At the United Nations, Delhi showcases its women power
Several women from India have served at the UN Secretariat but none at the highest appointed position of Under-Secretary General. This is without doubt a singular achievement for Indian women in the UN system
Akanksha Arora is an Indo-Canadian auditor with the United Nations (UN) who has challenged the incumbent UN Secretary General for re-election later this year. Not even having the backing of her own country, the spunky Arora is unlikely to go far in her quest for the top job at the UN.
But 2021 has been an extraordinarily good year for Indian women at the UN, with the appointment of Usha Rao Monari as the Associate Administrator of the UN Development Program in the rank of Under Secretary General. Several women from India have served at the UN Secretariat but none at the highest appointed position of Under-Secretary General. This is without doubt a singular achievement for Indian women in the UN system. Monari was earlier with the International Finance Corporation (IFC).
Two other Indian women have moved to leadership positions at the UN in New York. Ligia Noronha heads the UN Environment Program’s New York office in the rank of Assistant Secretary General, and Preeti Sinha has taken over as the Head of the UN’s Capital Development Fund that deals with micro-finance.
The role of Indian women was emblazoned on the UN stage when Hansa Mehta participated in the UN Conference on Human Rights in Paris in 1948 and ensured that these rights were gender neutral by amending the expression “all men are created equal” to “all human beings are created equal” in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. She later served as the vice chairman of the Human Rights Commission of the UN in 1950.
Thereafter, Vijay Lakshmi Pandit became the first woman President of the UN General Assembly (1953-54). This was, at that time, a truly remarkable achievement in a male dominated diplomatic world – for which India is justifiably proud. But not many know that she also led an “unofficial delegation” from India in San Francisco in 1945, when the UN conference took place, which laid the foundations of the organisation.
Move on several decades. In 2009, after Hilary Clinton took over as Secretary of State, the United States dropped its opposition to creating a UN entity focussing on women. Resolution 64/289 creating UN-Women was adopted in the General Assembly on the afternoon of July 2, 2010. The session was presided over by India’s minister of state for external affairs, Preneet Kaur. India was one of the 27 Vice Presidents of the UNGA that year and had played a key role in negotiating the resolution. It is a matter of pride that Indian Foreign Service officer, Lakshmi Puri, became one of the first Deputy Executive Directors of UN Women to be followed by Anita Bhatia, from India, who had earlier been with IFC. Earlier, Geeta Rao Gupta had served as Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF.
As one scans the horizon today, several other Indian women occupy prominent positions in other major multilateral organizations. Dr. Soumya Swaminathan is the Chief Scientist of the World Health Organization (WHO) leading the fight against COVID-19 while Dr. Neeru Chadha is a judge at the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS). Anshula Kant, formerly from State Bank of India, is one of the Managing Directors of the World Bank. And the IMF has two women from India in lead positions – Gita Gopinath, who, as its Chief Economist, is one of the Fund’s most prominent faces and Kalpana Kochar, who heads Human Resources.
Incidentally, most Indian women at the top in the multilateral system today have strong Delhi connections. Soumya Swaminathan headed Indian Council of Medical Research, Ligia Noronha was for long with TERI, and Preeti Sinha ran the Yes Global Institute. But the real star is Delhi’s prestigious Lady Shriram College, the alma-mater of Usha Rao Monari, Anshula Kant and Gita Gopinath.
Manjeev Singh Puri is a former Ambassador and Deputy Permanent Representative of India to the UN
The views expressed are personal