Women and the Origins of the UN

Women and the Origins of the UN: A Southern Legacy


Lizzie McGowan

Opening Remarks

Moderators Monica Grayley, Chief-Editor of the UN News Multimedia  and Mauro Vieira, Permanent Representative of Brazil praised the profound work of Southern women during the early years of the UN. These women defied gender norms in their respective cultures paved the way for female visibility within affairs. The declaration of human rights and UN charters were revolutionary to the foundations of international law, and if it had not been for the contributions of women, these mandates might not be as inclusive in terms of gender equality. Unfortunately, men are credited with founding of the UN and little is known or celebrated about the roles of women.

Contrary to popular belief, many women contributed to the development of the UN, but only four were able to sign the charter. These four women were: Zoologist Dr. Bertha Lutz of Brazil, diplomat, Minerva Bernardino of the Dominican Republic, activist Wu yi Fang of China, and activist Virginia Gildersleeve of the United States. The legacy of these women illustrates how important it is to have women in leadership roles, international relations, and how their input has been crucial to the sustainability and inclusivity of the UN.

Part 1: Reassessing the Historical Contributions of Women at the Un Charter

Ms. Elise Deitrickson, a Research Associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS)’s  Center of International Studies and Diplomacy (CISD)  said the “UN charter represents us all” and is considered the constitution of the world. More importantly, it was the first international agreement to recognize women’s rights as a fundamental part of human rights. Throughout the development of the UN Charter, women from the Global South, in addition to women from the Global North were considered extreme by their male counterparts for strongly advocating for the inclusion of women. These women were not afraid to go against the grain and understood the urgency of having an internationally binding document that provided equality for men and women.

If it had not been for the presence of these women “demanding a seat at the table” in the drafting process, the charter would contain no language defending women's rights. A hallmark achievement in the charter is Article 8, which states that women must have equal participation in the UN. The existence of this article would not have been possiblem if it had not been for Latin American female delegates.

Fatima Sator, another research associate at SOAS’ CISD, said Latin American women played a crucial role in international women’s rights. She cited that her passion for gender equality in conjunction with her interest in international studies prompted her to research the role women played in founding the UN. Her research indicated the importance of  remarkable women from particular Latin American. She concluded that, “If it had not been for Latin American women, we can question where gender inequality would be today.” Therefore, Latin American female delegates helped the UN Charter to provide a foundation for international gender equality norms.

Sator further remarked that even though these women were ridiculed, they knew the importance of setting a powerful precedent in international law. Albeit, much progress has been made, there is still work to do. Currently, no country can claim full gender equality. To build on the work of the women of the south, we should challenge ourselves to learn about the work of feminist throughout the world and emulate their fortitude to be change agents.

Dr. Rebecca Adami, a senior lecturer at Stockholm University, explained how Latin women in the UN formed a separatists commission focused on implementing women’s rights into the charter. Since they were in a male dominated environment, their group experienced gender discrimination to impede their progress. For example, they were intentional delays in having their documents translated into their language. Nevertheless, they continued to press their agenda of legal and social improvements for women in the charter even though they were outnumbered by men.

Interestingly enough, Eleanor Roosevelt declined to participate in their committee and did not support their efforts to have language in the charter specifically stating “women” being equal to men. Instead, she sided with many of the male delegates by wanting to only use “men.”  Though they faced a daunting battle, they successfully implemented these changes.

Part II: The Global South as a Gender Trailblazer

Ambassador Maleeha Lodhi, the Permanent Representative of Pakistan mentioned that Pakistani women worked tirelessly to become the custodians of human rights. These women persevered through cultural adversity in the Islamic world to ensure women were included in the discourse on social and legal inclusion. Advocating for women’s rights in a male dominated society in conjunction with the influence of religious rules meant the few women leadership were faced with obstacles that were deeply woven into their society. However, in making significant strides in achieving gender equality, they were able to be trailblazers and create new societal norms. In breaking the glass ceiling, they demonstrated the value of women in leadership roles. However, today the work of these women is under threat from extreme nationalism, far right politics, and racism. It is just as important today as it was during the drafting of the UN charter to stop the erasure of gender equality and uphold Article 8.

