In celebration of Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day, we sat down with Under-Secretary-General of the UN and Executive Director of UN Women Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka to discuss the work of UN Women, her career in South Africa, and the #MeToo Movement.
Executive Director Mlambo-Ngcuka is a member of IWF South Africa and was inducted to the IWF and Leadership Foundation Hall of Fame in 2016.
Read our conversation below.
Your life has followed an impressive trajectory – you’ve gone from a school teacher to the highest-ranking woman in the South African government to an Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations. In your 2016 Hall of Fame speech, you spoke about the significance of having women at the top. You specifically mentioned the UN and the US Presidential Elections – both of those elections have come to a conclusion and women have again been passed by. What sort of message does this send?
Having women at the top is essential for many reasons. These include getting an inclusive balance of viewpoints and experience; role modelling for future generations; and bringing new creativity, sustainability and problem-solving skills to global problems.
With increased representation and voice, women politicians can raise the profile of key issues including reproductive rights, equal pay and parental leave, and the alleviation of poverty. But globally in 2017, women comprised just 23 per cent of national parliamentarians, 8 per cent of heads of state and 5 per cent of heads of government. That tells us both that there aren’t enough women running for office, and that voters are insufficiently supporting women candidates. Violence against women, including during elections, has a lot to answer for in this regard. We know that it is a specific reason for women not to run for public office in some countries, and for democratic processes to be affected. Once more women are in leadership, they will accelerate policies and culture changes that will help bring down levels of violence in a positive cycle.
Along with more women in leadership, we also need to work together with male allies to advance policies that guarantee gender parity and bring about these positive changes. We didn’t get a female Secretary-General at the United Nations, but we did get a man who is proud to call himself a feminist, who is committed to gender parity and who understands how important it is to bring greater balance into the UN. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has led by example and changed the uneven numbers at the top. According to UN Women’s latest system-wide statistics, women comprised 42.8 per cent of the professional levels and higher in the UN system, and a mere 26.8 per cent of its highest levels. UN Women fully supports the Secretary General’s System-wide Strategy on Gender Parity, which is already helping to address these imbalances. Through the Secretary-General’s appointments, the composition of the Senior Management Group is gender balanced for the first time in the UN history. This is an important message to send to organizations around the world that, with political will followed up by decisive action, parity is possible.
The #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have brought gender-based violence, assault, and harassment to the headlines. Do you think these movements will create a lasting change or real improvements for women and girls around the world?
Right now, movements such as “#MeToo and #TimesUp are creating an unstoppable force of women mobilizing across a range of human rights issues and countries – from Israel to Iran to Turkey, from ending violence against women, femicide and sexual harassment, to LGBT rights, political rights, to demonstrating against dress codes. Women from all walks of life are becoming visible as never before, standing up and calling out gender inequality and abuse, standing together in solidarity and partnership as activists and women who have otherwise been made invisible. Together they amplify a message of solidarity and strength for all women and girls.
#Me too is about the courage of women and girls to speak out, and for the sisterhood to come out and stand with them in solidarity, making it easier to overcome the wide-ranging effects of sexual harassment and assault. These movements are calling for appropriate and sustained responses to impunity so that powerful men are held to account and no one is above the law. They are about ending the normalization of sexual harassment so that it is no longer quietly tolerated by the mainstream.
With all of this we are starting to see signs of social awareness and culture change. In 2017, Time Magazine named “the silence-breakers”, those women who came forward with their stories of abuse and harassment that fueled the #MeToo movement, as its person of the year. Merriam Webster Dictionary declared “feminism” its 2017 word of the year. Movements like ‘Balance ton porc’ and ‘Ni una menos’ have amplified the global momentum for change, and we are seeing the rise of strong youth movements, like ‘March for our lives’, where young people are no longer accepting ‘business as usual.’
This must be a tipping point. My expectation and hope is that in different parts of the world, through the power of civil society mobilization, strong solidarity building, our various campaigns, and in partnership with the media, we can sustain this momentum. We must all continue to talk about these issues wherever we go, until gender quality is a reality for every woman and girl, and the voices of our young people are being heard in corridors of power.
For long term impact, actions aimed at ending impunity must be institutionalized and made part of the mainstream. This means reviewing existing anti-harassment mechanisms and addressing the norms that sanction sexual harassment and assault and that inhibit reporting, leaving only about 10% of women who report violence willing to go to the police while the rest suffer in silence. These are gaps in the existing mechanisms that need to be closed.
As this is a workplace hazard, where those in authority are able to use their power to harm those with less or no power, it will need those who make workplace rules on conditions of service to revisit the current operating rules. It will also need action to be taken by trade unions and professional bodies on steps to address the gaps that lead to violation of the rights of their employees and members.
