Special event for the International Day of Women in Diplomacy

Statement by Rebeca Grynspan, Secretary-General of UN Trade and Development (UNCTAD)

Special event for the International Day of Women in Diplomacy

Geneva, Switzerland
24 June 2024

Shattering glass ceilings: Recognizing female diplomats’ contributions within the UN system


Distinguished panelists, friends, colleagues, ladies and gentlemen,

Today is a very special day for us – all of us. A day that celebrates the women who have shaped our world, and a call to action for the future we will build together.

Let me first express my appreciation to the organizers of this event – the Office of the President of Human Rights Council, the Permanent Mission of the Plurinational State of Bolivia, and UN Women. Thank you for organizing this event.

Today, we are reminded that we stand on the shoulders of giants – giants like it was said, Eleanor Roosevelt, whose relentless spirit ensured women’s voices were etched into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

With her, a legion of pioneers deserves our recognition – Hansa Mehta and Lakshmi Menon of India, Minerva Bernardino of the Dominican Republic, Begum Shaista Ikramullah of Pakistan, Bodil Begtrup of Denmark, Marine-Helene Lefaucheux of France, Evdokia Uralova of Belarus – and countless other women who fought for the rights of their sisters at the very foundation of the multilateral system, ensuring that the first line of the Universal Declaration – “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” – really meant what it meant.

Fifty years later, Louise Fréchette shattered another glass ceiling as the first UN Deputy Secretary-General appointed by Secretary-General Kofi Annan, and now Amina Mohamad, appointed by Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

These women paved the way for more women to lead today at all levels of the political and diplomatic spectrum in the UN programmes and the international organizations – many of those leaders are here with us.

So let us celebrate their work, their contributions and their achievements. Let’s celebrate that we have achieved parity of the senior leadership positions, that there is almost parity in the representation of heads and deputy heads of UN country missions.

And that the diplomatic community in this city is making great efforts towards gender equality in diplomacy. Here I want to refer to the Joint Statement on Women, Diplomacy and Human Rights, addressed today to the President of the Human Rights Council, as well as initiatives such as MenEngage, which is led by men diplomats who want to champion equality, and which show that this is a fight that is not only for us women to fight.

In addition, since 2014, a number of countries have officially declared a feminist foreign policy or feminist development system. These countries are many, and I will mention some of them, hopefully I do not want to leave anybody out – Canada, France, Mexico, Luxembourg, Spain, Chile, the Netherlands, Germany, and Sweden.

But this cannot be just a day of celebration. We are reminded that the path ahead is still long. We have not reached the goal of gender distribution throughout the entire secretariat of the UN. And outside the UN as well, only 20% of all ambassadorial positions are led by women. In fact, in Geneva it is a little better in this regard, with 34% of all diplomatic positions in the city being fielded by women.

I may be the first woman to lead the UN Trade and Development, but after all these years, being the ‘first’ is at the same time a celebration but more, a reminder of the lack of equality. For as long as we keep counting, the first, or second, or third, we haven’t yet achieved gender equality. This just means women are underrepresented in leadership roles, when it should have been the norm.

I also believe women's empowerment goes beyond our novelty. It is about the value of our contributions, our perspectives, and our leadership.

Your excellencies,

On this note, I would like to share a personal reflection.

As some of you know, these past few years I have been working very hard on what became known as the Istanbul Agreements, which include the Black Sea Grain Initiative and the UN MoU with the Russian Federation.

In working on my speech for today it occurs to me that today is a good opportunity to reflect on this experience from a woman’s perspective. To be honest, I have not had the time to pause, and reflect on it until now – we’ve been really so busy. But, by the way, my team in this initiative was a parity team, but the two main leading roles were performed by women.

Looking back, I think it is indeed true that we women do bring something different to the table.

First, dialogue was about closing the gaps about the different perspective clearly present in any negotiation, the perspective was not “to win” but not to lose the objective of the exercise. Not reacting too impulsively and surely not giving up to provocation was essential.

Second, the priority of the objective was central precisely because us women are aware that geopolitics have differentiated gender implications, and that we must consider them at the start, not as an afterthought. I am talking about, in this case, the implications of food insecurity for women and girls (who often eat last and least), about the lack of representation of women in the diplomatic, political, and especially military hierarchies that often decide how wars are run, and how they eventually end.

And thirdly, our views of war and violence are different. We live in a world, unfortunately, where war is speaking on behalf of diplomacy but for us women peace holds a different meaning. When we speak of peace, we often speak of it as an abstract concept, a dove in the sky. But peace is not abstract. It is a meal shared by a family no longer fearing hunger, a child's laughter echoing in a village no longer ravaged by conflict, a mother's embrace that no longer carries the dread of uncertainty. The possibility of living free of gender violence.

We understand that the fabric of peace is woven with threads of empathy, compassion, and shared responsibility. These are not feminine qualities, obviously, but human qualities that we, as women, are often more attuned to because of our experiences, however unfair and unjust they have been.

I have said many times that we are not a vulnerable group – it is our rights that have been violated or weakened.

In the spirit of the Women, Peace, and Security agenda, as established by UN Security Council Resolution 1325, we recognize that sustainable peace and security cannot be achieved without the full and meaningful participation of women at all stages. This agenda is not solely about conflict resolution but encompasses prevention, protection, participation, and relief and recovery. We are not merely seeking a seat at the table, we are aiming to reshape the table itself, to build a world where peace is not just an abstract idea but a lived reality for all.

So far, over 105 countries have endorsed a National Action Plan to fulfill the provisions of Resolution 1325. But we know a lot more has to be done.

Your excellencies,

The coming Summit of the Future is a bold opportunity that dares to imagine a different world. But that vision cannot remain simply aspirational.

It demands actions worthy of its name. It demands that when global leaders gather, the voices of women – not just as witnesses to crises but as agents of change – ring out from the earliest discussions, not just the symbolic side panels.

Women around the world will be watching that Summit closely. Their hopes, their skepticism, their determination to be architects of a better future rests to bring diplomacy at the highest level for the value of the global price, on whether words finally translate into a demonstrably different world.

Let us give them the cause to believe.

Thank you.