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Standing together for women’s empowerment: the UN strategic shift is worth a try

In his message on 2016 International Women’s Day, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon summarised the UN’s efforts for gender equality with an evocative metaphor: “We have shattered so many glass ceilings we created a carpet of shards. Now we are sweeping away the assumptions and bias of the past so women can advance across new frontiers”. Ban Ki-moon has recently been recognised as a champion of the promotion of women’s rights. His main achievement in the field has been to prioritise the issue on the UN agenda. As a matter of fact, the UN further the promotion of gender equality worldwide, not only through the CEDAW treaty and related instruments, but also through the adoption of a gender-sensitive policy of recruitment and the constant monitoring of women’s rights enjoyment in a number of domains (e.g. health, education, labour). UN efforts towards gender equality and women’s empowerment have been continuous and lately they have shown a remarkable degree of adaptability and pragmatism that might be conducive to a less immediate and visible, but more long-lasting and widespread diffusion of emancipatory principles worldwide. Apparently, the recent UN change of strategy for promoting gender equality is challenging traditional conceptions of feminism; however, this does not mean it is incompatible with them. Moreover, if successful, this new strategy might represent a model of agency for advocates of global justice.

The practical achievements of the UN Convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women (1979) have been widely contested because of the limited enforcement capacity and because of the refusal of powerful states – notably the US and Iran – to ratify and sign it. However, thanks to the monitoring activities, the level of information about the violation of women’s rights has increased over time. Acknowledging the limits of the inter-governmental advocacy strategy, recently the UN has been working towards raising awareness about the global problem of gender inequality, with the aim of influencing transnational public opinion. The new strategy is founded on three pillars: 1. publishing issue-specific studies and reports and organising international academic conferences; 2. incorporating gender equality in comprehensive policy frameworks; 3. campaigning for the promotion of gender equality, finding innovative forms of communication.

An example of the first type of actions is the 2013 Vienna Declaration on Femicide, which reported the resilience (and increase) of a global phenomenon of gender-based killings and demanded to reinforce its criminalisation in international as well as in national criminal justice systems. The second type of actions include putting gender equality at the core of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development as well as stressing the role of women in peace-building roadmaps: as Ban Ki-moon put it, this means “empowering women as agents of change”. Finally, an example of the third type of actions is UN Women’s campaign HeForShe: Stand together, a global initiative aimed at creating “a bold, visible force for gender equality”.

The HeForShe campaign presents some original features, especially regarding its target, aim and means. First, it appeals to personalities of the star system as well as to states’ and international organisations’ officials and to private citizens, particularly urging men’s active involvement in fighting prejudices and pointing out discriminatory practices. Second, it asks for individuals’ public commitment for gender equality – to take on through a dedicated black-pink, graphically well-finished website –, referring not only to women’s rights, but fighting all kinds of gender-based discrimination. Thirdly, it promotes art festivals, bicycle rallies, tweet-chains and other leisure events in order to spread information and to infuse pop culture with progressive ideas. Briefly, the campaign aims at promoting national and international debates on gender equality not through top-down ‘political’ initiatives, but rather influencing (global) public opinion thanks to the synergic involvement of many committed individuals worldwide. Therefore, the starting point is quite limited but potentially revolutionary: fighting prejudices and stereotypes in everyday life and avoiding silent collusion with any form of discriminating practices.

The new UN approach to gender equality is likely to raise some criticisms, particularly in feminist activists’ networks, for being too superficial and frivolous. For instance, Emma Watson’s famous speech delivered at the UN Headquarters for the campaign’s launch in September 2014 started a debate about the current meaning of feminism. She was accused of confusing a complex theoretical tradition having fundamentally revolutionary implications with a vague amateurish commitment for a ‘politically correct’ version of non-discrimination. However, two years later, the campaign’s website collected more than 1,300,000,000 ‘commitments’. This means that one in six people in the world have thought about the issue of gender inequality for at least a few minutes (enough to google the website, access it, have a look at it and press the “count me in” button). Of course, this is not going to produce any meaningful improvement of women’s situation in the short run, but it might concur to enlarge the front of those fighting for gender equality in the future. As Ban Ki-moon suggested, it is not enough to crash machismo and sexist behaviours giving women legal instruments for protecting their rights or accessing important positions in politics and in society. It is equally crucial to sweep away the shards of prejudice from individual mentality as well as from public opinion at large. In order to do so, perhaps, in the near future Hermione’s magic tricks might prove to be more effective than Simone de Beauvoir’s words.

