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.