“Electing women and putting them in office is not a trivial thing; it is destiny-changing”: Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka

Date: Thursday, November 14, 2013

Ladies and Gentlemen,

My distinguished and inspiring sisters who have just spoken – thank you so much for everything you have said this morning. How I wish the whole world was listening. How I wish those men negotiating in New York today were here to listen to what you have just said to us. Thank you so much. 

I am pleased to join you here today and to celebrate with you the closing of the ‘Centenary of Women’s Right to vote in Norway’.

I am particularly pleased to be in a country that has long been a leader for equality and global solidarity.

Not just because of what you have done in Norway, but because of what you’ve done for the world.

In my country, you played a pivotal role in the struggle against apartheid. And that, we will never forget.  

You continue to be a key player in international development and North-South cooperation as well as to champion the struggle for women’s emancipation.

A century ago you already recognized that a true democracy needed to include all citizens.

We salute and congratulate you. I also salute and thank you for being one of the top supporters to UN Women.

And just a week into my new position as Executive Director of UN Women, I had the pleasure of meeting all the Ambassadors from the Nordic Countries, where I was reassured of the good relationship that exists between UN Women and all the Nordic countries. And I’m feeling it now.

On top of that I was also reminded of the musical talent of a solidarity group of young Norwegians that used to sing South African Struggle songs, which was called ‘Ten Sing’. I don’t know if maybe there are some of the singers in this room today, from that era? They sang a nice rendition of ’Thula mama’ which means ‘hush mama’ – a song consoling a grieving mother of a fallen freedom fighter.

We shared the memory with a young Norwegian diplomat who was part of the meeting who had some association with Tensing.

We continue to salute those mothers, sisters, partners of the many freedom fighters.

My earlier association with the women and the people of this country was also inspired by a women’s movement, the YWCA, which I worked for when I first visited Norway. I am eternally grateful therefore, for this bond and association that I have enjoyed.

It is also important to recognize and celebrate the fact that you have had two women prime ministers. And we’ve just listened to Madam Brundtland, and learned of the steps taken, of the planning and the strength of the vision. I have also learned that every political party in Norway has had a female leader.

And the Nordic countries have the highest percentage of women in parliament and government in the world. And this we can see has led to great progress in closing the gender gap in the region, and is due in no small part to the hard work of many of you who are sitting here.

And I urge you to continue to be torch bearers and champions for democracy and gender equality, because this is your contribution to humanity and this is your place in history. 

I am also aware that you attribute the success of your economy and social well-being to the inclusion of women early in your democracy.

So we are here today in this room representing our organizations and countries, from different parts of the world.

Yet we are also here with one vision of a better and brighter future for women, no matter where we come from. 

We are united by a common desire for a better world free of hunger, violence against women, burden of disease and many other ills that still trouble us. That is why we are part of one global movement and that is why we believe in the multilateral system.

In the past 30 years, almost every country in the world has ratified the international women’s treaty, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

We have the Beijing platform of action and the Millennium Development Goals; these global   instruments have been at our disposal, meant to enable us to work for common goals and a shared future.

Some progress has been made that we must celebrate, but so much more still has to be done. In the remaining time ahead of the cut-off point for MGDs we are calling for the acceleration in improved maternal health, access to decent sanitation and clean water, and universal access to education for girls and boys.  

There are countries that can still make a difference, even within the limited time that is remaining. On the positive side, we have seen countries such as Bangladesh cutting down extreme poverty in large part because of education of women and girls and basic economic empowerment of women.

So in one way we have heard about how Norway has taken its path. We’ve then seen another, very poor country taking its own. Common in these journeys is the empowerment and investment in women, leading to a better place for society.

When the Beijing Conference took place in 1995, women constituted 1 in 10 parliamentarians worldwide. Today that figure is 1 in 5.

In 2000, the number of girls in primary schools was much lower than that of boys.

Today we have gender parity in enrolment at primary school level with girls even outperforming boys. Even though the number of girls and boys who are out of school is still high and the quality of education for most of our schools still needs to improve significantly. 

