Equality at the UN: Ban Ki-Moon Suggests a Woman Take His Place as Secretary General

by Kendra Cooper

Ban Ki-Moon with Emma Watson at #HeforShe UN Event.

On August 19th, the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-Moon, suggested that a woman be his successor. There’s importance in that. One of the UN’s (and the world’s) most vital and historic documents, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was written and overseen by Eleanor Roosevelt, a woman. For over 70 years, Ban Ki-Moon’s words have been balancing on the tips of our tongues, and only now has any leader actually said them, even with the obvious power of Roosevelt at the roots of the UN. Just the sentence alone has significance. So much significance, in fact, that it has made headlines all week.

Change can be slow. This is especially true of large institutions like the UN. I’m getting a little impatient. Actually, I’ve been impatient for almost my entire life (that is, of course, since I was old enough to know what I was waiting for). I’ve always had a slightly cynical view of large institutions and their ability to make any real cultural and political changes. They do sometimes, but I prefer grassroots initiatives.

Sometimes I’m embarrassed by how easy it is for me to fall on cynical thoughts. I keep them to myself in groups of positive people and smile along with the optimists. I just want to be able to point out that, while we have made progress, it is certainly not enough. I want more, way more.

I want more from the UN, just like I want more from film, from music, from government, from the police, from my heroes, and from myself. I don’t want a woman appointed as a symbol of “change,” I want actual change. It is true that she could offer a different perspective. She could make huge strides for women and other genders. There is possibility there. But just like we shouldn’t assume change comes from a voting booth, we shouldn’t assume it comes from a man suggesting a woman take his place.

There are so many women that would be amazing for this position. Irena Bokova and Helen Clark are two promising candidates. Bokova was the first woman to head the UNESCO, while Clark is the first woman to head the UNDP. Both have made significant progress within their roles. I want the woman who is secretary general to excel, but I fear the restrictions and limitations this institution has might stifle their ability.

Do they have room for creativity in a huge bureaucracy? Do they have room for risk? These are questions, the answers to which are extremely important, possibly even more so than the action of putting a woman in charge. Creativity and having the space to take the chances we need to keep up with the world is what I want to see. This is what will turn my cynicism into hope.

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