Inside the glass house: by Thalif Deen

11th March 2001

Where are the women to head world bodies?

Front Page
Plus| Business| Sports|
Mirror Magazine

The Sunday Times on the Web


NEW YORK - As evidenced at the United Nations last week, the international women's movement has turned out to be one of the world's most vocal lobbies now.

The commemoration of International Women's Day last Thursday brought into focus a litany of gender-related grievances: violence against women, child marriages, sex discrimination in the UN system, paucity of women as world political leaders and all-male peace negotiators in post-conflict situations.

Currently, there are only 11 world political leaders who are women compared with 10 during last year's Millennium Summit, the most recent being Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo of the Philippines.

When a meeting of these women leaders took place during the Summit last September, the UN gathering was hailed as an extraordinary event.

Madeleine Albright, then US Secretary of State, one of the invitees, remarked that if such a gathering had ever taken place back in 1900, Britain's Queen Victoria would perhaps have been talking to herself.

But still having only 10 women leaders in the world was no consolation. "It is utterly inadequate," complained Prime Minister Helen Clark of New Zealand.

The meeting took place against the backdrop of the Millennium Summit which was attended by more than 150 world leaders.

Of the 189 UN member states, the only countries with women leaders at that time were: Latvia, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, New Zealand, Bermuda, Finland, Panama, Ireland, San Marino and Netherland Antilles (which is not a UN member state).

The New York-based Women's Environment and Development Organisation (WEDO) last week re-published the predominantly all-male group photo taken at the Millennium Summit.

The caption, which read: "Where are the women?", also posed the question: "Does your government look like this?"

WEDO said the United Nations, which is expected to be a trail-brazer in the field of gender mainstreaming, was no better than the 189 governments represented in the world body.

At the highest levels of the UN system, there hasn't been a single woman as Secretary-General.

The seven men who have held office so far are: Trygve Lie of Norway, Dag Hammarskjold of Sweden, U. Thant of Burma, Kurt Waldheim of Austria, Javier Perez de Cuellar of Peru, Boutros Boutros-Ghali of Egypt and Kofi Annan of Ghana.

Since the creation of the United Nations in 1946, there was been only one woman Deputy Secretary-General, namely Louise Frechette of Canada. She holds a post that was created in 1997 as part of the reform of the UN system.

At the political level, there have been only two women out of the 55 Presidents elected to the General Assembly: Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit of India in 1953 and Angie Brooks of Liberia in 1969.

WEDO also said that women's representation at the highest levels of global decision-making has not significantly changed in the five years since the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing.

"Women continue to be in the minority in the UN system," it noted. The rate of progress in the representation of women at the senior and policy making levels though slow has improved from 25 percent in 1995 to 33 percent in 1999.

But still it is a long way from the 50-50 gender parity by the year 2000 that was demanded by the General Assembly.

Secretary-General Kofi Annan admits that the UN's ultimate goal of gender equality will not be reached until the year 2012.

The principle of gender equality, affirmed in Article 8 of the UN charter, is a core value of the Organisation, he argues.

According to WEDO, the good news is that women heads of specialised agencies appoint more women in their staff than do men who head such agencies. But men perceive this as reverse discrimination.

At the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) - which until December was headed by Nafis Sadik of Pakistan and is now headed by another woman Thoraya Obaid of Saudi Arabia - about 50 percent of the staff and 60 percent of senior managers are women.

At the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) - whose Executive Director is Carol Bellamy of the United States - women make up 48 percent of staff and 39 percent of senior managers.

At least three other UN Funds and Programmes have relatively high representation of women: at UNAIDS, the joint programme fighting the AIDS epidemic, about 50 percent of senior managers are women.

At the UN Development Programme (UNDP), women constitute 38 percent of the staff and 21 percent of senior managers. At the Paris-based UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), 39 percent of staff and 20 percent of senior managers are women.

Besides Frechette, Bellamy and Obaid, some of the senior women officials in the UN system include Gro Harlem Brundtland of Norway, head of the World Health Organisation (WHO), Mary Robinson of Ireland, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Catherine Bertini of the United States, head of the World Food Programme (WFP) in Rome, Noeleen Heyzer of Singapore, head of the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), Rafiah Saleem of Malaysia, head of Human Resources Management, Sharon Capeling-Alakija of Canada, head of the UN Volunteers (UNV) programme and Patricia Lewis of UK, head of the UN Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) in Geneva.

Additionally, Angela King of Jamaica is Assistant Secretary-General and Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on Gender Issues and the Advancement of Women.

Recently, Annan also appointed two women to head UN regional commissions: Danuta Hubener of Poland, Executive Secretary of the Economic Commission for Europe (ECE) and Mervat Tallawy of Egypt, Executive Secretary of the Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA).

Index Page
Front Page
Mirrror Magazine
Editorial/ Opinion Contents


Front Page| News/Comment| Editorial/Opinion| Plus| Business| Sports| Mirror Magazine

Please send your comments and suggestions on this web site to 

The Sunday Times or to Information Laboratories (Pvt.) Ltd.

Presented on the World Wide Web by Infomation Laboratories (Pvt.) Ltd. Hosted By LAcNet