We can however say that globally agreed goals can make a difference, and governments and civil society can work together for a better world, when we identify these interventions that lift us all.

Again in 2012 women of the world from diverse backgrounds fought and won at the 57th Commission on the Status of Women to ensure an outcome which included commitment to end gender-based violence.

Together, we need to take action to implement this decision, as gender-based violence has reached unprecedented levels with one in three women expected to experience sexual or physical violence in their lifetime, and the number of victims of gender-based violence is worse during conflict or times of emergencies such as natural disasters.

We are concerned for instance in the Philippines about the protection of women. To ensure that the victims of the disaster don’t end up in a camp to be raped in addition to the stress and the pressures they will be facing.

We regard women in times of emergency as the first relief workers. Because it’s going to be the mother who lifts up the baby and run, irrespective of what will happen to her. It is going to be the women who will give whatever they have, and be hungry themselves, in order to make sure that the old people, the sick people, and anyone who is vulnerable in the family is taken care of. We have argued that when we plan relief work, our planning, in a gender-sensitive way, must consider women as part of our personnel. Because that is what they do. And they will do it until the crisis is over.

The number of women who have been violated, and some further shunned by families and society; the number of children of rape means that, in the world, we have created a subculture of women and girls, as well as boys and men who are in pain and trauma for all their lives because of what they have experienced. If we consider the numbers, this is a significant number of people in our societies that are walking wounded. And this must concern us as a society – how are we going to protect and heal and prevent that in the future this does not grow.

Yesterday, 13 November, I was in London in a meeting convened by the UK Government and Sweden, for a ‘call to action’ to end violence against women and girls in emergencies. 

One of the things we addressed there was the importance of finding a way in which we deliver infrastructure when there has been an emergency in a manner that will ensure that we institute the beginning of sustainable healing of the victims of such disasters. And this also speaks very well to what we say in relation to women in areas of violent conflict.

The prevalence of gender-based violence is a universal challenge. It occurs in all societies and requires renewed joint efforts. Gender-based violence is increasing in a context where the violation of women’s rights – especially sexual and reproductive rights – and homophobia persist.

UN Women is calling for renewed vigilance in the fight against gender-based injustices. The voices of women in these injustices must be being raised. And I want to repeat, and I could not agree more with the former Prime Minister: Women must not sit at the end of the table, quietly. Our voices have got to be heard; we have got to stand for the things that we believe in.

In the work that we do at UN Women, we are currently supporting women in 85 countries who are fighting gender-based violence and other human rights violations against women. These women walk an extra mile, to challenge the violations in their countries. And many times, at danger to themselves.

Together with UNDP, UN Women also is working to support the provision of something as simple as ID cards to women, for example to 2 million marginalized women in Egypt. To enable more women to participate in, and influence the outcomes of elections, so that women and women’s concerns can be better represented.

In Pakistan, we have supported a targeted voter education campaign that reached over 26 million women.  

In Cameroon, we also supported and trained women candidates and helped to increase the number of women who got elected in the last election.

Last week, I was in the Sahel region in western Africa with the UN Secretary-General, the President of the World Bank and other leaders. When we visited Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso and Chad, I saw first-hand there the women’s hunger for peace and security and the importance of ensuring that the resolutions that we have passed on peace and security are implemented, and translated into real change in the lives of women.

Women are ready and able – and willing – to take their place at the peace tables as leaders, as peacemakers, as workers, as healers of their communities.

As our latest resolution 2122 on women peace and security says: Women must be part of peace negotiations, their specific conditions which include the rights of widows, specific reparations, rights to land and conditions of orphaned children, restoration of economic well-being - all must be given attention.

It is our observation that where women participate in the peace process, the participation of women in the political process and leadership of women in the country in general is enhanced and increases in numbers;  quotas are secured and women work hard together to put together a program once they are in those positions of authority.

We are currently working with Syrian women to ensure they are not pushed aside in the peace process – something that we fear a lot. They must be sitting at the main table during the upcoming Geneva II Peace talks. They are ready; they are organized; they are united across the spectrum of the divide in Syria. They are standing together.  

I also want to thank Norway for the positive role you are playing to support women’s participation in the Syrian peace process.  

