Women as agents of change in Multilateralism | Sunday Observer
International Day of Women in Multilateralism celebrated on January 25

Women as agents of change in Multilateralism

29 January, 2023

January 25 marked International Day of Women in Multilateralism, an occasion to celebrate the progress and significant achievements that have been made for and by women who serve within the multilateral system. Several women from Sri Lanka have played important roles in the multilateral space, and the United Nations and several of its specialised agencies in Sri Lanka are headed by women; they highlight the progress that has been made for women’s role in multilateralism and the challenges that still remain.

The world of international politics and global governance has historically been an exclusively male-dominated sphere in which few women have had access to a seat at the decision-making table. Despite ambitious commitments to advance gender equality by governments and multilateral institutions, these commitments have not always been reflected in the level of representation of women in leadership positions. In recent decades, however, more women have assumed key positions within diplomatic representations and multilateral institutions such as the United Nations and its specialised agencies.

To celebrate the significant achievements that have been made for and by women in multilateralism, of which there have been many, UNESCO inaugurated the International Day of Women in Multilateralism on 25 January 2022. This day provides an opportunity to advocate for increased representation of women in key decision-making positions that shape and implement multilateral agendas and to ensure that multilateralism works for women and girls.

Women as champions of human rights

One of the many interventions spearheaded by pioneering women in international politics is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which marks its 75th anniversary this year. Led by Eleanor Roosevelt of the United States, the UDHR was a ground-breaking document as the first official recognition of human rights as universal and indivisible regardless of nationality, gender, colour, national or ethnic origin, religion, or any other status.

Since the drafting of the UDHR in 1948, women have continued to play a pivotal role in the advancement of peace and security, human rights, and development. In 2000, the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace, and Security officially affirmed the importance of women’s participation at the decision-making level in areas such as conflict resolution, peace negotiations, and post-conflict reconstruction. In recent years, gender equality has gained recognition as a fundamental aspect of core concerns related to peacebuilding, sustainable development, and climate change. In parallel, an increasing number of women are being represented in decision-making institutions such as the United Nations.

Sri Lankan lawyer, diplomat, and human rights advocate Radhika Coomaraswamy is one of the many remarkable women who have assumed positions of leadership within the United Nations system. Until 2012, Coomaraswamy served as the Under-Secretary General of the United Nations and Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict. In 2017, Coomaraswamy was appointed a Member of the United Nations Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar and currently serves as a Member of the International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia. A champion of women’s rights, she has advocated on behalf of women in a wide variety of contexts, including interventions involving human trafficking and violence against women.

“The UN now is a different place. When I joined, there were only two women in the senior management team. Now, there is parity. The main issue we faced was finding qualified women to come forward and fighting stereotypes within the system”, says Coomaraswamy. Outlining the variety of reasons why women in leadership positions of multilateral institutions are so important, she argues that “it is first and foremost a pure issue of representation. Fifty percent of the world’s population must find representation in the bodies of global leadership. Otherwise, it violates the principles of equality and may be evidence of systematic discrimination. Secondly, women often experience the world differently. This experience should be available to decision makers. Women’s presence at the table often breaks through a “boys’ club”, transactional way of doing business, placing more emphasis on process and rule-based decision making. Women’s presence in leadership positions beyond tokenism will affect the quality of decision making and will also further the interests of women”.

Ramaaya Salgado, Country Focal Point for UN Women in Sri Lanka, suggests that “inclusive and diverse feminist leadership is essential for sustained global development. Throughout history, there have been key moments that have shaped the world and these moments have been led by women. To date, gender parity has been achieved in senior management, including among Resident Coordinators (who are the representatives of the Secretary-General at the country level).

The UN today has its highest ever number of women as heads of missions and deputy heads in peace operations. This has been a significant achievement for the organisation to fully deliver on its mandate, and these efforts have ensured gender sensitivity and inclusivity in the institutions they lead. The contribution of women leaders and diversity in leadership will lead to better decision-making because they will bring unique perspectives to solve complex problems that the world faces today—which impact everyone”, Salgado says.

UN agencies such as UN Women specifically monitor the commitments on gender equality within the UN System and spearhead the implementation of an initiative titled the “Gender Equality Scorecard.” According to Salgado, “this is a key part of monitoring commitments on gender equality within the UN system and has been able to bring faster progress on women-friendly workplace policies and gender parity, the championship of UN Country Teams leadership on gender equality, and gender-responsive programmes, results, and financing. In this regard, UN Women coordinates with the Resident Coordinator, UN Country Teams, and the Gender Theme Group to ensure that gender equality is streamlined and prioritised across internal policies and external programs. We also work towards advocating for policies that encourage women’s participation and leadership through flexible working arrangements and family friendly workplace policies, as well as protection from harassment and exploitation in the workplace”.

