Transforming the United Nations for Gender Equality

“We the Peoples of the United Nations, determined to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small...” –UN Charter

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Not Enough

As a central international governing body, the United Nations’ leadership is necessary to successfully combat global gender inequality and violence against women. Since its formation, the United Nations has recognized that protecting women and women’s rights is an important function and goal of the organization.[1] Throughout its history, the United Nations has created and overseen various committees and task forces charged with evaluating and addressing various gender issues.[2] Despite these continued efforts to protect the rights of women and to promote equality, women continue to face economic, social, and political inequality as well as high rates of physical and sexual violence.[3] The United Nations has recognized that further efforts are still needed to solve gender issues, specifically reducing gender inequality and protecting women from violence.[4]


Paradigm Shift

The first change that the United Nations can make in order to achieve greater gender equality is to change its approach to women’s issues. Instead of trying to fit discrimination and crimes against women into the traditional norms and practices of male-centric human rights law[5], the United Nations should adopt gender specific standards of discrimination that focus on individuals’ private lives instead of just their public lives. Such changes to the United Nations’ approach would ensure that international laws and standards apply more directly and to the type of discrimination that women typically face without giving as much deference to traditional male-dominated practices, while also protecting them from violence which is traditionally carried out in the private setting.

In addition to changing the United Nations’ overall approach to addressing gender equality there are several other actions that the United Nations should undertake to achieve gender equality, including: (1) a greater focus on providing enforceable rights rather than aspirational goals; (2) favoring rights being universally applicable rather than having exceptions for cultural relativism when physical or sexual violence is involved; (3) reducing or eliminating the public and private dichotomy in United Nations policy and international law; and (4) increasing the number of women in decision making positions within the United Nations and UN subsidiaries.[6] These initiatives would hold both countries and private actors more frequently accountable for violations of the rights of women and placing more women in decision making positions in the United Nations ensures that the perspective of women is actually reflected in all UN decisions and policy.


[1] U.N. Charter art. 1, para. 3 “To achieve international co-operation … in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.”
[2] See United Nations Global Issues: Women,, (last visited November 20, 2014).
[3] See UN Women, Facts and Figures: Ending Violence Against Women, UN Women (last visited November 20, 2014),; Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and Women – A Fact Sheet, Amnesty International, 20 July 2005. 
[4] Millennium Development Goals, G.A. Res. 60/1?, (Sept. 2000) (Stating that U.N. goal number 3 is to “promote gender equality and empower women,” and that U.N. goal number 5 is to reduce maternal mortality rate).
[5] Hilary Charlesworth et al., Feminist Approaches to International Law, 85 Am. J. Int'l L. 613, 615 (1991) (noting that “[i]nternational law is a thoroughly gendered system” in which women's rights are often marginalized); Catharine MacKinnon, Feminism Unmodified: Discourses on Life and Law 50-52 (1987) (noting that law typically focuses on public life, not private life, however, much of the discrimination that occurs against women occurs in their private lives).
[6] Camille Pampell Conaway & Jolynn Shoemaker, Women in United Nations Peace Operations: Increasing the Leadership Opportunities 5 (2008) (noting that women are greatly underrepresented in leadership positions within the United Nations). Increasing the number of women in leadership positions could be achieved numerous ways, but a quota system may be the most effective method especially in the short term.