An Era of Women Leaders Ends at the UN
Barbara Crossette, USA
September 13, 2002
(WOMENSENEWS)—The face of power in the United Nations was transformed
in the 1990s as women took over leadership of six important agencies and
Canadian Louise Frechette was named the organization's first deputy
secretary general. But it wasn't just a matter of numbers. These women
found common cause in expanding women's rights and, although they were
based far apart—in New York, Rome and Geneva—they became close
colleagues and friends, setting aside time to meet over a meal when
United Nations business brought them together anywhere in the world.
"It was just fabulous," said Catherine Bertini, the American who headed
the World Food Program, the largest international food-relief organization. "It was a special group."
That era, if glorious, was also brief.
When Mary Robinson stepped down on Wednesday as United Nations high
commissioner for human rights, she became the third of those pioneering
women to leave the system. Sadako Ogata retired last year as United
Nations high commissioner for refugees and Bertini ended her run as
executive director of the World Food Program this spring. All three have
been replaced by men.
Gro Harlem Brundtland, a former prime minister of Norway, said she will
not seek a second term as director general of the World Health Organization when her first term ends next year. No successor has been chosen.
So far, only Nafis Sadik, who as the first woman to head a major agency,
transformed the United Nations Population Fund from a non-controversial
family-planning agency to an organization fighting for women's reproductive rights, was succeeded by another woman when she retired two years ago.
Apart from Brundtland, soon to depart from the World Health
Organization, and the population fund's new executive director, Thoraya
Obaid, a Saudi Arabian national, there is only one other woman now at
the head of a major agency, Carol Bellamy, the executive director of
UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Fund. Bellamy, an American, was a
former New York City Council president and United States Peace Corps
Leaders Helped Women's Rights in Difficult Decade
The 1990s was a disastrous decade for women, marked by vicious civil
wars in which 90 percent of the casualties were civilians. Women were
killed, forced to flee their homes, starved, brutalized, enslaved and
raped, often in the refugee camps that were expected to shelter them.
The women who headed United Nations agencies pushed ameliorating
measures that were often unpopular with governments, such as making the
"morning after" pill available to refugee women.
Bertini said that when she arrived at the World Food Program in 1992 and asked why there were so few women in professional grades, she was told, "Well, we do logistics things—we do things with trucks and trains and
planes, and these aren't women's things." She more than doubled the
number of high-ranking women in the agency, then turned to the poor
women who were its beneficiaries.
"We really had a sea change of policy to direct food aid to women," said
Bertini, who now teaches at the University of Michigan and serves as
U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan's roving envoy on humanitarian issues.
"If we're going to have food and it's for ending hunger, then get it to
the people who cook." Village women were also entrusted with allocating
supplies. Programs were introduced that gave free food to families who
sent their girls to school.
Bertini stood down the Taliban, demanding that women be allowed to work
in bakery projects in Afghanistan or there would be no bakeries. She was surprisingly successful.
At UNICEF, Bellamy began to explore the darker recesses of a child's
world into areas of sexual abuse and family violence. She would argue
that women as well as girls were her concern, since no child could
develop freely if a mother suffered and had no status or rights.
Sadik, a Pakistani physician, ran the watershed 1994 Cairo conference on
population and development, fending off foes from the American
anti-abortion lobby and the Vatican to conservative Islamic governments.
The meeting ended with a bold call for the right of women to decide how
their bodies are used.
At the World Health Organization, Brundtland, a public health
specialist, led a worldwide campaign against smoking and oversaw a
global fund to fight AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis.
Robinson, a human rights lawyer and former president of Ireland, had the
stormiest tenure. When she became High Commissioner for Human Rights,
she said that she wanted to listen to the concerns of people in developing nations, who often accused Western human rights organizations of finding fault only with poor countries.
Human rights advocates respected her, though, for strong stands she took for justice for the East Timorese brutalized by pro-Indonesian militias
in 1999 and for more human rights protection in China. But she angered
the Bush administration for what Washington called her failure to curb
outbursts of anti-Semitism at the 2001 UN World Conference Against
Racism in Durban, South Africa, and for her criticisms of American
limitations on civil rights after the Sept. 11 attacks. Israel, also
outraged by the Durban conference, blocked her attempt to lead a human
rights monitoring mission into occupied Palestinian territories earlier
There were also some criticisms from women. Robinson took a very low-key initial approach to Afghanistan under the Taliban, saying she needed to
learn more about Islamic law. And in the spring of 2001, at a meeting in
Teheran, Iran, to frame part of the agenda for the UN conference on
racism, Robinson acquiesced to the government's demand that all women be
covered from head to toe. It was an international gathering and many
women were outraged.
"I would not equate the wearing of the veil with a repression of women
as such," she told a BBC interviewer later that year, saying that she
too had to cover her head and didn't like it. "I wouldn't do it if it
was a custom, but it was part of the law and out of respect as high
commissioner, I abide by laws," she said.
But by the end of her tenure, Robinson, who served on four-year term
with a one-year extension, had become an outspoken critic of trafficking
in girls and women. In a visit to Cambodia in August, she told the
national parliament that something needed to be done about the 200,000
victims of traffickers in Southeast Asia alone.
"The women and children who are subjected to this inhumane cruelty are
not foreign to us," she said. "They are our sisters and daughters; they
are our children."
Barbara Crossette was The New York Times UN Bureau Chief from 1994 to 2001.
From IWTC Women's GlobalNet #207, September 13, 2002, which is a production of The International Women's Tribune Centre (IWTC). The IWTC is an international non-governmental organization that provides communication, information, education, and organizing support services to women's organizations and community groups working to improve the lives of women, particularly low-income women, in Africa, Asia and the Pacific, Latin America and the Caribbean, Eastern Europe and Western Asia.