Ambassador Syed Akbaruddin, the Permanent Representative of India to the UN mentioned  women from India, who made large contributions to the UN foundational documents who played active roles in decolonizing the country. Not only did indian women changed the narrative on the right to development, economic, social, and cultural rights within their country, they also made a significant impact internationally on these issues. The current narrative of gender equality is focused on the contribution from women of the global north and does not mention the pivotal role of women in developing countries.

An example of a pioneering woman from the south was Viyjaya Lakshimi Pandit of India. She was the first female president of the UN general assembly in 1953. This groundbreaking achievement was the beginning of a strong legacy of southern leadership within the UN. To date, there have been 3 female general assembly presidents, all from the global south.

Ambassador Martha Ama Akyaa Pobee, the Permanent Representative of Ghana explained that  prominent women from Ghana, defied the odds of colonialism and patriarchy immensely, contributed to international women's rights issues. She cited the work of justice Annie Ruth Jiaggie, a Ghanaian lawyer, judge, and women’s rights activist.  Justice Jiaggie’s work within the UN from 1962-1996 provided a voice for African women in the UN. From 1962- 1972, she served on the UN commission of the status of women and was a “driving force” in shaping its programs. The contributions of African women should inspire younger generation to continue to push for gender equality regardless of the circumstances they face.

Ambassador Maria Emma Mejia Velez, the Permanent Representative of Colombia to the UN argued that women were always present in the most important moments at the UN and continues to make significant efforts to end gender equality. There was a cultural fight that took place to have recognition among the vast majority of male delegates. Women were expected to get coffee and perform menial tasks, while the men were the primary decision makers. Though they faced these obstacles, they proved themselves to be competent decision makers by successfully implementing the inclusion of women in the charter. Their influence made way for women in the future gain critical leadership roles within the UN. As a result, they helped to diminish the pervasive patriarchal culture in international relations.  

Ambassador Maria Emma Mejia Velez noted that to continue pushing for women's empowerment, there must be emphasis on achieving sustainable development goal (SDG) five. This goal aims to achieve gender equality and empower women and girls, will be a key factor in making that difference for global gender inequality.  With the current international climate, it is important that women in the UN ensure that the progress gained in the achievements of the southern women are not lost.

Zandidi Bingu spoke on behalf of Ambassador Jerry Matthews Matjila, the Permanent Representative of South Africa and said the women from the south have held important positions at the UN. In this capacity, they have made tremendous contributions to ending the aids epidemic. Additionally, they have worked to domesticized the norms of gender equality and symbiotically work with the UN.

Part III: Importance of Women from the South

Koki Gignon (Kenya), Vice Chair of the CSW’s Commission  Bureau said Kenya was a pioneer in sending female diplomats to the UN in the 1960s. When women's narratives are shared with young female students from the south, it will be a great source of inspiration.

Anita Nayer, the Director of “Regions Refocus”, underscored that it is important that we learn from our past to be prepared for our future. To implement this approach, she recommended three items: 1. reclaim the agency and analysis of south feminists by looking at how their contributions shaped the legacy of gender rights, 2. recognize the value of south feminists analysis to ongoing issues affecting gender equality, and 3. integrate governmental and feminists positions with integrity and with agency. The amalgam of these recommendations will ensure the involvement of women in geopolitical sphere and demonstrate the value of the feminists perspective in policy development.

Closing Remarks

Ms. Maria Luiza Ribeiro Viotti, the  Chef de Cabinet to the UN Secretary-General, closed by highlighting the important role southern women have played in the development and implementation of pioneering resolutions throughout the history of the UN.

She further remarked that “we must also remember our history.” These groundbreaking resolutions were aimed at gender equality and establishing mechanisms to facilitate peace. The contributions of southern feminists to the gender equality struggle serve as a blueprint for feminists to move forward in protecting their accomplishments and continuing work as activists.

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