Women’s rights held hostage at UN, say former leaders

Women’s rights have been “taken hostage” at the UN, and hard-fought gains are being eroded around the world, a group of former UN leaders has warned.

The group has called for the urgent implementation of a rule to put a woman at the helm of the general assembly every other year, to combat a growing hostility to gender equality. It comes after the UN secretary general, António Guterres, pointed out at the UN’s 78th general assembly, in New York last month, that it remained an almost all-male event. “Just four women signed our founding document,” he said. “One look around this room shows not enough has changed. ‘We the people’ does not mean ‘we the men’.”

GWL Voices – an advocacy group set up by Irina Bokova, a former director general of Unesco, Helen Clark, the former prime minister of New Zealand, and Susana Malcorra, who was a chief of staff to Ban Ki-moon as UN secretary general – is also insistent that the UN must elect its first female secretary general at the next vote in 2026. Of the 78 presidents elected since 1946, four have been women; there has never been a woman UN secretary general.

Many of the rights we thought were secure are not. This is not a problem of certain countries, it’s a problem that cuts across the world

Susana Malcorra, president GWL Voices

The movement hopes to use the momentum of the session to push for change, arguing that the lack of gender equality at the heart of the organisation is having a chilling effect on progress for women and girls around the world.

“Gender at large, and women’s rights in particular, has become a political battle space,” said Malcorra, the president of GWL Voices. “Many of the rights we thought were secure are not and this is not a problem of certain countries, it’s a problem that cuts across the world.”

The group’s report on women’s leadership in the multilateral system reveals that since 1945:

  • Women have led 33 of the most important institutions for only 12% of the time

  • Only a third of key multilateral organisations are headed by a woman

  • 13 organisations, including the four largest development banks, have never been led by a woman

  • Only 24% of permanent representatives to the UN are women

Malcorra, Clark and Bokova were contenders for the role when Guterres was elected as the ninth male UN secretary general in 2016. At the time there was pressure on states to elect a woman: Equality Now had a campaign, while the UN’s president of the general assembly, Mogens Lykketoft, and president of the security council, Samantha Power, wrote to all member states, asking them to nominate female candidates. Guterres was the only contender when he was re-elected in 2021 for a second term.

GWL argues that the presidency of the general assembly – the main policymaking body of the UN, made up of the 193 member states – should adopt “gender alternation”, a move backed by the presidents of Slovenia, Botswana and Spain.

“The general assembly has rotated among the five regional country groups each year since 1963,” said Malcorra. “Now the general assembly needs to agree to rotate the gender of its president each year.”

While any member state could propose this through a resolution for adoption, achieving it could be challenging, said María Fernanda Espinosa, a GWL Voices member, and one of four female former presidents of the general assembly.

“You would think it was common sense and easy to do, but the issue of gender equality and women’s rights has become extremely contentious, and has become also a thing to bargain with,” she said.

“This transition to a very clear multipolar world, the war in Ukraine and the sub-regional tensions have created an atmosphere within the UN that is tense. There is a lack of trust between parties, north and south, east and west. Unfortunately, women and girls have been taken hostage by these overall tensions.”

Related: Women and girls being failed by ‘lacklustre commitment’ to gender equality, says UN

Women in the roles of secretary general and general assembly president could help shift the conversation, she added. “It’s an important, substantial change – these things can infuse an atmosphere that is more conducive and more positive.”

The need was urgent, said Fernanda Espinosa, pointing to stalled progress on the 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs), agreed by UN member states in 2015. At the start of September, UN Women said the world was failing women and girls and stated in a report that it was “way off track” to meet the 2030 deadline for SDG gender targets.

“We cannot think of a better future of a world of peace and prosperity and human rights – the very pillars of the UN – without having 50% of the world’s population on board,” said Fernanda Espinosa.