Amid the current economic crisis in Sri Lanka, UN Women is supporting recovery efforts by providing training and assistance for women entrepreneurs to meet new challenges, as well as essential services for marginalised women affected by gender-based violence. “These issues are at the heart of UN Women’s global mandate and multi-faceted effort towards gender equality and align with areas where Sri Lanka has shown the least progress—and, in fact, regression—on gender equality and the empowerment of women”, says Salgado.

Gender balance in law enforcement

The empowerment of women within the UN system and beyond concerns each of the UN’s specialised agencies, which work within their mandates to promote women’s representation. Siri Bjune, the acting Head of Office for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), highlights the ways in which criminal justice systems can be strengthened through the empowerment of women. “Within UNODC’s mandate area, we work closely with criminal justice systems and encourage our partners to strengthen women’s representation in law enforcement by transitioning from administrative roles to operational, managerial, and leadership roles. This is done by encouraging gender balanced participation in our courses and training, as well as working with counterparts to ensure a gender inclusive work environment, and by offering career focused courses and leadership training. The aim of this strategy is to recognise that intersectional gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls are integral parts of our work to make the world safer from drugs, crime, and corruption. Some of the UNODC gender initiatives in Sri Lanka include strengthening the administration of the justice process by enhancing access to justice and legal assistance for women”, Bjune says.

Women’s representation in decision-making

Despite significant advancements for and by women within international politics, women are still largely under-represented in many multilateral decision-making bodies. Madusha Dissanayake, Assistant Representative of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) Sri Lanka, highlights some of the remaining challenges in this area.

“When we speak about empowerment, it is about building trust by engaging, developing, and partnering. We need more women to participate in the conversation about identifying bottlenecks and challenging the status quo. I believe that women’s participation at all levels in all government structures, be they divisional, district, or national, or decision-making in the corporate sector, where we have large conglomerates, needs to be more than tokenistic. When you include women in decision-making, it creates meaningful participation and engagement. There is always a different perspective when women are included in the conversation”, she says.

According to Dissanayake, “the idea of including women in decision-making needs to be mainstreamed to avoid the assumption that men know how women think. It is extremely important at every place whether we are looking at policies, systems or services that focus on women, not as a homogenous group, but as a diverse group. It is important to identify women but to have enough flexibility within those systems to cater to the diverse needs and perspectives of women. Therefore, it is important for public service delivery that women are included and that they are included as a diverse group so that services can be diversified without infringing on anyone’s human rights. This ensures that every woman can access services without their human rights being challenged.”

“In Sri Lanka, I think the main overarching challenge is the patriarchal society where social and gender norms are embedded in the culture, society, and family structures. It is difficult to design a programs to change individual behaviour or make a policy to change the broader level of society. These programmes are met with significant resistance and pessimism. It is also true that when faced with an issue, instead of addressing it, we come with the preconceived assumption that it is a challenge and refrain from making any attempts to change it “, says Dissanayake.

Mainstreaming gender equality on digital platforms

This year’s theme for the International Day of Women in Multilateralism sheds light on the issue of gendered disinformation and ways to mainstream gender equality on digital platforms. Special emphasis is placed on the importance of intergenerational dialogue that brings together young professionals with seasoned representatives who champion gender equality within the multilateral system. For young women and girls looking to pursue careers in multilateral organisations, Salgado emphasises the significance of mentorship and personal determination.

“Find mentors and build networks with people who can help you navigate the systems, build relationships with practitioners in civil society to hold you accountable and keep your work grounded in reality, recognise that multilateral systems (like almost all institutions) are flawed with ingrained biases, and contribute to the work of reforming them while remaining true to the values of equality and human rights,” Salgado said.

Bjune echoes this sentiment and highlights other practical ways through which young women and girls can pursue a future in multilateralism. “Be willing to take risks, seek advice, and take on new challenges. Set your own goals and plan accordingly.”

Coomaraswamy offers similar encouragement to young women who aspire to positions of leadership within the United Nations and other multilateral organisations. “I think it is important not to lose your idealism and your capacity for initiative. The multilateral system draws many idealists from around the world, but its bureaucratic and technocratic processes often stifle young women. It is critical not to lose sight of the fact that the goal of multilateralism is to work toward a better world”.

- UN Sri Lanka