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Women in diplomacy: Italy’s Zappia among pioneers who broke the “glass ceiling” at the UN

NEW YORK, MARCH 8 – In 1958, Swedish diplomat Agda Rössel became the world’s first female Permanent Representative to the United Nations. As the first woman in a world of men, she paved the way for many who would follow. Rössel, who became a diplomat after working for Save the Children, was one of 60 ambassadors to the United Nations. She used her mandate to work on issues that are still relevant, including the global moratorium on the death penalty and female genital mutilation. After leaving New York, she served her country until 1964 as ambassador to Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and Greece. She died at age 90 in 2001.


Seven years ago, in 2014, the Security Council recorded a record-breaking presence of women ambassadors, out of a total of 15, joined the UN’s highest political governing body. The only woman ambassador among the five permanent members of the Security Council was that year the American Samantha Power, followed by Karen Pierce from the UK, now serving as Ambassador in Washington. Alongside, the other female ambassadors in the Council were the Permanent Representatives of Jordan, Luxembourg, Lithuania, Nigeria and Argentina.

In 2018 for the first time an Italian woman, Mariangela Zappia, was appointed  Permanent Representative at the UN Headquarters in New York. It was the second “glass ceiling” that Zappia, a diplomat since 1983, broke during her career, having previously the first woman Ambassador to Nato, a position she left in 2016 to take the place of Armando Varricchio (currently Ambassador to Washington), as diplomatic advisor to Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, and subsequently Paolo Gentiloni.

In Italy, women were allowed to enter the Foreign Service only in 1960. That year, a ruling of the Constitutional Court established the illegitimacy of their exclusion, but it was only in 1967 that Italian women actually made their debut in diplomacy. According to Laurence Badel -professor of Contemporary History at the University Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne and author of Diplomaties européennes, XIXe-XXIe siècles (published by Presses de Science Po)- the main obstacle in many countries has been a “marriage barrier”: “The ‘barrière du mariage’ long prevented women from practicing as ambassadors if and when they married. In the United States this veto remained in force until 1972, in Ireland until the following year, when Dublin joined the European Community.”

According to the 2020 Statistical Yearbook of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Italy’ has 4 female ambassadors of rank, 22 Plenipotentiary Ministers, 52 Embassy Counsellors, 40 Legation Counsellors, and 114 Legation Secretaries, for a total of 232 women out of the 1,018 overall diplomats.

The theme of women and diplomacy was discussed on March 8th in live streaming from Palazzo Farnese, in Rome, in the first meeting of the “Dialogues from Farnese 2021”, organized by the French Embassy in Italy and the Institut français, in collaboration with the École Française. “The role of women in international diplomacy: building lasting peace” is also the theme of the meeting to be held on Thursday, March 11th at 5:00 p.m, in webinar mode as organized by the “Federation of Women for World Peace” (WFWP-Italy), in collaboration with the European Parliament Office in Italy and EcodaiPalazzi.it.

With this initiative, the WFWP aims to celebrate the “International Women’s Day” promoted by the United Nations since 1975. The meeting aims to highlight the valuable contribution made by women in international diplomacy, and the contribution they can offer in the future for the realization of a peaceful world. Particular attention will be devoted to highlighting good practices and proper standards of behavior of diplomacy for peace building. (@OnuItalia)






Il giornale Italiano delle Nazioni Unite. Ha due redazioni, una a New York, l’altra a Roma.

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