This week marks 100 years since the League of Nations, parent to the United Nations, was founded at the 1920 Paris Peace Conference. The week also marks 100 years of women being overlooked, harassed and even abused by an organisation that is supposed to protect them.
The League of Nations was created in order to bring about world peace through international collaboration in the aftermath of the First World War. With the second outbreak of war in 1939, the League (having failed in their most salient objective) was dissolved, to be replaced by the United Nations in 1945. The UN was a new and improved intergovernmental organisation that had a renewed commitment to global peace, that had learned from the failures of its predecessor, and that was empowered to tackle the problems of the late 20th century with gumption, idealism, and cooperation. The picture is a rosy one. But where do women fit in?
In the early days of the League of Nations, women at the Inter-Allied Women’s Conference were granted a small platform upon which they could lobby on matters relating directly to women and children, such as child trafficking and labour regulations. Sir Eric Drumond, the League’s first Secretary-General, stated: ‘I have always told anyone who asked me that I felt the more help we could receive from women the better’. This sentiment was translated into the League’s charter, which permitted women to work for the League in all capacities and to be treated equally in terms of hiring, promotions, and dismissals – an immensely progressive target at the time. As of 1925, there were 245 women working for the League. Whilst they were predominantly employed as secretaries and assistants, the League of Nations was not off to a bad start.
When the turn came for the United Nations 25 years later, the status of women in the organisation once again became a point of contention. Of the 850 delegates who signed the first official charter of the United Nations at the San Francisco conference in 1945, only 4 were women. This would come as a huge disappointment for those who had been encouraged by the egalitarian promise of the League of Nations. Although this figure is underwhelming, SOAS University of London carried out a study into the unrecognised contributions of Latin American women at the foundation of the UN. Bertha Lutz, a Brazilian advocate for women’s rights, fought tirelessly alongside other female delegates from the Global South for the phrase ‘equal rights of men and women’ to be included in the preamble to the UN charter. Without this addition, the UN would have been left without a mandate to protect women’s rights. Unfortunately, this was a battle they fought without the support of other female delegates from Western Nations: the British representative Ellen Wilkinson argued that equality had already been reached, proven by her own high-ranking position in international politics, and the American delegate, Virginia Gildersleeve, is quoted as calling the inclusion of women in the charter ‘a vulgar thing to do’. Despite the incredible work that was done by Lutz, her achievements are still underplayed and sidelined by the UN in favour of a westernised narrative. Contrastingly, Eleanor Roosevelt remains is plastered across the internet as a pioneer for universal human rights. However, a Google search for Bertha Lutz’s name produces next to no content produced by the UN in recognition of her contributions. A search of her name on their website yields only 590 results, compared to Wilkinson’s, which produces 7983, and Gildersleeve, whose name appears 3795 times. The UN is supposed to be an intersectional platform for all women around the world, but the disappearance of Bertha Lutz demonstrates its failure to amplify and celebrate the voices most in need of being heard.
Moving onto the United Nations as we know it today and the familiar question of gender parity. Whilst the UN has achieved an equal number of men and women working at the two lowest levels of responsibility, this does not extend to the upper levels, and the organisation is not expected to achieve full parity for the next 112 years if current trends are maintained. For example, out of the 193 member states of the United Nations, only 50 countries are currently represented by women at the UN General Assembly; even then, the countries represented by women are predominantly Western nations. Delegations such as Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, and Iraq have never sent a female delegate. There is only one woman currently sat on the Security Council, Joanna Wronecka, who is representing Poland. This is a huge drop from 2014, which saw 6 women take up seats on the council. The top position at the United Nations, the Secretary-General, has never been filled by a woman. In 2016, the possibility of a female Secretary-General seemed finally within reach as seven of the thirteen candidates put forward were women. The former Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon even admitted that it was ‘high time now’ for a woman to take over the position. Antonio Guterres was given the post instead and the highly qualified women of the UN sat back down in their assigned seats to prepare for 5 more years masculine administration.
But why is it that women are unequally represented in the top positions of an organisation that is supposed to be dedicated to the promotion of gender equality? Some suggest it is because the UN is still a private gentleman’s club with a culture of bullying, backroom deals and impunity. This creates an environment that is either consciously or unconsciously hostile to women. It will come as no surprise that this toxic masculine climate comes hand in hand with cases of sexual harassment in the workplace. The Guardian reported that one in three UN workers claim to have been sexually harassed between 2017 and 2019, mainly in the form of offensive jokes (22%), offensive remarks about appearance (14%) and conversations relating to sexual matters (13%). The most recent case that hit the headlines was that of Michel Didibe, who stepped down from his position as Director of UNAIDS in May 2019 after an independent panel found him to be creating ‘a patriarchal culture tolerating harassment and abuse of authority’. The report took particular issue with his choice to protect his deputy, Luiz Loures, who was accused of sexual assault by an employee, Martina Brostrom. This surely begs the question: If the UN itself is not meeting the bare minimum standard of equality and safeguarding in its own workplace, what authority does it have to preach female empowerment to anyone else?
