By Shweta Mukesh
Gillian Sorensen, a senior advisor at the United Nations (UN), addressed the evolving role of women in the UN. Sorensen was appointed by Kofi Annan and was responsible for outreach to non-governmental organizations. Today, she is a powerful defender of the UN’s role in the twenty-first century, and the promotion of gender equality.
When fifty percent of the world’s population is pushed into illiteracy, forced into refugee camps, and denied a voice, it becomes difficult to imagine a soultion. Sorensen argues that women bring a different perspective to the world and are often feared because of it; and until women are trusted they will remain fearful.
In many places it is rare for police officers and politicians to acknowledge rape or molestation against a woman. Furthermore, ignoring or aborting female children has become the fastest way to limit family size. Incidents such as these lead women to live in fear and remain marginalized. Traditionally bounded by culture, traditions, and restrictions, it used to be rare for women to be involved in society, corporations, and politics.
Today, Sorensen says this is changing. Kofi Annan was the first person to truly understand the value of women. He was determined to appoint women in senior positions, thereby, altering the culture of the UN. Sorensen recalled when she first joined the senior staff at the UN – she was one of less then twenty women. Today, she is pleased to see Michelle Bachelet, of Chile, head UN Women, and Ms. Thoraya Ahmed Obaid, of Saudi Arabia, head the UN Population Fund. These two women are role models and represent the changing gender roles inside the multinational organization. UN Women, particularly, will be the new face of international commitment to gender equality. With more female leadership, and a growing commitment towards equality within the UN and other multinational organizations, Sorensen is optimistic about the coming years and the UN’s ability to assist in the golbal move towards gender equality.
She reasserted the need for leading by example, speaking with men on equality, and encouraging, supporting, and educating girls around the world. She states that the UN will continue to work in areas where the need is the greatest. However, in order for this to be successful member nations need to give the UN the necessary validity.
Interview With PROSPECT:
Prospect: When one attempts to address gender or racial issues there needs to be a shift in public mindset. Series of laws (de jure) has historically failed to bring larger social change. How does the UN and society at large begin creating a shift in values, culture, and norms regarding gender?
GS: We need to still have a legal system, which promotes the rise of women. When the UN and other nations pass laws, treaties, and quota systems, they provide examples and a support system for women. If women have support from their government and the UN, males are more likely to understand the value of women. We also need to create opportunities for women and offer them training. The need for such programs exists everywhere. Sometimes the UN can make a real and significant difference. However, sometimes we fail.
PROSPECT: Gender norms have changed in many part of the world such as the US and the UK. What led to these changes? Can we implement these characteristics in other countries?
GS: Yes, we can use strategies in the US and UK, and in the rest of the world. However, it helps to have some laws and support system. I am not averse to quotas. When we have quotas, women have proven they can rise. The feminist movement played a significant role in improving women’s rights. This can and should be replicated in other parts of the world.
PROSPECT: What is the biggest hurdle we face in terms of creating equality?
GS: The biggest challenges are religious and cultural norms that prevent women from rising.