Gro Harlem Brundtland

(WOMENSENEWS)–The face of power in the United Nations was transformed in the 1990s as women took over leadership of six important agencies and Canadian Louise Frechette was named the organization’s first deputy secretary general. But it wasn’t just a matter of numbers. These women found common cause in expanding women’s rights and, although they were based far apart–in New York, Rome and Geneva–they became close colleagues and friends, setting aside time to meet over a meal when United Nations business brought them together anywhere in the world.

“It was just fabulous,” said Catherine Bertini, the American who headed the World FoodProgram, the largest international food-relief organization. “It was a special group.”

That era, if glorious, was also brief.

When Mary Robinson stepped down on Wednesday as United Nations high commissioner for human rights, she became the third of those pioneering women to leave the system. Sadako Ogata retired last year as United Nations high commissioner for refugees and Bertini ended her run as executive director of the World Food Program this spring. All three have been replaced by men.

Gro Harlem Brundtland, a former prime minister of Norway, said she will not seek a second term as director general of the World Health Organization when her first term ends next year. No successor has been chosen.

So far, only Nafis Sadik, who as the first woman to head a major agency, transformed the United Nations Population Fund from a non-controversial family-planning agency to an organization fighting for women’s reproductive rights, was succeeded by another woman when she retired two years ago.

Apart from Brundtland, soon to depart from the World Health Organization, and the population fund’s new executive director, Thoraya Obaid, a Saudi Arabian national, there is only one other woman now at the head of a major agency, Carol Bellamy, the executive director of UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund. Bellamy, an American, was a former New York City Council president and United States Peace Corps director.

Leaders Helped Women’s Rights in Difficult Decade

The 1990s was a disastrous decade for women, marked by vicious civil wars in which 90 percent of the casualties were civilians. Women were killed, forced to flee their homes, starved, brutalized, enslaved and raped, often in the refugee camps that were expected to shelter them. The women who headed United Nations agencies pushed ameliorating measures that were often unpopular with governments, such as making the “morning after” pill available to refugee women.

Bertini said that when she arrived at the World Food Program in 1992 and asked why there were so few women in professional grades, she was told, “Well, we do logistics things–we do things with trucks and trains and planes, and these aren’t women’s things.” She more than doubled the number of high-ranking women in the agency, then turned to the poor women who were its beneficiaries.

“We really had a sea change of policy to direct food aid to women,” said Bertini, who now teaches at the University of Michigan and serves as U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan’s roving envoy on humanitarian issues. “If we’re going to have food and it’s for ending hunger, then get it to the people who cook.” Village women were also entrusted with allocating supplies. Programs were introduced that gave free food to families who sent their girls to school.

Bertini stood down the Taliban, demanding that women be allowed to work in bakery projects in Afghanistan or there would be no bakeries. She was surprisingly successful.

At UNICEF, Bellamy began to explore the darker recesses of a child’s world into areas of sexual abuse and family violence. She would argue that women as well as girls were her concern, since no child could develop freely if a mother suffered and had no status or rights.

Sadik, a Pakistani physician, ran the watershed 1994 Cairo conference on population and development, fending off foes from the American anti-abortion lobby and the Vatican to conservative Islamic governments. The meeting ended with a bold call for the right of women to decide how their bodies are used.

At the World Health Organization, Brundtland, a public health specialist, led a worldwide campaign against smoking and oversaw a global fund to fight AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis.

Robinson, a human rights lawyer and former president of Ireland, had the stormiest tenure. When she became High Commissioner for Human Rights, she said that she wanted to listen to the concerns of people in developing nations, who often accused Western human rights organizations of finding fault only with poor countries.

Human rights advocates respected her, though, for strong stands she took for justice for the East Timorese brutalized by pro-Indonesian militias in 1999 and for more human rights protection in China. But she angered the Bush administration for what Washington called her failure to curb outbursts of anti-Semitism at the 2001 U.N. World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, and for her criticisms of American limitations on civil rights after the Sept. 11 attacks. Israel, also outraged by the Durban conference, blocked her attempt to lead a human rights monitoring mission into occupied Palestinian territories earlier this year.

