When Jacinda Ardern brought her baby Neve to the United Nations for the 2018 General Assembly, then-New Zealand Prime Minister became an emblematic figure of modern women in politics. Her initiative was not only a photo opportunity, she also walked the walk: A few years later, her progressive government helped fund new lactation rooms at the UN headquarters in New York to make it easier for other new mothers to work.
But women attending the annual top rendezvous of diplomacy have remained a minority, and the UN General Assembly this year is no different. Out of about 145 leaders set to speak, only ten women heads of state and governments are expected to address the assembly this year, alongside a few women foreign ministers.
“This perpetuates the cycle,” Susana Malcorra, a former foreign minister of Argentina and president of Global Women Leaders Voices, said. “The number ten is about the magic number, in recent years it has gone up a little bit and then magically has come down again.”
Yet there has been one notable uptick over recent years – the number of female leaders representing the right side of the political spectrum, including Hungarian President Katalin Novak and this year’s newcomer Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni.
Meloni, leader of the far-right political party Brothers of Italy, has overseen the creation of new limits on the parental rights of same-sex couples, and has spoken out against abortion rights. On the international scene, however, she has often focused more widely palatable priorities, including support for Ukraine and Europe’s migration crisis, calling on the UN to “wage a global war” on human traffickers.
“Meloni has developed a reputation for being quite a safe pair of hands on the international scene,” Richard Gowan, UN expert at the International Crisis Group, said, “So I don’t actually think that she will be particularly disruptive in the [General Assembly] because her strategy has basically been to appear responsible on the world stage while pursuing a fairly a pretty more radical agenda at home.”
For Hungarian president Katalin Novák, a close ally of the country’s hardline nationalist prime minister Viktor Orbán and another advocate for traditional “family values”, it’s not her first visit to the UN. Last March, Novák spoke about the importance of preserving heterosexual families at the Commission on the Status of Women last March, the UN’s annual meeting on women’s rights. But she has also pushed back against some of her party’s excesses, for example vetoing a bill might have encouraged citizens to report same-sex couples to authorities – a rare rebuff to Orban.
In her speech before the UN, Novak appeared to position population growth as even more important than the climate crisis: “If there is no child, there will be no future,” she said: “What is the point of looking after the Earth if we don’t have children and grandchildren to pass it on to?”
Another potentially controversial first-timer is Dina Boluarte, Peru’s first-ever woman president who took over from Pedro Castillo after his impeachment in December 2022. While she initially ran as a left-wing candidate, Boluarte has found allies in on Peru’s right, and experts have expressed concern over Peruvian authorities’ crackdown on political protest under her government.
Of course, not all the women leaders attending UNGA are on the far side of the political spectrum.
On Wednesday, the GA heard from two women presidents leading two countries bordering Ukraine, Zuzana Čaputová of Slovakia and Maia Sandu of Moldova, with Russia’s war ravaging Ukraine a significant theme in their speeches. It was Čaputová’s last General Assembly as president of her country, as she announced a few months ago she won’t seek reelection in 2024 for personal reasons.
Slovenien president Nataša Pirc Musar also made her first UNGA appearance this week – an opportunity to set potential priorities for the country’s term on the Security Council. Slovenia was elected to the powerful council last June as a temporary member and is set to get its seat on the horseshoe table in January.
One woman leader attending the UN General Assembly this year – and many others before – is Sheikh Hasina, Bangladesh’s prime minister and the longest-ever serving woman head of government in history. She first became prime minister in 1996 until 2001, and got the title back in 2009. The Bangladeshi leader is a familiar face in international affairs and a figure of stability to many.
And wherever she goes, Prime Minister Mia Mottley of Barbados rarely goes unnoticed. In previous years, she made the headlines by quoting Jamaican singer Bob Marley while on the rostrum, while asking for more meaningful action on climate and the Covid-19 pandemic. She comes to New York City while working on reforming international financial architecture – so her presence in the Big Apple is shaking things up.
Xiomara Castro, the leftist president of Honduras, is also in town for a second time to update the world on her work to fight corruption in her country.
And while they aren’t taking the rostrum on behalf of their countries, there are several other powerful women leaders roaming the UN’s corridors and undoubtedly leaving their mark on negotiations on UNGA’s sidelines, including Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission; Kristalina Georgieva, the director of the International Monetary Fund; and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the first woman to ever lead the World Trade Organization. Actress and philanthropist Natalie Portman is also in town for the event, wielding a different type of influence.