NEW YORK, DECEMBER 13 – Seventy-one years ago, there were four pioneers: Bertha Lutz from Brazil, Minerva Bernardino from the Dominican Republic, Virginia Gildersleeve from the U.S. and Jesse Smith from Australia: four women in a thicket of men signing the United Nations Charter in San Francisco. Jessie, accoutered with the habitual cigarette between her lips and translation headphones on her head, made every effort to ensure that the founding document of the U.N. contain a provision to guarantee that all UN positions be open to men and women alike. Here was a woman with a remarkably sharp long-term vision.
“Our mission is to transform these pioneers into a wave” remarked Secretary General designate Antonio Guterres, the ninth man to be elected at the helm of the United Nations, at the opening of HERstory, an exhibition celebrating eighty-one leading women in the history of the U.N. One of the honored women is Italian astrophysicist Simonetta Di Pippo, a leading global authority on the subject of international cooperation in the aerospace sector, who in 2014 was nominated Director of the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) based in Vienna: it was her initiative, among her many others, to promote the first U.N. mission into space, which scheduled for 2021, is designed to allow all member States, including developing countries, to participate in experiments on microgravity.
In 1945, there were only four women leaders. The exhibition reveals that their number is grown to 41 since the year 2000. In addition to Guterres who will take office on January 1st and current Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, the President of the General Assembly Peter Thomson and ambassadors from Colombia, Germany, UAE and Qatar, who sponsored the initiative, attended the inaugural ceremony. On the day dedicated to UN women leaders there was an “elephant in the room”, after so many female candidates had no luck in succeeding Ban Ki-moon: Director General of UNESCO Irina Bokova, UNDP Administrator Helen Clark, Argentine Minister of Foreign Affairs and former UN Chief of Staff Susanna Malcorra, and Costa Rican Christiana Figueres, key negotiator leading to the Paris 2015 Agreement on climate change.
“This year we have had more female than male candidates in the Secretary General selection process” remarked Thomson, and “more female candidates in 2016 than in the previous 71 year history of the United Nations”. Meager consolation for the Group of Friends in Favor of a Woman Candidate for Secretary General that, prompted by the Colombian mission, had launched its campaign in the spring of 2015 and has now buckled down for its new mission: gender equality in hiring and assignments.
Gender equality finds its origins deep in the past: the strong leadership of Brazilian Bertha Lutz ensured that the UN Charter would be the first international agreement whose preamble proclaimed equal rights for women. Since then, starting with baby-steps and gradually moving on to bold strides, women have begun to shatter glass ceilings. Ana Figueroa Gajardo from Chile: first woman to head a key UN commission in 1951; Vijaya Lakhsmi Pandit from India: first woman president of the General Assembly in 1953; Agda Rossel from Sweeden: first woman as Permanent Representative in 1958; Helvi Sipila from Finland: first woman Assistant Secretary General in 1972, and in the same year, Jeanne Martin Cisse from Guinea, first woman to hold the presidency of the Security Council, and finally Luise Frechette from Canada, first woman vice-Secretary General under Kofi Annan in 1982.
Guterres, who had pledged to make gender equality at the UN a priority in his swearing-in speech, has begun to lead by example by nominating Maria Luiza Riberio Viotti, from Brazil, as chief of staff and is in the process of nominating Amina J. Mohammed, Nigerian Foreign Minister, as Vice Secretary General. (@alebal)