At Ground Level | At UN and Vatican, women push for leadership roles

At two world institutions, the United Nations and the Vatican, despite obstacles, momentous changes are on the way: changes that would ensure women equal rights with men to be elected heads of their policy-making and executive bodies.

The 78th General Assembly of the UN opened its annual session last month with delegates from 193 member-nations. And a few days ago, Pope Francis opened a three-week synod, a global gathering of bishops and lay people to discuss the future of the Roman Catholic Church. Here, taking center stage for the first time are women demanding “their voices and their votes.”

At the Vatican, the women leaders enjoy the solid backing of their pope, while at the UN they have at least the tacit encouragement of Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

Three outstanding women lead the drive for change at the UN: Helen Clark, former New Zealand prime minister and first female to head the UN Development Program; Irina Bokova, former UNESCO director-general and Susana Malcorra, who was chief of staff of former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon. They spearhead GWL Voices, a group that has been building momentum for their agenda.

Speaking at the General Assembly’s opening, Secretary-General Guterres sounded a clarion call. “Just four women signed our founding document,” he declared. “One look around this room shows not enough has changed. ‘We the people’ does not mean ‘we the men’.”

The women leaders were ready with their proposals. They called on the UN urgently to take two steps: First, a rule must be adapted and implemented to elect a woman as GA president every other year, to combat a growing hostility to gender equality, which they pointed out was producing a chilling effect on progress for women and girls worldwide. And second, a woman should be chosen to be the next secretary-general at the next voting in 2026. She would succeed Guterres (former prime minister of Portugal), who was first elected in 2016 and reelected in 2021.

Of the 78 GA presidents elected yearly since 1946, only four have been women. “The GA [leadership] has been rotated among five regional country groups since 1963,” said Malcorra, GWL Voices president. “Now,” she emphasized, “the GA needs to agree to rotate the gender of its president each year.”

And no woman has ever been elected UN secretary-general.

In 2016, when Guterres won his first five-year term, Clark, Bokova and Malcorra were also nominees. Their nominations resulted from a campaign, led by Equality Now, to elect a woman secretary-general. The then GA president Mogens Lykketoft and Security Council president Samantha Powers wrote to all member-nations asking them to nominate female candidates. But apparently with the pro-female votes divided among the three, Guterres easily won. In 2021, he was reelected unopposed.

The renewed campaign faces hindrances, however. The issue of gender equality and women’s rights has become “extremely contentious… a thing to bargain with,” warned former GA president Maria Fernanda Espinosa. Also, the war in Ukraine and sub-regional tensions have created a tense atmosphere within the UN. “There is a lack of trust between parties, north and south, east and west. Unfortunately, women and girls have been taken hostage by these overall tensions,” she explained.

Nevertheless, Espinosa asserted: “We cannot think of a better future, of a world of peace and prosperity and human rights – the very pillars of the UN – without having 50 percent of the world’s population on board.”

At the Vatican, the fight for women’s voices and votes in policy-making bodies may be even tougher. It is led by Maria Lia Zervino, an Argentinian “consecrated woman” and Sister Nathalie Becquart, a French nun.

Zervino has worked closely with Pope Francis since the time when he was still Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, in Argentina’s bishops’ conference. From an office in the Vatican, at present she runs the World Union of Catholic Women’s Organizations, consisting of 100-plus associations. Recently, Francis named her as one of the first three women ever to sit in the membership board of the Dicastery of Bishops, the body vetting those who would be considered for the papacy.

Sometime ago, Pope Francis advised Zervino to be brave in pushing for changes within the Catholic church. In 2021, she wrote a letter to Francis and made it public, with this firm message: The Catholic church owed a huge debt to half of humanity and women deserved to be “at the table where church decisions are made, not as mere ‘ornaments’ but as protagonists,” according to an Associated Press report.

About the synod, the report said Zervino viewed it as a “watershed moment for the church and quite possibly the most consequential thing Francis will have undertaken as pope.” She was quoted as saying that the church “has found a different way of being church, and for women this is an extraordinary step forward.” She was involved in a two-year canvassing among rank-and-file Catholics about their hopes for the church’s future.

Becquart is the first female undersecretary of the synod’s organizing secretariat, which entitles her to vote. In preparation for the synod, she traveled across the globe to explain Pope Francis’ idea of a church that welcomes everyone, with him accompanying them. “It’s about how could we be men and women together in this society, in this church, in this vision of equality, of dignity, reciprocity, collaboration, partnership,” she has said.

In previous synods, women were allowed only marginal roles as observers or experts, seated in the last row of the audience. But in the ongoing synod, all participants are seated together at “hierarchically neutral” round tables to facilitate discussions.

The synod will have a second session next year. While it has given hope to women and progressive Catholics, it has alarmed conservatives, particularly a group of retired cardinals led by US Cardinal Raymond Burke. The latter fear that the synod could open a “Pandora’s box” of issues which would split the Catholic church.

Published in Philippine Star
October 7, 2023

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