Today is the United Nations’ 71st birthday. If we look back to that very first year, the UN has come a long way. With 193 countries represented and an annual budget of more than $5.4 billion, it is the most influential international organization the world has ever known. And while I’m always one to love an excuse to break out the champagne and celebrate, this year’s celebration is somewhat tainted from where I’m standing.
Don’t get me wrong. At Women Thrive, we are UN-lovers. We believe that the UN is the mothership when it comes to promoting women’s rights as human rights and making sure that States are held accountable to implementing international agreements and conventions. We believe in UNWOMEN, the UN’s agency that holds the mandate to ensure gender equality becomes a reality and that women around the world reach empowerment in all its forms.
But lately, it seems that the UN is letting women down. First of all, it just missed out on the chance of showing the world that gender equality was not just a buzz phrase used in spectacular campaigns, but an actual commitment that demands action. By failing to elect a woman Secretary General (SG) to replace outgoing Ban Ki Moon, the Security Council proved that there is still a lot of work to be done in reforming what is mostly a male-dominated system. And while there is hope that António Guterres, the next SG will be a vocal defender of women’s rights and a feminist agenda within the UN, the fact that none of the female candidates were even given a chance is quite frightening and extremely disappointing.
The UN has also taken a drastic turn in terms of who it likes to hang out with. Corporations and private sector actors are having an increasingly important role in UN campaigns and programs (and funding). Just check out the Global Policy Forum’s amazing report titled “Fit for Whose Purpose: Private Funding and Corporate Influence in the United Nations,” published last year. Women Thrive and others have been fighting to ensure that there is increased transparency in the UN’s dealings with the private sector.
Additionally, the über-marketing and use of celebrities to promote issues is also a concern when these new kinds of ambassadors become the sole (or dominant) voice on the issue. And while educating and building support within western audiences is crucial, many of us feel that the time and money could be better spent on ensuring that grassroots women and girls lead and co-implement campaigns and programs on the ground. Take for instance, the strong opposition to the appointment of Wonder Woman as an Honorary Ambassador for the Empowerment of Women and Girls this past weekend. Many women’s rights advocates are feeling more and more squeezed out of the collective space at the United Nations and frankly, a western-based comic book character doesn’t do any justice for women and girls’ representation (and while I am the first to buy female super-heroes comics book for my seven-year-old daughter, it also doesn’t do justice to my own need for representation either). Notwithstanding, the fact that this partnership will most likely be good news for the multi-million branding campaign around Wonder Woman’s movie that’s due out next year also acts as a red flag for many within the women’s rights movement.
Finally, in a time when civil society and women’s rights groups are facing extreme backlash around the world as well as shrinking spaces to operate in, the United Nations is not firmly standing side-by-side with the groups and people it is supposed to serve. Earlier this year, Women Thrive was one of 244 civil society organizations that urged Member States of the UN Human Rights Council to stand in solidarity with civil society and pass a Resolution recognizing the key role of civil society in achieving the new Sustainable Development Goals. Some civil society organizations and women’s rights groups have also raised some concerns over the transparency and fairness of the process that gives organizations the right to obtain Consultative Status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council. Overall, there is a need for a better inclusion of civil society at the UN, especially throughout the implementation process of the new Sustainable Development Goals.
In the end, I’m still here by the UN’s side as it blows out its candles. What can I say: I’m an optimist and an idealist. I have hope that the next Secretary General will endorse a feminist agenda for the UN and transform it into its full potential. With a little push from the feminist and women’s rights movement, nothing is impossible.
 Created in 2010, UNWOMEN merged four previous UN agencies  to ensure a bigger impact. UNWOMEN merged the following UN organizations: the Division for the Advancement of Women (DAW), the International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women (INSTRAW), the Office of the Special Adviser on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women (OSAGI) and the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM).