality to continue.

“This is clearly a Secretary-General who is listening,” she said.

But the authors warn that progress is anything but assured. Initial actions taken by the Secretary-General to implement structural changes to promote gender equality have met considerable resistance — from staff and from member states — and the Secretary-General has not prioritized action on a number of issues the Campaign has put forward on its agenda.

“We’re pleased to see the Secretary-General’s continued emphasis on gender equality. From the power of the pulpit to executive policy actions, he is making moves in the right direction,“ said Lyric Thompson, ICRW’s director of policy and advocacy and a report author. “But we’ve hardly arrived at a feminist United Nations: immunity and privelege continue to scuttle efforts to hold #MeToo abusers to account, resources for women’s rights programs, agencies and processes are scant and we are beginning to see entrenched power structures dig in more deeply in response to the first wave of efforts to effect change.“

The Campaign created the report card in response to a pledge from the Secretary-General Guterres when he was elected to be a “feminist” leader at the United Nations and inviting civil society to hold him to his promise. Outlining six areas for action in his term, the Campaign has evaluated him in each area at the end of each year in office. In 2018 he scored highest on efforts to advance gender parity in U.N. leadership and on tackling violence, discrimination and abuse in the U.N. system. The Secretary-General made the most progress in the past year in increasing his attention to Goal 5 on gender equality and the mainstreaming of gender across the implementation of all Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). He scored the lowest on transparency and freedom of information, which remains limited.

The report card also noted that there was still considerable work to be done to improve transparency and financing and in gender mainstreaming across the SDGs.

“Transformation takes time, and if we had evaluated any other Secretary-General against the same yardstick, he would have failed miserably,” Thompson noted. “But success shouldn’t be measured from such a poor starting point. Success will be when survivors can seek and receive justice without reprisal, when resources match rhetoric and when women’s rights defenders are as welcome in the United Nations as the countries who now silence and exclude them. That’s the Feminist United Nations we’re working towards.”