Gender equality: “Non-Western women have played a huge role”

SOAS students Elise Luhr Dietrichson and Fatima Sator

Graduates Fatima Sator and Elise Luhr Dietrichson, aged 25 and 26, completed their one year MA’s in International Studies and Diplomacy in September 2016. Now, just half a year later, Elise is working as a deployment adviser for the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) in Oslo and Fatima is a consultant at the UN in Geneva.

Not bad at all.

And whilst they may have moved on from SOAS in a physical sense, they remain tethered to the institution. To a certain degree, all alumni do. But in the case of Fatima and Elise, I mean more overtly, as the pair are still representing SOAS and advocating their research on gender equality all over the world.


What is the focus of your research?

F: We have done a lot of research on the origins of gender equality in the UN Charter. For example, how we got Article 8 stating that men and women are equal in rights. And our research led to some very interesting conclusions, one being that feminism in the UN comes from Latin America and largely the efforts of Brazilian Bertha Lutz – who is still relatively unknown, both in Brazil and in the UN system itself. She deserves much, much greater recognition.

F: Another factor behind this research is the need for role models. Non-Western women were the ones to get gender equality at the heart of the UN Constitution, they had to fight against the Western world for this. So it also creates role models for women, young and old, who are not from the Western world. I’m Algerian, and I spent all my education believing that all modern ideas were coming from the West. But non-Western women have played a huge role.

You are both representing SOAS at a series of workshops on gender equality within the UN. Tell us about the experience?

Fatima Sator (middle left) and Elise Luhr Dietrichson (middle right) presenting their research on gender equality at the UN
Fatima Sator (middle left) and Elise Luhr Dietrichson (middle right) presenting their research on gender equality at the UN

E: Yes, so this is an initiative to start up a network that will look at what has been done to promote gender equality within the UN; so not how the UN works with gender in the field, but within the organisation itself. There has been a goal of 50:50 representation of men and women within the organisation for quite some time. But still there is under-representation of women in senior positions.

E: Both of us were a bit worried at first that we would be the youngest and perhaps not taken seriously but there was so much positivity towards us. It was a really inclusive environment with a lot of space for younger voices to be heard. I really enjoy the interdisciplinary approach – and this is very much something that was instilled during my studies at SOAS. We had experts in law, in the UN system, experts in the field of gender and human rights more generally, and this created a really interesting discussion, as this is a really complex problem.

How were you invited?

E: It never would have happened without SOAS. And I don’t think it’s an opportunity we would have had had we gone to a different university. Fatima and I started looking at how gender equality became part of the UN Charter, which Dan Plesch suggested as there is very little research out there on this topic. We started looking at it in February last year. And on the CISD UN trip to Geneva we were invited to talk about our research findings.

F: We met the Director of Amnesty International based in Geneva on that trip. She gave us lots of ideas and contacts and she was the one who put forward our names to be invited to participate in this workshop. We were put in touch with her by SOAS Director, Valerie Amos, which shows another example of how SOAS actually helped a lot.

E: We later got impact funds to travel to New York where we visited the UN Headquarters in September. We had a press briefing with the UN Correspondents Association (UNCA); we met with the Brazilian Ambassador as we’d been doing a lot of work on the contribution of Latin American women. This seemed to fit well with SOAS’s values or ensuring that non-Western voices are not overshadowed as they often have been historically. There is a lack of research being done on non-Western women in general and we wanted to make a contribution to rectifying that.

F: A lot of media articles came about as a result of that trip – including the New York Times and Washington Post. Quite a few of the pieces were multimedia as well, which was great to see. There was also an exhibition led by the Colombian Mission to the UN in New York, which utilised much of our work.

Does the UN have a deadline for when they want to achieve this goal of 50:50?

SOAS student Fatima Sator presenting at the UN
SOAS student Fatima Sator presenting at the UN in Geneva as part of her programme on International Studies and Diplomacy

E: Yes – ’50:50 by 2030’ is the slogan. But they also had that slogan for 2000, so…

F: There’s clearly a glass ceiling. The UN can’t lead by example in terms of the Sustainable Development Goals if it can’t achieve gender equality within its own organisational structure, which it has committed to doing.

Are you confident the target will be met?

F: We have achieved quite a lot, but we still have so much to do. We haven’t got to the point where there’s going to be a statue of Bertha Lutz anytime soon, let’s say. But we have done a lot of advocacy work; a research paper is never enough to have an impact – you need to do a lot of advocacy work after. You don’t need much experience in advocacy either. It’s a process and you will learn by doing it.

E: Advocacy is everything: the more people that tell this story, the more it will be heard.

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