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U.N. headquarters Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019. © AP Photo/Jeenah Moon

There have been nine United Nations secretaries-general over the past 75 years, from all corners of the earth. But they’ve had one thing in common—they’ve all been men.

“Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.” That’s UN Sustainable Development (SDG) Goal Five. “End all forms of discrimination against all women and girls everywhere.” That’s the first target for Goal Five. The UN is responsible for helping every country achieve that target by 2030.

That effort should start in the UN’s own house.

It’s time to choose the next “SG.” António Guterres, a veteran diplomat, former UN high commissioner for refugees and ex-prime minister of Portugal, has been in the job since 2017 and seeks a second term. The process for selecting the SG changed in 2015, becoming more transparent and inclusive. Campaigns including 1 for 7 Billion, of which Human Rights Watch is a member, want further reforms.

Several countries — China, Germany, and the United Kingdom — endorsed a second term for Guterres before more candidates emerged. In 2015, the presidents of the General Assembly and the Security Council called for member states to nominate women; this year they did not. But because of the 2015 changes, it is more likely candidates can come forward to run against the incumbent. A woman working for the UN, Arora Akanksha, announced her candidacy in February, drawing attention, again, to the lack of women in the role. In 2016, there were seven women candidates and six men.

Human Rights Watch is calling for competition and gender diversity in the candidate pool. Both Guterres and the General Assembly president voiced support for a transparent selection process this year. All UN member states committed to gender equity should consider presenting and supporting strong female candidates, an approach 1 for 7 Billion supports. With a diverse candidate pool in place, member states should select the most qualified candidate.

We are facing a crisis in women’s rights. The Covid-19 pandemic disproportionately affects women; the UN predicts it will push 47 million more women and girls into poverty, and drive 13 million additional child marriages over the next 10 years. We need SDG Goal Five to be a reality, and the UN’s ability to help lead the world out of this crisis is undermined as long as gender equity is missing – from bottom to top.

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