Authorities and those in leadership in all sectors must show zero tolerance for abuse. They must lead by example to ensure the rules are improved and upheld, and to see that business practice and culture is transformed for everybody. #Me too cannot be about what women fight for alone, it must also be what society does, so that there are no more bystanders and silent accomplices to gender-based violence. The rules must enable a culture of: See Something, Hear Something, Say Something, Do Something.
You were a Deputy Minister under President Nelson Mandela. You’ve referred to him as a personal father-figure. What was the greatest lesson learned from him?
My country, South Africa, has seen radical changes that have ultimately affected the expectations of millions of people around the world. I was lucky enough to hear President Nelson Mandela’s first State of the Nation address, when he outlined the mammoth tasks ahead of us – nothing less than to dismantle apartheid and expand the frontiers of human fulfilment and human freedom. He had an unshakeable, absolute commitment to freedom and dignity for every human being.
The greatest lesson I learnt from being part of President Mandela’s team was the importance of working with everybody to solve major problems in society. He reached out to people across the divide to end Apartheid in South Africa, stressing that everyone – those who agree with you and those who are opposed to you, or who are part of the problem – must become part of the solution.
In the fight for gender equality, in which women are key and civil society is our close ally, this collaboration with different constituencies is just as important – from men and boys, to youth, religious leaders and the private sector. Mandela did not personalize differences in policy matters. Mandela’s humility made him an approachable leader who could relate to people from all walks of life, and his humour – even about himself – turned him into the icon of whatever company he was with. These remain important lessons about leadership.
As Minister of Minerals and Energy, you were instrumental in the ending the conflict diamond trade in South Africa. Can you speak a bit about why this work is important and how you went about enacting change?
Having served as South Africa’s Minister of Minerals and Energy for six years, I saw the importance of introducing gender equality in the extractive industries; how transforming women’s role in the mining industry can have ripple effects on women’s lives in other areas; and how good policies in the mining industry can also set the tone for the rest of the economy.
With regard to conflict diamonds, it was important to work with all stakeholders in the industry to stop the killing and destruction of lives. We convened governments, producers and processors of diamonds, distributors and major retailers together to agree on a process that could trace the path of a diamond from soil to finger as a security measure to isolate tainted diamonds, impound them and track their source. The collaboration helped producer countries where the conflicts were raging to improve controls and make it difficult for the illegal trade to thrive without detection. In addition to saving lives, it helped the governments collect the much needed revenue for reinvestment in public services, which was otherwise lost in the illegal and deadly unchecked diamond trade.
In your current role as the Executive Director of UN Women, you are charged with leading the UN’s Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women. This includes the UN’s work of Sustainable Development Goal 5 pertaining to gender equality. Are you optimistic about the progress made thus far toward this goal and do you think it will be met by 2030?
The goals will not be met if we do not accelerate and scale up implementation. When we are too slow and our interventions too limited, we are not keeping up with the urgent need and demand for change.
Our global monitoring report Turning Promises into Action provides a reality check and a road map for moving from rhetoric to sustainable change. For example, it tells us that across regions women aged 25-34 are 22 per cent more likely than men to be living on less than $1.90 a day, and how even in the same country women are often living very different lives. A girl who is born into a poor household and forced into early marriage, for example, is more likely to drop out of school, give birth at an early age, suffer complications during childbirth and experience violence – all of which are also SDG targets – than a girl from a higher-income household who marries at a later age.
To address these disparities, the report tells us that we need action on four critical fronts: finding integrated approaches that put gender equality at the centre of SDG implementation; closing the financing gap; strengthening gender statistics; and holding those in power accountable for their gender equality commitments. I am optimistic that with political will and the use of all available policy tools, we can meet our SDG targets by 2030. But we need to move now. The cost of inaction is simply too high.
There are important interventions that we can learn from, accelerate and scale up so that we ensure we deliver on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. For instance, we have an important new opportunity to scale up the fight to end violence against women through the EU-UN Spotlight Initiative, a €500 million multilateral collaborative initiative that is supported by the EU, coordinated with the UN, and which also involves civil society and governments for a comprehensive response to gender-based violence. A coordinated effort to ending child marriage is showing a decline in this practice in Asia; intensifying the interventions gives us the possibility to impact the lives of millions of girls who are at risk of being married too young.
These are some of the significant positive responses which must be kept up to achieve our targets, including the campaigns for equal pay for work of equal value, empowering more women to join the digital industries, and UN Women’s drive to eliminate all discriminatory laws. All of these require action to take them to greater scale, with stronger and more focused leadership at all levels for enhanced implementation. Citizens have a duty in this to keep their leaders accountable.