Global Policy Forum

It’s Time for a Woman UN Secretary General


By Rosemary Okello *

Gender Links
February 2, 2006

In the almost 61 years of the United Nation's (UN) existence the position of Secretary General has never been held by a woman. The irony is not lost: women's effective participation in decision-making structures has long been a critical area of advocacy for advancing gender equality. According to the women's rights group Equality Now, as of 30 June 2005, women occupied only 37.1 percent of professional and higher positions and only 16.2 percent of the Under-Secretaries General were women. Clearly women's absence in these key positions raises questions about the UN's commitment to gender equality.

As UN Secretary General Kofi Annan's five-year term ends in December 2006, speculation about who will succeed him is rife. But the time has come for the UN to put its money where its mouth is so to speak and ensure that the next Secretary-General is a woman.

Initiated by women's organisations in 1996, a campaign titled "It's time for a woman" is a rallying call for the five members of the Security Council (China, France, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom and the United States) and the 10 rotating members in 2006 i.e. Argentina, Congo, Denmark, Ghana, Greece, Japan, Peru, Qatar, Slovakia and Tanzania, to nominate a woman to the Secretary General's office. Their campaign is supported by the Beijing Platform for Action which calls for the development of a "mechanism to nominate women candidates to appointment to senior posts at the UN."

The "It's time for a woman" campaign is championed by Equality Now, an organisation working towards ending discrimination and violence against women and girls across the world through mobilising public pressure. Equality Now's Executive Director Taina Bien-Aime' has argued that: "Women's unequal access to positions of power and decision-making in the UN and around the world hinders progress towards the UN's goals which include equality, development and peace."

But a senior gender advisor with a UN agency who chooses to remain anonymous argues that "patriarchy has influenced the UN culture. With many women having the ‘right' brains to sit in the top office, a campaign has to been mounted for the system to wake up and see that women can [do] the job."

As various regions jostle for the best to put forward the "winner" pressure mounts for a woman candidate, particularly given that amongst the candidates that have already shown interest, there are no women. The "It's time for a woman" campaign recommends 18 top women who it is believed are able to take the reigns from Kofi Annan, some of whom have headed UN agencies. Among them are Gro Harlem Brundtlan, former Norwegian Prime Minister and former WHO Director-General.

From Africa proposals include Navanethem Pillay from South Africa who is an International Criminal Court Judge and formerly the President of the UN International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. Others include current Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and Anna Tibaijuka from Tanzania, who is the Executive Director of UN-Habitat.

If the principle of regional rotation is to be followed, Asia too has a number of potential women including Nafis Sadik, former Executive Director of the UN Population Fund, Leticia Shahani, Former UN Assistant Secretary General, Burmese democracy leader currently under house arrest Aung San Suu Kyi, who is also a Nobel Peace Prize recipient, and Sadako Ogata, former UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

While member countries might be looking at the post as a chance to offer favours or settle scores, 10 years after the Beijing Platform for Action, women are tired of the UN talking the language of gender equality without matching their talk with action. It's time for a woman!

About the Author: Rosemary Okello is the Executive Director of the African Woman and Child Feature Service in Nairobi, Kenya. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service that provides fresh views on everyday news.

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