Women At The UN Security Council: Nigeria Joins An Elite Group

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Written by Andrew Friedman

While it was last month’s General Assembly, gathering a record of over 140 heads of state and foreign dignitaries in New York City that garnered the most headlines, the Security Council made its own history.

While it is the body’s decisions that normally create history, regularly voting on issues of war and peace with grave international consequences, this term history was made in its personnel. For the first time six female Permanent Representatives sit on the Council, representing their respective countries, including Ambassador U. Joy Ogwu of Nigeria.

This is a marked difference from the UNSC’s initial session in January of 1946, where every country was represented by a man and the only women in the room were note takers. In a body that has, for so long, been dominated by men, even 40 percent of the 15 member body represents tremendous progress.

In addition to Nigeria, the United States, Luxembourg, Argentina, Lithuania and Jordan count women as their permanent voice at the UN.

While, according to the UN News Centre, the six Ambassadors are quick to point out that the main goal of a Permanent Representative to the UN, whether male or female, is to further their country’s interest at the world’s largest intergovernmental institution, that does not mean they miss the message sent by the women sitting around the famous semi-circular table.

Lithuania’s Permanent Representative Ramonda Murmokaite put it best when she said “in too many places around the world, women don’t have the opportunities, even basic opportunities…It is an enormous message of empowerment but also an enormous message of what women can do, how women can contribute, if they are given this opportunity.”

Dr. Ogwu has played an important role in Nigerian civil society and governmental affairs for more than a quarter of a century.

Curiosity of People

According to her official biography through the Nigerian Mission to the United Nations, she has played a role in Nigeria’s delegation to the UN since 1988. She also headed the country’s foremost international affairs think tank and served as the country’s Minister of Foreign Affairs before becoming the country’s Permanent Representative.

For her part, Ogwu echoed the sentiments of the Lithuanian Permanent Representative, telling the UN News Centre “I’m sure that that is what inspires the curiosity of people – now that there are [six] women, could there be a difference in the way we approach issues of conflict? Yes, in a way, but at this time it is very, very subtle because the country does not send you there just as a woman but the country sends you there to represent its national interests.”

Worldwide it can often seem that women’s suffering is unending and women’s equality impossible. This is as true throughout Africa as it is anywhere, with five of the world’s ten worst countries for gender equality located on the continent, according to a 2013 World Economic Forum study.

There exists, however, a wide range of women’s equality across Africa as the continent currently boasts two female heads of state with a third, Joyce Banda of Malawi, recently having completed her term.

To see the wide range of women’s opportunity that exists in Africa one need look no further than the continent’s three countries on the Security Council itself.

Dr. Ogwo serves as Nigeria’s representative, one of the six women currently on the Council and her country’s first female Permanent Representative. Additionally, the country currently has its first female Chief Justice in history.

The Rwandan Parliament

Amongst the other two African representatives on the UNSC, Rwanda has more female members of parliament than any other country in the world while Chad, the continent’s third member, is the third worst country in the world for women, ranking in the World Economic Forum study in the bottom five in economic participation and opportunity, political empowerment and educational attainment, only cracking the top 100 of the 136 country survey in health and survival.

In a UN feature webcast, Lithuania’s Murmokaite described the symbolic importance of the Permanent Representatives, saying, “it’s the first time…you have three women sitting right in front, and that is a very powerful message for those who are not there yet, who have to struggle every day for their basic rights” and that “it’s extremely important to be sending that message.”

Women making up 40 percent of the UN Security Council does not make for instant international equality. Women living in Chad, Pakistan or Yemen (the three lowest ranked countries on the World Economic Forum study) will not immediately be free to pursue education, jobs or control their own fate simply because six women sit on the Security Council.

Neither will the millions of women denied equality elsewhere. However, the importance of the sight of six women on the world’s most important internationally collaborative body should not be underestimated. Progress is always incremental and these six women can do much to show the importance of education, opportunity and equality.

Andrew Friedman is a human rights attorney and consultant who works and writes on legal reform and constitutional law with an emphasis on Africa. He can be reached via email at afriedm2@gmail.com or via twitter @AndrewBFriedman.