Symposium on Gender Representation: The GQUAL Campaign – Witnessing Change on Gender Balance in International Bodies

Symposium on Gender Representation: The GQUAL Campaign – Witnessing Change on Gender Balance in International Bodies

[Maria Noel Leoni is member of the GQUAL Secretariat, Senior Adviser at the Center for Justice and International Law and Regional Manager for Latin America at the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre. Alejandra Vicente is member of the GQUAL Secretariat and Head of Law at REDRESS. Agatha Ciancaglini is Advocacy and Research Assistant at GQUAL and Lawyer at the Gender Policies Department of the Public Prosecutor’s Office in Argentina.]

Six years ago, a group of human rights lawyers working in Latin America decided to do something to fix the absence of women in international justice and change the “all-male picture” of some courts and bodies. We created the GQUAL Campaign. We were, and continue to be, inspired by the many women, men, and coalitions who before and alongside us have sought to increase the representation of women in all places where consequential decisions are made.

Today, considerable work remains to be done to achieve gender parity in international courts and bodies. Yet, we have witnessed significant positive changes. The most recent one is the adoption of the Report of the UN Human Rights Council Advisory Committee on “Current levels of representation of women in human rights organs and mechanisms” (the Report). As the first document formally adopted by the Human Rights Council (HRC) on the issue of gender balance in UN Treaty Bodies and Special Procedures, the Report offers a clear roadmap for States, the UN, and other actors to achieve gender equality. It also constitutes an important precedent to be followed by other institutions imparting international justice.

The Report is the main theme of this symposium, where internationally-renowned experts will explore its significance for gender equality. For us at GQUAL, the Report is a chance to look both back and forward. Looking back, it makes us reflect on the many steps that were taken (and needed) to get to this moment. Looking forward, the Report offers an opportunity and a framework to make gender equality a reality at the international level. The key that brought us here remains the key to what comes next: the active collaboration of different stakeholders, including States, international organizations, civil society, academia, diplomats, and judges.

Why Did We Start GQUAL?

In 2015, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IActHR) had an all-male bench. As practitioners involved in the litigation of cases before the court, we closely experienced how women’s absence negatively affects the legitimacy, quality, and impact of international justice institutions. We also regularly engaged with the selection processes in the regional human rights system and witnessed that the procedures were opaque, had no explicit consideration for gender balance, and reproduced many of the stereotypes and obstacles that women face when accessing positions of power and decision-making.

While we highly respect our male colleagues, we noticed that many of them “jumped” from one international position to the next, while their female peers – similarly qualified – were not even considered.

Our initial research showed that what occurred in the Inter-American Human Rights System was part of a pattern affecting almost all international bodies. We also realized that, while part of the problem, the selection processes could also become part of the solution if they were transparent, participatory, and included gender parity as a selection criteria. 

Since we were – and remain – convinced that change cannot happen without mobilization, we launched GQUAL, a global campaign to achieve gender parity in international justice. Since its launch, we have been advocating, researching, networking, and collaborating with others to promote meaningful, gender-parity-oriented changes in the selection processes related to the membership of international bodies. We have been doing this work with almost no resources, but with the strong conviction that change is as necessary as it is possible and consequential.

Making the Problem Visible

The extensive data collected by GQUAL shows what the Report clearly confirms: the underrepresentation of women in international bodies is long-standing.

GQUAL monitors and reports on the composition of 88 international bodies, including international courts, regional human rights tribunals and commissions, treaty bodies, and special procedures. This covers 583 positions, of which women occupy barely 38%, a figure that drops to 33% when excluding bodies with mandates tied to so-called “women’s issues” and to 28% when counting only tribunals.

While some bodies have increased their gender representation, others continue to function almost without any women. Examples include the IActHR, with only one woman out of seven judges; the International Court of Justice (ICJ), with only 4 female judges in its entire history; and the UN Special Procedures, where 10 positions have never been held by a woman. Further analysis shows that even when the representation of women improves, it almost never reaches parity. Periods of gender balance are seldom sustained, quickly backsliding to previous low levels of representation. Some women, particularly those from the Global South, are even less represented. GQUAL’s data also shows that States – both individually and in regional groups – tend to nominate and vote for more men than women.

Before GQUAL, there was hardly any data available on the gender composition of international bodies. A significant contribution of the Campaign has been to compile and publish the data, encourage others to use it, and announce available vacancies. Our efforts have triggered UN bodies to increase their own transparency and publicity. For example, following a GQUAL presentation, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) started tracking nominations, election deadlines, and gender composition of the Treaty Bodies.

We welcome the recommendations of the Report regarding the need for transparency and data collection. Only by making the problem visible can we understand it and solve it.

What Has Changed Since 2015?

It is difficult to measure the success of a campaign in only a few years and in a context where many stakeholders have been involved in advocating and acting. Yet, some of the positive changes we have witnessed are directly tied to the activism and concerted action that GQUAL has promoted.

First, GQUAL has garnered the support of multiple State representatives. One particularly noteworthy example is that several high level authorities have endorsed the GQUAL Declaration, the foundational document of the Campaign, which compels governments to nominate and vote taking gender parity into account. These include authorities from Costa Rica, Chile, Panama, Argentina, Sweden, the United States, Liechtenstein, the European Union, and Uruguay.

