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Global issue 20

Global Insight Women Painting the town orange 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 Molly Ravenscroft 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 ‘I refuse to stop fighting’ Bangladesh is a male-dominated society that still believes a woman’s place is in the home. Despite archaic attitudes and numerous assassination attempts, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina explains why she continues to strive for gender equality Lack of education and conservative societal attitudes are the key factors preventing women from achieving full equality in Bangladesh. We live in a male-dominated society in which the majority of opportunities still belong to men. Unfortunately, the prevailing attitude amongst many men is that the woman’s role is to marry, rear children and cook. Girls are traditionally seen to be financial burdens to families – why would a family spend money educating a girl when she will eventually go to another family through marriage? But attitudes across society are now changing: families are now realising that girls being educated and earning money benefits the whole family. I have worked hard to tackle these attitudes and give girls access to education. Our government has taken measures to curb child marriage by implementing new women’s development policies. Similarly, girls are given government stipends to allow them to continue education up to undergraduate level, and we provide them with millions of free books every year. There are also small-scale changes that we have undertaken, such as ensuring rural co-ed schools have girls’ toilet facilities so female students don’t feel embarrassed; we are removing the excuses and factors preventing girls from gaining an education and, in turn, equality. Husbands and parents are realising that girls are not burdens, but rather can be the drivers for development and change through education, and this is hugely important. Attitudes towards women working are also changing. For middle-class families, a girl working would be thought to bring shame upon a family. We are striving to make women visible in all major professions and give our female workforce the confidence to make its mark. We must give women financial freedom and economic empowerment. If a woman can earn money, she automatically has a voice in the family and a stake in society. This is something in which my father, Bangabondhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, believed, and I continue to hold this belief. After the Liberation War in 1971, my father made education for women free up to high-school level. This was the first of many steps taken by the Awami League government over the years to ensure women’s equality. We now have a ten per cent quota for women in government jobs and reserved seats for women in parliament. This is something which my father actually implemented in our first constitution in 1972. I have worked to grow female leadership in politics from a grass-roots level, keeping 30 per cent of seats at local government elections reserved for women. I faced a lot of opposition when first implementing this, but I believe that by removing the initial barriers into politics, women will be encouraged to move up through the ranks. From the higher courts to administrative roles in the 14 l www.global -br ief ing.org f i rst quar ter 2015 global


Global issue 20
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