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A Voice for Gender Equality

The following is an excerpt from remarks by Stephen Lewis, Co-Director of AIDS-Free World,  delivered at the 8th Women Ambassadors’ Luncheon A UN Agency for Women and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Monday, November 3, 2008, 1:00 pm (EST) United Nations, NY

When I served at the United Nations in the 1980’s, out of the, then, 159 Member States, there were three represented by women Ambassadors. One of them was the formidable feminist and quite wonderful human being, Dame Nita Barrow of Barbados. So highly did many of us think of Dame Nita, and so anxious was she to serve the world, that she was persuaded to run for the post of President of the General Assembly.

She lost. She lost to a male foreign minister, of one-tenth her competence and capacity. She lost, in part, because she was a mere Ambassador and he was a foreign minister. But mostly — and everybody knew it — she lost because she was a woman.

At the time, incredibly enough, there had not yet been appointed, since the beginning of the United Nations — a span of forty years — a single permanent Under-Secretary General who was a woman.

Things have obviously improved. But we’re still achingly far removed from gender parity in the senior positions of the United Nations system. We have failed internally, we have failed externally, and no one should derive any special solace from the incremental progress over the years.

So clear is the failure, especially in the lamentable record of the United Nations on women’s rights around the world that, as you all know, a High-Level Panel on System-Wide Coherence recommended, in the fall of 2006, the creation of a new international agency for women. It’s useful to recall the words of the Panel: “ The message is clear: While the UN remains a key actor in supporting countries to achieve gender equality and women’s empowerment, there is a strong sense that the UN’s contribution has been incoherent, under-resourced and fragmented.” 

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