Another pivotal moment for political support was the GQUAL Conference convened in The Hague in 2017, where high-level participants from the diplomatic, justice, and legal fields adopted an Action Plan to achieve gender parity in international justice.

Second, we have learned that targeted advocacy can have a positive impact on specific States, bodies, and institutions.

Our advocacy has triggered the development of national selection processes. An example of this is the advocacy conducted by GQUAL, CEJIL, and Amnesty International, which contributed to Argentina’s development of its first selection process that included participation from civil society,  as well as its first-ever nomination of a female candidate to the IACtHR for the 2021 elections.

Our advocacy has also targeted specific elections processes where women were severely underrepresented:

Our advocacy has also targeted the adoption of guidelines at the international level. For example, the advocacy GQUAL conducted before the Organization of American States resulted in a resolution promoting gender parity in the regional human rights bodies which has been adopted every year since 2016 by the organization’s General Assembly. We have also developed policy proposals to improve the selection processes of the treaty bodies and the special procedures.

Finally, as Claudia Martin will explore further in a separate post, our advocacy has also targeted the development of international legal standards to promote gender parity as a measure of equality.

These few examples show that advocacy is key to overcoming gender inequality at the international level, and that bringing together diverse stakeholders is the most effective way to effect change.

A Turning Point: The Advisory Committee Report

Back in 2018, GQUAL and the permanent mission of Mexico before the UN in Geneva began to discuss possible ways to tackle the current underrepresentation of women in UN bodies. With Mexico’s support, the HRC explicitly addressed this issue in its 2019 Resolution 47/51 on the “Elimination of discrimination against women and girls”. The Resolution was the first instance in which the HRC expressed its concern on the lack of representation of women in Treaty Bodies and Special Procedures, and thereby mandated the Advisory Committee to present a report – which was finally adopted in May 2021.

GQUAL made a written contribution to the Advisory Committee and supported the organization of two regional consultations in Latin American and Africa to feed reflections from the Global South to the discussion. We also worked closely with a pro bono team at 3 Crowns to support the work of Prof. Elizabeth Salmón, author of the Report.

Reflecting on this Report is the main subject of the symposium. On this first day, Prof. Elizabeth Salmón, member of the Advisory Committee, will discuss its methodology, main findings, and significance. Then, Judge Elizabeth Odio Benito will reflect, from her personal experience as a pioneering female judge, on the impact of having women on the bench.

On the second day, Human Rights Committee member Marcia V. J. Kran and Prof. Claudia Martin will explore the international obligations related to gender equality in international justice. Day three will include contributions by Prof. J. Jarpa Dawuni on the representation of African women, and by Diego Ruiz Gayol from Mexico, one of the delegates responsible for drafting the HRC’s Resolution that led to the Report. On day four, Angela Mudukuti, Raymundo Treves, Laura França Pereira, and Priya Pillai will examine three institutions not included in the Report where gender representation remains a challenge: the International Criminal Court, the ICJ, and the International Law Commission.

To close the symposium, Diego García Sayán, Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers, will reflect on the importance of having women in the judiciary, while Viviana Krsticevic, member of GQUAL, will note how the current moment represents an opportunity to achieve gender parity in international justice.


When GQUAL was launched, we did not envision that its objectives could not be met in an initial period of five years. Yet, women are still not participating in the decision-making processes of international justice on equal terms. We still hear arguments such as “States must not select based on gender equality, but on who is best qualified for the position”, as if there were not enough qualified women in the field of international public law. We have also been told that, “female candidates are not easy to find” or that “women are not that interested”, as if the existence of a campaign and other efforts were not enough evidence to the contrary. We have also been told that nominating a male candidate gives the State more chances of getting the person elected, as if a woman candidate created a disadvantage. These stereotypes are not easy to overcome.

GQUAL, and other initiatives, have been successful in giving visibility to the problem and positioning it at the center of the international fora. The campaign also proved that there are plenty of qualified women to fill these international positions, and that there are tangible solutions to fix the problem of inequality.

The Report sends a strong institutional message that gender inequality must be overcome and offers a clear roadmap to all stakeholders involved. The momentum it creates must not be lost. A more representative, legitimate, diverse, and impactful international justice is closer now than ever. 

All are invited to join us to #changethepicture

Here is a list of contributions, with links:

Elizabeth Salmón, Human Rights Council Advisory Committee Report on Gender Representation – A Historic Opportunity to Reverse Gender Inequality in UN Bodies,

Elizabeth Odio Benito, Gender Parity in International Courts – The Voice of an International Judge,

Marcia V.J. Kran, Women’s Representation on the UN Human Rights Treaty Bodies – Action Needed to Achieve Parity,

Claudia Martin, Article 8 of CEDAW – Significance and Role of the CEDAW Committee to Tackle Women Underrepresentation in International Bodies,

J. Jarpa Dawuni, Representation of African Women in UN Human Rights Bodies,

Diego Ruiz Gayol, Making the Case for Gender Balance at UN Human Rights Institutions,

Priya Pillai, Representation of Women at the International Law Commission,

Laura Franca Pereira & Raymundo Treves, Promoting Gender Representation at the International Court of Justice,

Angela Mudukuti, The International Criminal Court’s “Boys Club” Problem,

Diego Garcia-Sayán, Women in the Administration of Justice,

Viviana Krsticevic, Time to Double our Efforts – New Report Creates an Exceptional Opportunity to Break the Glass Ceiling for Women in International Justice.

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