Due to the nature of the UN as a global organisation, its inaction on structural sexism does not simply affect those stationed at the headquarters in New York, but spreads across borders, ethnicities and socio-economic classes. Through peacekeeping missions, the UN interacts with women who are in incredibly vulnerable positions due to adverse circumstances beyond their control. It is these women, who are the most in need of the support of the UN, who are the most let down. Take Haiti, for example, which is home to the longest-running peacekeeping mission in UN history, MINUSTAH. From 2004 to 2007, 114 Sri Lankan peacekeeping troops were found to be running a child abuse ring while stationed in Haiti. Instead of prosecution, the troops were simply repatriated and are still yet to receive a conviction. More recently, a study was conducted by the University of Birmingham and Ontario University interviewing 2500 Haitians who lived near the peacekeeper base throughout the MINUSTAH mission from 2004-2017. Unprompted, 10% of respondents mentioned that there were hundreds of children who had been fathered and abandoned by UN peacekeepers. Throughout the mission, women and girls would have transactional sex with peacekeepers in exchange for a meal or a handful of change. The practice was so common that the Haitian people even coined a term for the illegitimate children of UN peacekeepers; ‘Petit Minustah’. Young women were targeted as easy prey and trapped in a perpetual cycle of poverty by the UN, who withheld any access to child support.
The MINUSTAH mission is not even an isolated incident. In 1992, Italian personnel of the UN were found to be paying girls aged 12-18 for sex while stationed in Mozambique. In Bosnia in 1999, women who were the victims of sex trafficking were sexually exploited by the UN contractors instead of being helped. In the Congo in 2005, troops were found to be offering food and money for sex with girls as young as 13. In 2014, it was revealed that French troops had been exploiting children in what the UN eventually admitted was a ‘gross institutional failure’ in the Central African Republic. Despite this horrific pattern of sexual exploitation dating up to the present day, the UN’s response has always remained more or less the same. The offending officers are repatriated, the blame is directed at their country of origin, the case is squashed, and the affected women are abandoned. Whilst Guterres, the current Secretary-General, claims to hold sexual exploitation as a top priority, the lack of repercussions for offending peacekeepers and the lack of substantial review of practice calls into question the UN’s true dedication to the elimination of violence against women and gender-based inequality. Women who have been affected by poverty, war and natural disaster are being trampled on yet again by the seismic foot of the United Nations while guilty male troops get away without a scratch. If this is what the UN means by ‘peacekeeping’, the status of women, in the eyes of the organisation, cannot be anything but secondary to men.
This is not to say that the UN fails women in all aspects of its work. The United Nations and particularly the sub-organisation UN Women, have undoubtedly achieved huge steps forward for female empowerment, education and reproductive rights all across the globe. There is no need to undersell this achievement or belittle those who have worked so hard for the cause. But there is a need for conversation. Is the UN’s impact on women’s lives around the world always a net-positive one, and what can be done to make it so? It is certainly not a conversation the UN will instigate itself. Being the most senior inter-governmental organisation in the world comes with its privileges. Chiefly, the UN has no one to hold it to account. The Office of Internal Oversight Services, the UN’s internal investigative office, is precisely that, internal. The UN has no compelling obligation beyond that which it sets itself to dispel the stench of misogyny that has been lingering for the last hundred years. Even so, to some, the idea of denouncing the UN is borderline heretic and the argument could well be raised that since the UN is a force for immense good, it is counter-productive or even reckless to attack it for occasional shortcomings. But the UN is not infallible and surely it is more reckless to let it continue its downwards spiral unchecked. No one is exempt from fair criticism, particularly when such criticism is so vital to ensuring the protection of vulnerable women and girls around the world.
Although Donald Trump’s Twitter account is scarcely home to insightful commentary on international affairs, his tweet from 2016 is startlingly true to mark: ‘The United Nations has such great potential but right now it is just a club for people to get together, talk and have a good time. So sad!’. The UN, while it is still an exclusive private gentleman’s club to which women are not invited, will never be a place that takes its own chauvinism seriously if it is more advantageous not to. If the UN is going to change, it must be through structural reshuffling and power redistribution so that women are listened to and supported when they speak up.
We are so fortunate to have spent the last 100 years with an international organisation that is dedicated to the preservation of human life, but women are not the price to be paid for world peace.