There were also some criticisms from women. Robinson took a very low-key initial approach to Afghanistan under the Taliban, saying she needed to learn more about Islamic law. And in the spring of 2001, at a meeting in Teheran, Iran, to frame part of the agenda for the U.N. conference on racism, Robinson acquiesced to the government’s demand that all women be covered from head to toe. It was an international gathering and many women were outraged.

“I would not equate the wearing of the veil with a repression of women as such,” she told a BBC interviewer later that year, saying that she too had to cover her head and didn’t like it. “I wouldn’t do it if it was a custom, but it was part of the law and out of respect as high commissioner, I abide by laws,” she said.

But by the end of her tenure, Robinson, who served on four-year term with a one-year extension, had become an outspoken critic of trafficking in girls and women. In a visit to Cambodia in August, she told the national parliament that something needed to be done about the 200,000 victims of traffickers in Southeast Asia alone.

“The women and children who are subjected to this inhumane cruelty are not foreign to us,” she said. “They are our sisters and daughters; they are our children.”

Barbara Crossette was The New York Times U.N. bureau chief from 1994 to 2001.

For more information:

Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
“Farewell Speech in Geneva by Mary Robinson, High Commissioner for Human Rights”:

World Health Organization
“Brundtland starts new movement to address
environmental crisis affecting children’s health”:


For more information:

EMILY’s List:

The WISH List:

Women Score Victories, Post Losses on Primary Day

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–Women candidates achieved mixed results in gubernatorial and congressional primaries held Tuesday in a dozen states across the country.

Rhode Island Democrat Myrth York edged out two men for her party’s gubernatorial nomination and now faces businessman Don Carcieri in what is expected to be a hard-fought race for the state’s top elective office.

Meanwhile, Democrats Janet Napolitano, attorney general of Arizona, and Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, lieutenant governor of Maryland, won easy victories for their party’s gubernatorial nods. They enter the last seven weeks of the campaign season in what are shaping up as toss-up races for the governors’ mansions.

Women suffered big losses in hard-charging Democratic primary races in Florida, New Hampshire and Wisconsin. In Florida, former Attorney General Janet Reno lost to political newcomer Bill McBride. In New Hampshire, state Sen. Bev Hollingworth lost the nomination to state Sen. Mark Fernald. And in Wisconsin, county executive Kathleen Falk lost to state Attorney General James Doyle. Reno, however, may request a recount.

Meanwhile, two Republican women from Arizona, Secretary of State Betsey Bayless and state Treasurer Carol Springer, lost their party’s gubernatorial primary battle against former Rep. Matt Salmon.

Women candidates fared better in Senate primaries in North Carolina and New Hampshire. Former presidential candidate and ex-cabinet secretary Elizabeth Dole handily beat her opponents for the right to succeed retiring Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina. Dole is regarded as the frontrunner in the race against the Democratic nominee, investment banker and former Clinton aide Erskine Bowles, who defeated Secretary of State Elaine Marshall in the Democratic Senate primary.

In New Hampshire, Gov. Jeanne Shaheen ran unopposed in the race for the Democratic Senate nomination. She will square off in what is expected to be a tough race against Republican Rep. John Sununu.

In primaries for House seats, New Hampshire Democrat Martha Fuller Clark easily won her party’s primary, as did Florida Republican Katherine Harris. They enter the general election campaign as two of the most formidable women House candidates in the country.

In Arizona, Republican congressional aide Lisa Atkins held a narrow but inconclusive lead over a large field of competitors in the race to succeed retiring GOP Rep. Bob Stump. If Atkins wins the GOP nomination, she is almost guaranteed victory on Election Day in her solidly Republican 2nd district in Western Arizona.

–Allison Stevens, Wenews correspondent.