Elisa is Senior Researcher at the EURAC Center for Advanced Studies, in Bolzano Bozen. Previously, she has been Research Fellow in Political Philosophy at Sant’Anna School for Advanced Studies (Pisa) from 2017 to 2022. She has also worked as a Research Fellow and Teaching Assistant in History of Political Thought at the Department of Social and Political Science of Bologna University. Her research interests include contemporary theories of justice, theories of global order, international ethics, foreign policy analysis, theories of public opinion and political epistemology.

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  1. Thanks for the interesting post, Elisa. I was wondering if you could expand a bit on the line of criticism you consider in the final paragraph here. Is the thought here along the lines that the UN approach is too palliative or piecemeal – addressing the symptoms, but not the root causes of the problem? Along these lines, might the worry be that the approach is problematic because it distracts attention, giving people the false belief that the issue is being addressed? There might be similarities here to an argument sometimes used by those on the far left that while the development of the welfare state has improved the lives of many people, it can detract from more revolutionary aims. On this argument, I take it the worry would be that it is the UN approach that would be too near-sighted. At any rate, that is the kind of argument I thought the criticism might mean to imply and I wondered what you thought about it?

    • Dear Andrew,

      thank you very much for your comment. I’ll try to clarify my point.

      The post was the result of a reflection on activist political theory and on (avant-garde) global agency, two concepts that are crucial for the current debate on global justice (I had in mind Lea Ypi’s 2012 book). I was looking for an example and I think that the transnational debate on gender equality might be an interesting case to look at. Particularly, here I tried to highlight the ‘strategic shift’ in the UN policy for gender equality – from promoting affirmative (political) actions and ‘lobbying’ governments to stimulating (global?) civil society by penetrating public opinion.

      In Gramscian terms, I would say they plan the construction of a counter-hegemony in order to produce an organic change, choosing a ‘war of position’ over a ‘war of maneuver’. Of course, Gramsci had in mind working towards making Communism (in his thought, an emancipatory theory) hegemonic in democratic (Western) societies.
      I am not sure about the chances of success of this kind of strategy in the long term for the promotion of women’s empowerment.
      In order to pervade civil society through public opinion, though, ‘gendering’ pop culture might be more effective than traditional feminist discourses and action. Moreover, the two need not to be considered as incompatible approaches – but I would need several posts in order to investigate this point…

  2. Lisa Herzog

    Hi Elisa, thanks for this great post. I find this a very interesting example of something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently: how to theorize changes in social norms that are obvious obstacles to justice, but which are nonetheless somewhat independent from formal institutions. If social norms (as informal institutions) work against justice, formal institutions alone may not be able to realize justice. Nonetheless, in the end formal and informal institutions need to work together. So I’d be interested to hear more about how you think about the UN campaign in this respect. One way of understanding the current situation is to say that there is (roughly) formal gender equality, but informal institutions mitigate against it. Then awareness raising campaigns seem straightforward as the best strategy. But I would question whether our formal institutions are really so equal – not only because in many countries worldwide they obviously aren’t, but also because in many “Western” countries, there are obstacles to gender equality that are based on formal institutions, but maybe not in the most obvious ways (I’m thinking about how tax codes treat married couples, for example) – they do not directly discriminate women, but they make certain choices of lifestyles easier than others. Identifying such mechanisms seems an important aspect of the fight for gender equality. Is the UN doing something of that kind, or is there an expectation that by raising awareness, citizens will come to better understand such mechanisms and change them themselves?

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