Painting the town orange

Molly Ravenscroft

Global Insight Women

From founding the Natal Organization of Women at the start of her career to becoming South Africa’s most senior female politician, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka has become a role model for women everywhere. Now, as executive director of UN Women, she’s more committed than ever to endorsing gender equality

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka

When she emerged onto the political scene in 1983 few could have predicted that she would rise to be the most senior female politician in South African history.

Now, more than 30 years on, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka stands at the forefront of the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women. A South African national, Mlambo-Ngcuka serves as an inspiration to women the world over. She began her career as founding president of the Natal Organization of Women, a branch of the South African United Democratic Front (UDF) advocating the rights of women. Later on, she became the first female to serve as Deputy President of South Africa before establishing the Ulambo Foundation to improve education in the impoverished areas of the country. In July 2013 United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced that Mlambo-Ngcuka would be taking the place of Michelle Bachelet as executive director of UN Women, saying that she would bring “a wealth of experience in advocating for women’s issues with a combination of strategic leadership, consensus building and hands-on management experience”.

Now, just over a year since her inauguration, 59-year-old Mlambo-Ngcuka wants to shout about global advances in gender equality and the commitments of UN Women. But, she says, we should never forget the contribution of the trailblazers who went before us. “It was women in the labour movement in the 1900s that gave us this day. They were calling for bread; they were calling for better working conditions and they were calling for peace. We are calling for the same things today, in different ways. We are rededicating ourselves to the struggles of today. Today, for instance, we are calling for decent work because women continue to be at the bottom of the pyramid of economic activity, and the work and the jobs that they do continue to be informal and to be low paid. We’ve made progress, but it is very uneven,” she says, when asked about the current state of progress towards women’s equality.

“For instance, today we have got more female representation in parliaments. We’ve moved in less than ten years from one out of ten parliamentarians being a woman to one out of five. That still is less than what it should be, but it is progress nevertheless. At the same time, we have exceptional progress in countries like Rwanda, where more than 50 per cent of parliamentarians are women. Obviously that is a unique case. You also have got more girl children in school, but the number of both boys and girls that are still out of school is, at the same time, exceptionally high. In workplaces you’ve got more women in senior positions, but again, the numbers are not where they should be. So it’s a mixed record.”

In October 2014 at the 69th General Assembly of the United Nations, Mlambo-Ngcuka came forward to say that while progress has been made since the adoption of the Millennium Development Goals in 2000, much still needs to be done, as during this time “no single country achieved the goal of women’s empowerment” and gender parity has yet to be achieved – even within the UN. With the post-2015 agenda, Mlambo-Ngcuka says, it is important to strengthen goals with regard to women’s rights and gender inequalities. “Underlying structures continue to cause gender inequalities to recur, notwithstanding how much work we do. We have not dedicated energy and policies to patriarchy, for example. It is not easy because it is about winning hearts and minds; it is about a value system. But we need to talk about these things and be much more intentional in challenging them, so that we do not have this recurrence. We also need to address the implementation of the legislation that affects the access to opportunities that qualitatively change the lives of women,” she says.

So what is UN Women doing to drive change and address the current obstacles to gender equality?

“Some are being addressed through our normative work,” she says. “Gender-responsive budgeting is something that we actively support governments to do. We send experts to work in the relevant ministries in order to assist. We’re also a part of advocacy. In different countries where there is, for instance, high violence against women, we campaign in different ways that are consistent with what is possible to do in those countries.”

In a speech on 25 November 2014, a day marked as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, Mlambo-Ngcuka called for citizens the world over to work together to end female violence: “When globally one in three women experience physical or sexual violence at some point in their lives, you can be sure that you know someone who is affected,” she said.

The 16 days that follow have been marked as the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence by the UN Secretary-General’s UNiTE to End Violence Against Women campaign. Citizens were encouraged to turn their neighbourhoods orange – the colour designated by the UNiTE campaign to symbolise a brighter future without violence – by campaigning and raising awareness of gender violence. During this time Mlambo-Ngcuka flew to Mexico, on her first visit as the head of UN Women, to meet with government officials, female indigenous leaders, feminist organisations and Mexican businesswomen. “I am looking forward to making Mexico City Orange!” she tweeted excitedly before the trip.

While in Mexico, the executive director took the time to promote UN Women’s HeforShe campaign, which aims to involve men and boys as key agents for promoting gender equality. Ending gender violence and striving for the empowerment of women should not be considered a task for just women. “The change that is required is not just the responsibility of women alone,” she says. “We need to mobilise and to involve men. In the same way that you say women are more than half of the world population, men are the other half. We cannot leave that other half out.

“It is not about men joining women’s organisations suddenly, it is about men leading men’s organisations and making sure that they engage each other on their own attitudes. It is also about making sure that the men who believe in the equality of men and women are heard, that their voices are much louder than those who do not believe. We believe that the majority of men would prefer a better world, but some do not appreciate that progress for women is progress for all. So it is also about changing the narrative so that we constantly demonstrate that this is a struggle where everybody wins.”

To round off, Mlambo-Ngcuka offers a small piece of advice for all those women who are just reaching adulthood: “It is important that women grab the opportunities that are there,” she says. “They must be assertive and not be afraid to talk and to engage, because this world belongs to them just as much as it belongs to men.”


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