15 MARCH 2009


Perhaps we are inspired by the World International Women's Day, 8 March, which passed almost unnoticed at U.N. Headquarters in New York. In earlier years, all the staff were mobilized and leading world personalities participated in events where the Secretary General was the central leading figure. This year, some NGOs gathered in a conference room and some flowers were distributed as token participation. Perhaps the women "activists" is a disappearing breed. More likely, there seems to be no collective enthusiasm amongst the U.N. Secretariat anymore. As if it was drained out through those unfair ordeals over the last few years. It may also be that new "culture" which all aspirants are expected to adopt. Whatever that culture is, Little Kim wouldn't tell. But the distinguished Secretary General thoughtfully explained to an Arabic daily recently in Davos that it entails "discipline." Women -- and men -- take note.

Anyway, on Women's Day, Mr. Ban was pursuing other more pressing priorities -- going with former President Clinton to Haiti so as to proceed further to his persistently requested visit to Washington, D.C.

What about the most senior woman, the Deputy Secretary General? Ah, she was on her way to her native Tanzania, to pursue another priority. Ostensibly it was to participate in some development seminar. But, you see, her currently renewed contract is limited to September -- a subtle signal that she would be well-advised to look elsewhere for future prospects. Two other candidates are already jockeying for position.

The awkward U.N. vacuum on women leadership could have been partially filled by the Deputy Secretary General, a woman whom we always tried to encourage with little result. A head of a U.N. agency, fund or programme could have partially filled in. For example, if the outstanding Carol Bellamy was still heading UNICEF, she would have certainly given dynamic and enlightened direction. Instead, her successor Anne Vanemann is otherwise preoccupied with lending the most valuable U.N. name to the opening of Gucci on Fifth Avenue and Mont Blanc in Hollywood. UNDP, which is already leaderless, can't even cope with Development Goals and is surpassed by demands for emergency relief. As to our Thoraya Obeid of the Population Fund, whose contract was just renewed after a prolonged campaign, she is still searching for the "ceiling", which she is supposed to break.

Obviously, the international community is leaderless on a crucial issue touching on the lives of more than HALF the world population. An overwhelming support exists among the grass roots in every member state, an enormous power for positive change lies untapped, unchanneled and unguided. In fact, it is very frustrated by vague words in ceremonial statements.

With such a glaring vacuum, notice how U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been received in her maiden official trip abroad. Despite a formidable personality with proven leadership qualities, there was some apprehension about the way she would be received, particularly by those who forcefully opposed recent U.S. Foreign policy. Instead, she was not only received like the star that she is, but by hundreds of thousands of adoring women who look up to her for guidance and surrounded her with affection and unfettered admiration. From Korea to Turkey via Japan and China, throngs of women went out of their way especially to show support. Male officials of course were very helpful and cordial to the U.S. Secretary of State, former Congresswoman from the State of New York and former First Lady of the U.S. But there was something else in the air.

A new phenomenal force is somehow growing in an uncertain changing world. Women, a basic element in human development, are sensing their inevitable role, and their basic human rights -- whether in big or small countries, most especially in developing ones. The adulatory way Hillary Clinton was received certainly reflects a sense of pride in her accomplishments. But more remarkably, it indicates a wider and more forceful movement among brilliant, accomplished, dynamic women as well as frustrated, poor and deprived ones. The women's international movement is now ready for a leader. With the vacuum at the U.N. level, Secretary Clinton seems to be the most qualified to play that role.

She is urged to try more of the same, with the support of President Obama, who is an active advocate of change and proponent of women's rights.

They may find out that what's good for world women is indeed very good for the United States of America.