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Fighting For Women’s Equality

Former South African deputy president Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka ends her eight-year term as United Nations under-secretary-general and executive director of UN Women this month (August). By Ryland Fisher.

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka can’t wait to return to South Africa to contribute to the struggle against gender inequality and gender-based violence. By Ryland Fisher.

Speaking from her UN office in New York, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka said she was leaving UN Women in a much stronger state than when she started.

“We were a $350-million organisation when I joined. Right now, the organisation has raised $40-billion.”

The money will go to member states, civil society and the youth, and will be prioritised for campaigns that address areas fundamental to women’s equality.

The $40-billion – made up of donations from member states, corporates and civil society – was announced at the recent Generation Equality Forum in Paris.

Mlambo-Ngcuka said she was “hopeful” about the efforts South Africa was putting into the struggle to promote women’s rights.

“At the recent conference in Paris – 25 years after the historic Beijing Declaration – South Africa focused on economic justice, financial inclusion and increasing procurement for women and was mobilising and lobbying countries all over Africa.

“South Africa focused on young people, making sure they can access economic activities, and on ending gender-based violence.

“The country was very strong on innovation and technology and the need to propel women to be much better represented and active in innovation and technology.

“We all have to make sure that we support South Africa’s efforts. I can’t wait to come back so that we live up to the expectations.”

Hard-knock life for women and the youth

Mlambo-Ngcuka said that women throughout the world were the worst affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

“Two-thirds of the jobs lost during the pandemic were lost by women. Many of these women had an informal employer or were informal employers themselves. We have also seen the impact on women who are in sectors such as tourism, which has been hit the hardest by the pandemic.

“Many of the women do not have contracts, so they do not have rights in those jobs. They are the first to go when there is a crisis. Women will take the longest time to recover unless we intervene more aggressively and address the situation.”

Violence against women also increased significantly from the start of the pandemic. “Within a week of the pandemic starting, we were hearing from our colleagues internationally who were getting messages from the police stations about the increase in case reports involving violence against women. The increase was as high as 30 to 50 per cent in some countries.”

Women were also affected by an increased burden of care, said Mlambo-Ngcuka. “Many people could not go to hospital. In most countries, those patients stayed at home and needed someone to look after them. It is the women and girls who did this job. The burden of care increased significantly.”

The role of young people in a country such as South Africa was crucial, she said.

“We have to allow them to be as angry as they need because radical impatience among young people can encourage change and policies. We should encourage them because they don’t make demands without putting in the work that is needed.

“It is about working collaboratively and their advocacy is important for us to move forward. Their engagement and participation are always going to be critical.”

Mlambo-Ngcuka said that there is gender-based violence all over the world, but in South Africa it was particularly serious.

South Africa’s colonial past saw violence being used as a tool of power and governance to repress and control black people, and the apartheid government used violence to gain and maintain social, economic and political control. With this legitimised and institutionalised form of social, economic and political control, “our country has found it difficult to overcome its violent history”.

“We have to ensure that we have a stronger way of dealing with violence against women. We should not allow men to get away with gender-based violence. We need to instil the right values among men.”

In 2015, Mlambo-Ngcuka chaired a UN Women event where she outlined why including men in the conversation around ending gender-based violence was critical: “Given their currently enhanced status in societies around the world, men are often ‘pen holders’, holding the majority of positions as heads of state, CEOs, religious leaders and other prominent positions. A man must say, ‘I will not marry a child. I will not beat up a woman, I will not accept a paycheque higher than my female counterpart.’ Then we’re talking. That’s what we’re calling for.” Mlambo-Ngcuka’s sentiments have not changed since then, adding now that we need to engage boys in this gender conversation.

“We need men to be engaged, and we have to start early. We are now pushing the engagement of men and boys in the struggle for gender equality.

“The future is going to require men and women to work together.”

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka

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