We look at whether the United Nations –– which has continued to elect a male as its secretary general for the last 75 years –– has been able to make progress on the goal of gender equality and women's rights.

A demonstrator reacts during a protest to mark International Women's Day in Madrid, Spain on March 8, 2020.
A demonstrator reacts during a protest to mark International Women's Day in Madrid, Spain on March 8, 2020. (Javier Barbancho / Reuters)

The world is observing International Women's Day 2021 on March 8 with the theme #ChooseToChallenge.

"So, strike the #ChooseToChallenge pose with your hand high to show your commitment to choose to challenge inequality, call out bias, question stereotypes, and help forge an inclusive world," reads the official #IWD2021 website.

Of the UN's 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that aim to achieve decent lives for all on a healthy planet by 2030, Gender Equality is one of the key goals.

But, has the UN –– which has continued to elect a male as its secretary general for the last 75 years –– been able to make progress on this goal?

According to a recent report, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres' focus on gender equality "remained" and even "increased" amid global Covid-19 pandemic, earning him a 'B' — his highest score to date.

Guterres's 2020 scores improved as part of full-court press on gender in the UN's coronavirus response, "but progress on other priorities lags," according to an annual report card released by the International Center for Research on Women.

"Though gender is often deprioritised in moments of crisis, we saw just the opposite in 2020," according to Spogmay Ahmed, a global policy advocate with ICRW and the report's main author.

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Six action points for UN chief 

ICRW is a Washington-based research institute focused on tackling challenges facing women and girls globally. It also spearheads the Feminist UN Campaign. 

When Guterres was elected as secretary general, the Campaign created a series of action points for him to advance gender equality within the UN.

It drafted a feminist vision for the UN in late 2016, and has graded the secretary general on his performance toward that vision each year following his declaration of himself as a "feminist."

Since 2017, the campaign has measured the extent to which Guterres advanced progress on the action points. 

These include: Articulate and implement a feminist leadership agenda; ensure feminist implementation and accountability for the SDGs, finance for gender equality, utilise feminist leadership through parity and rights protections, enable a feminist transformation for the Commission on the Status of Women and UN Women, and finally, promote the freedom of information in the UN system. 

Each year, the campaign issues a report card grading Guterres' progress against this agenda.

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Sexual harassment, exploitation, abuse

"Our analysis found that the secretary general provided strong leadership in the context of the pandemic, including by mandating attention to gender in his new COVID-19 Response and Recovery Fund. At the same time, we also saw lost momentum in other important areas of our agenda," Ahmed said.

Despite progress and attention to gender equality in the context of Covid-19, the report said, "our 2020 assessment revealed stalled or lost momentum in other parts of the Feminist UN Campaign's agenda."

"There was a notable lack of rhetorical attention and new updates in 2020 with regard to rooting out sexual harassment, exploitation and abuse — an earlier priority for the UN Secretary General," the report added. 

Guterres's leadership also fell short on his High-Level Task Force on Financing for Gender Equality, "which failed to meet with its expert advisory group or release any information with regard to its findings or recommendations."

ICRW said while the pandemic prompted a move to virtual spaces for several UN gatherings, "there were missed opportunities to enable more meaningful civil society participation and foster greater transparency."

"We now have enough data to observe trend lines, which indicate overall progress from 2017 to 2020," the research centre said.

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2021, the banner year

"These lines show that Secretary General Guterres is talking the talk and walking much of the walk," said Lyric Thompson, ICRW's senior director of Policy and Advocacy and another report author. 

"He has made significant strides in both rhetoric and action, but work remains to improve transparency and financing for gender equality — and to root out abuse and harassment at the UN." 

Several women's rights milestones that were postponed in 2020 are now set for 2021: The Generation Equality Forum will take place in March and June, and the Commission on the Status of Women will convene virtually to do much of the business that was lost last year. 

"The stage is set to strengthen the UN's gender equality architecture and make 2021 the banner year we hoped 2020 would be," said Thompson. 

"During the last year of his term — and an election year at that —Secretary General Guterres has an opportunity to cement four years of progress, make a final push on those areas where it has been out of reach, and champion efforts to promote as expansive and inclusive participation of civil society as possible."

Source: TRT World