Could the United Nations make history this year?

October 1, 2016 | By Craig and Marc Kielburger

The United Nations is an intergovernmental organization that promote international co-operation. (Photo credit: Getty Images/Ron Sachs)

There’s another election fraught with gender politics and global consequences, with one candidate braced to become a world leader—and no one is talking about it.

This summer, outgoing Secretary General Ban Ki Moon publicly called for his successor to be a woman.

In a body of 193 nations, the Secretary General of the United Nations is both head and heart—coordinating and inspiring countries to work together on global challenges.

In the UN’s 70-year history, none of its eight leaders have been women. When a new boss takes over in October, Kathryn White hopes to see a woman in charge.

“The words ‘Secretary General’ followed by a woman’s name would be an inspiration to all the world’s people,” says White, president of the UN Association in Canada.

“It’s time for women to be leading on a global scale,” adds Mieka Buckley-Pearson, a 27-year-old grad student at Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs. She has twice served as Secretary General at the Canadian International Model UN, an annual gathering of post-secondary students from around the world.

It’s time indeed. Some of the biggest global challenges today are women’s rights issues: child marriage, gender-based violence, and the fact that poverty and climate change disproportionately impact women. The UN has the power to play a crucial role in addressing these issues, with gender equality a central component of its Sustainable Development Goals, says White. In recent years, the UN has also passed resolutions on protecting women in conflicts, and including women in peace efforts.

But the UN has even more work to do on women’s issues, Buckley-Pearson argues. A woman in the driver’s seat will help hold the organization’s feet to the fire, ensuring strategies lead to concrete action, she says. “If women are not there to require the accountability, others are less likely to follow through.”

The selection process for Secretary General begins with member nations nominating candidates—current or former foreign ministers or national leaders, or individuals who have led UN agencies. In decades past, this has been a largely male-dominated pool. Today, however, there are more female presidents, prime ministers and foreign ministers.

An increase in qualified women has already helped the UN election make history, observes White. Over the last seven decades, only three women have vied for the UN’s big chair. This year alone, four women from Latin America, Eastern Europe and New Zealand are in the running (two more put their names forward but later withdrew).

Once candidates are nominated, there are interviews with the UN Security Council and, as of this year, an open town hall session with the General Assembly where diplomats could pose questions. At the end of the process, the Security Council selects a preferred candidate for approval by the General Assembly.

This process is intensely political, with lobbying and campaigning as much as any national election, White tells us. In that political arena, gender bias has already reared its ugly head. In the town hall session with the General Assembly, all four female candidates were grilled on what they thought it takes to be a strong leader. None of the five male candidates were asked.

With a prime minister who has openly declared himself a feminist, it’s easy for Canadians to overlook the degree to which women still struggle for basic human rights throughout much of the world. A woman in the world’s highest office could help change perspective. “It sends a signal not only to countries, but to UN agencies and even business, that gender equality is important,” Buckley-Pearson says.

It’s a signal the world desperately needs.

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