UN chief Guterres gets a C+ on first feminist report card

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres at an event entitled, "Leave No One Behind: Actions and Commitments for Women's Economic Empowerment," which took place on the margins of the U.N. General Assembly's annual debate. Photo by: Ariana Lindquist / U.N.

UNITED NATIONS — A coalition of women’s rights organizations and former United Nations staffers are handing U.N. chief António Guterres a passable C+ grade for his work so far in making the institution a more feminist one.

The “Feminist U.N. Campaign” — composed of many of the same people who lobbied for the first female Secretary-General in 2016 — issued Guterres’ team with the report card on Tuesday, just over a year into his term. The campaign’s survey of more than 118 organizations from more than 40 countries, plus evaluation of Guterres’ speeches and appointments, reveal mixed progress.

While the U.N. leader has met many of his initial promises, such as demanding gender parity at all levels, other challenges remain. Women civil society members continue to face limited access to U.N. processes and negotiations, the report’s authors say, and most decision-making and information-tracking is not done with transparency in mind.

“This is a man who has got a lot on his plate, and we are evaluating what he does in terms of a feminist agenda,” explained Lyric Thompson, director of advocacy and policy at the International Center for Research on Women, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that released the report on behalf of the Feminist U.N. Campaign.

“If we could have evaluated all of the Secretary-Generals before, they would have failed miserably. Guterres scored well on the things he said he would do. He appears to be a man of his word, but that is not the goal of the exercise. It’s to call out a culture of misogyny and patriarchy enshrined in the U.N. that does not serve the people.”

Opinion: A progress report on the UN feminist agenda

100 days into U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres' term, Lyric Thompson, the director of policy and advocacy at the International Center for Research on Women, provides a report card on his progress in making a more feminist United Nations.

The campaign considered six categories in its report: The development and implementation of a feminist agenda for the U.N.; a feminist implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals; transparent and accountable financing for gender equality; women’s leadership throughout the system; improved women’s rights institutions and forums in the U.N.; and increased freedom of information in the U.N.

The report card issued Guterres’ team a collective score of 78 percent.

The U.N. chief made several early high-level female appointments, including Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed, and has laid out gender parity targets for all U.N. agencies to meet by 2030. He scored best on the question of a feminist agenda and women’s leadership throughout the system.

However, he came up shortest on ensuring a feminist implementation and accountability for the SDGs, and promoting freedom of information in the U.N. system.

The group recommends that some internal processes — such as decisions by Guterres’ executive committee on gender equality, whose meetings are currently confidential — should be reported or televised.

It also recommends that Guterres ensures that data from his new initiatives is made public. This would include U.N. entities’ progress as they work to reach the gender parity targets Guterres has set. The U.N. Department of Public Information has also been tasked with setting up a system to track credible reports on sexual exploitation and abuse, as part of Guterres’ new gender parity strategy.

In January 2017, Guterres announced a new high-level taskforce to strengthen the U.N.’s response to internal sexual abuse and exploitation cases. Tracking of these cases is still conducted on an internal basis only, and rarely results in punitive action, according to Charlotte Bunch, a co-author of the report and the founding director of the Center for Women’s Global Leadership at Rutgers University.

Guterres “has convened a high-level taskforce and we hope it will recommend more transparency. If they don’t, we will recommend that, as the lack of transparency has worked against the victims ... most of the time,” she said.

Bunch and her colleagues also take issue with the management of the new European Union-U.N. global initiative to eliminate violence against women and girls. Announced in September, the initial €500 million ($597 million) investment will be managed by a new U.N. multistakeholder trust fund, with support from UN Women, the U.N. Population Fund and the U.N. Development Programme, overseen by Guterres’ office.

Bunch questioned the need to create a new entity to disperse the money when UN Women, one of the system’s smallest agencies with a budget of $203.8 million in 2018/19, could have taken on the initiative.

“We felt UN Women was not supported strongly with a particularly big chunk of money,” she said. “It’d be as if money came for work on children and instead of going through UNICEF they set up a new program to administer the money. UNICEF should be the primary lead on that.”

The campaign has shared its report card with Guterres’ team, and will now be turning its attention to the upcoming annual Commission on the Status of Women in March. At last year’s event, Guterres hosted his first-ever town hall with women’s civil society representatives, yet some NGO members complained of being blocked from attending events by security staff.

*Update, Jan. 11, 2018:* This article has been updated to clarify that the Feminist U.N. Campaign surveyed more than 118 organizations.

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About the author

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the U.N. Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.