Women’s Rights at the UN General Assembly… rhetoric or reality?

Lina AbiRafeh
5 min readOct 8, 2023
A woman’s place is on top… of the UN, of countries, and of her own life. Photo taken by author at a protest.

Firstly, what’s the United Nations General Assembly? I mean, aside from an unbearable traffic jam in New York City and a show of motorcades all day and night?

The General Assembly is an annual gathering of world leaders and diplomats around the world, a forum to discuss, address, (perhaps?) resolve pressing global issues. And there’s a lot that’s “pressing” these days.

The 78th session of the General Assembly “High Level Week” ended last week. As former staff of the United Nations (and now an awkward step-child), I wasn’t there. But that doesn’t stop me from asking… What happened?!

Specifically, what happened through the lens of women? Because if we’re not working to ensure that women are safe, free, equal, then no one stands a chance. Sure, all things “women” have always been on the UNGA agenda. Year after year, women’s rights and gender equality are discussed. But what does that really mean? What comes from these “discussions,” like, concretely?!

This year, the General Assembly theme was “Rebuilding trust and reigniting global solidarity: Accelerating action on the 2030 Agenda and its Sustainable Development Goals towards peace, prosperity, progress and sustainability for all.” That’s a lot of things. And none of those things are possible without full rights and equality for women.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres has often emphasized the importance of women’s leadership and participation in all aspects of decision-making. And maybe one day we’ll have a woman at the highest level of UN decision-making? Just saying…

Meanwhile, leaders in attendance discussing these “transformative solutions” are almost all male. Where are the women? We know too well that women are dramatically underrepresented in politics. The UN has 193 member countries, and only 28 are led by women. And, lest we forget, position doesn’t always mean power.

At this present snail-pace, gender equality in the highest positions of power will not be reached for another 130 years. Who’s hanging on for that? What’s more, women’s presence and power in politics doesn’t necessarily mean they will act in favor of women. And power doesn’t mean feminist politics. We’ve got a few women in leadership who are not exactly feminist.

Take (first female) Hungarian President Katalin Novák, for instance. She made an appearance at the recent Women Deliver conference in Rwanda as well. I was there as she delivered a speech that was starkly anti-choice. To a room of 6300 feminists. Who support our rights and choices to our bodies and lives. Hmmm…

For the General Assembly, she seemed to make the case that population growth is more important than the climate crisis. “What is the point of looking after the earth,” she asked, “if we don’t have children and grandchildren to pass it on to?”

I’ll just leave that one there for your commentary. I’m too stunned to say a word.

It’s not just Novák. At the same time, reports are scathing. The Guardian reported that women’s rights have been “taken hostage” at the UN, with hard-fought gains eroded around the world.

We dance around the same issues, year after year — wide gender disparities, rampant violence against women, barriers to political participation, continued economic disempowerment, removal of reproductive rights, denial of fundamental freedoms, and on and on.

Sure, there’s progress. But it’s not enough — not good enough or big enough or fast enough. Gender disparities exist nearly everywhere, with women and girls facing dramatically unequal opportunities in education, employment, and decision-making — especially about their own lives. Cultural and structural barriers hinder women’s full participation in every aspect of public and political life. And, bafflingly, we still cannot make choices about our own bodies and sex and sexuality. We don’t have access to comprehensive healthcare. And yes, President Novák, that includes our right to family planning and safe abortion.

Geesh, that’s grim, I hear you say. Yes, friends, it’s pretty crappy. I’ve never been a fan of big meetings and fat politicians and strongly-worded recommendations that sound good on paper. Here’s what I’m a fan of… the young people who are kicking rear ends on the sidelines, the margins, the periphery, of these “official events.”

Let me introduce you to one of them. You’ve met her before — feminist activist and take-no-craptivist Yasmina Benslimane, founder of Politics4Her, and a lot of other things. She posted having witnessed “several concerning things that reinforce the importance of leaving no one behind, especially young women and girls from Global Majority countries.” And then went on to list those things, including the unsurprising reality that we need $360 billion for gender equality every year if we’re planning to get anywhere by 2030. And, unsurprisingly, we are not gonna get there.

Yasmina remarked that “the voices of young women and girls, particularly from conflict areas such as Afghanistan, Iran, Yemen, Sudan, Libya, Congo, Palestine and many more have been dismissed and not amplified, while they deserve so much attention! That’s a shame, United Nations,” she wrote.

She’s disappointed, she told me, because “young voices continue to be silenced, young women from our region continue to be absent. All the focus is on Ukraine meanwhile Africa and the Middle East is left out.” She’s right. We have a hierarchy of priorities, and — in global fora such as UNGA — there will always be those who speak, and those who are sidelined.

“It’s everything I’ve been saying over and over again,” Yasmina added. “Young people are quite exhausted, from tokenism and from always having our panels last. And they call it meaningful youth engagement. I call it out everywhere I see it.”

Voices like Yasmina’s are what we need to listen to, especially now.

And here’s another glimmer of hope: GWL Voices for Change and Inclusion, an advocacy group for equality made up of the voices of 67 Global Women Leaders (GWL). This group argues that the UN absolutely must elect its first female secretary general at the next vote in 2026. There has never been a woman UN secretary general. In an entity that touts equality and women’s rights.

GWL states that “the lack of gender equality at the heart of the organization is having a chilling effect on progress for women and girls around the world,” adding that the rights we thought we had are not secure. This is a global problem.

Indai Sajor, lifelong feminist activist with decades of experience worldwide, reminds us that the “lack of women in UN leadership is nothing new.” In fact, it has been embedded in the institution’s DNA. She challenges the idea that putting a woman in the secretary general’s seat will solve all our problems. One woman won’t make a difference, she states, when the entire institution needs reform.

And she doesn’t stop there. Leaders around the world should be held accountable for the “misery, marginalization, discrimination, racism against women around the world. It is time to put those male presidents to task, to blame and shame them!”

“The only ones giving me true hope are the feminists and young people,” Yasmina states.

And feminists are a rare breed in these spaces, it would seem.

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Lina AbiRafeh

Global women's rights expert, author, speaker, aid worker, feminist activist with 25 years of experience in 20 countries worldwide - and lots of stories!