My experience in an elected position as a woman is that when women are in office it is important to exercise power, to have definite goals and a clear agenda and to be firm and fair. And to liberate men in the process of empowering women. To keep the eyes on the ball and avoid to sweat the small stuff. To command respect and to lead by example. All of which we have had on the stage today.

It is important to maintain a dynamic link with women on the ground, and civil society especially, and to have clear targets of what needs to be done to improve the conditions of women and expect and insist that both men and women take up the work that supports women.

Younger women and women who are new in the political arena need the veterans to support and mentor them, and the women in leadership positions need the support of other women, because it can be a very lonely place if you don’t have your sisters with you. And brothers.  

Women in political office also need to be high performers and deliver on the electoral promises. That too, is true of men. But because we are still fighting for our place, the pressure upon us as women tends to be extraordinary. I never know whether to defy that, or to just do the job.

We have to keep up the pressure to increase the numbers of women in political office. We have seen the benefits of increased number of women heads of State, of ministers in many countries; we have seen it here in Norway.

In the UK, at the conference, I could not help notice that the drivers of that process, with an amazing attention to detail, were women ministers. I don’t know if this agenda would have been raised to the level it has been raised if we did not have strong women in office.

I have seen women leaders in Mali, in Senegal, in Brazil, in Chile. It does make a difference. So electing women and putting them in office is not a trivial thing. It is destiny-changing.

And I urge you to be in solidarity with women around the world, where the leadership of women is not a given. Because the joint project we all have of changing the world and making a better place, hinges in part on supporting these women to get into office and to do a good job.

Today 37 countries have reached the 30 per cent target for women’s representation set by the UN 30 years ago.

And of these, 30 countries have adopted special temporary measures: legislated candidate quotas, reserved seats for women, or quotas adopted by political parties.

I was in Namibia a few weeks ago and I learned that SWAPO has also adopted a 50/50 measure. And they are taking that into government. I participated there in a training programme for women in private sector who are training to be on boards. They expect resistance from the private sector, so maybe you can share some tips from Norway?

The results that have been achieved where special measures have been taken are impressive. In places as diverse as Rwanda, Sweden, Senegal, Nicaragua, Timor-Leste, Algeria and my home country, South Africa.

But of course, not without opposition. And not without difficulty.

So part of the journey is also learning how to deal with the opposition to the empowerment of women, sometimes within our own progressive party.

In 2014, the 58th CSW will focus on the evaluation of the MDGs and acceleration of the underperforming MDGs. We will also kick-start a two-pronged process of what we want post-2015 and what we have achieved 20 years after Beijing.

The process will need to tell us what victories have been achieved in the 20 years, identify the gaps and draw lessons. That process will also help to inform the post-2015 agenda, in seeking the one goal for women that we want to see.

We need to pay attention to detail. We now have experience from the MDGs, and we know that what we put in the goal determines what we will get. We also know that there is backlash, so how we operate, who we lobby, are details that will determine how this will impact the women on the ground.  The goal must be a game-changer.

In the 21st century, if we do not emerge with an intervention that lifts the majority of women out of the burden that they carry in different parts of the world, I think we definitely would have failed women. I don’t claim to know all the answers, the details of that goal, and I am appealing to you here, for us to pay attention to the context of that goal as well as to the mainstreaming of women’s issues in all the other goals.

I have also decided to make women’s economic empowerment as one of our flagships in UN Women, to fight poverty, and to enable women to gain the possibility to stand on their two feet, regain their dignity and be in a position to make their choices.

I am also aware that it is important and critical that women and girls have access to education. Because education is the closest thing to a silver bullet to the challenges we face for women and girls.

While education is not a mandate of UN Women, it is something we are passionate about, it is something for which we want to make a positive contribution in collaboration with our leading sister agency UNESCO. And of course, we are also very much aware and very much committed to ensure that reproductive rights and reproductive services are addressed intensely going forward in order to ensure that women have got a starting chance.

The many young women whose lives are cut short because of early marriages and having children early, contribute enormously to the complexity of the sustainable agenda and deprive women of reaching their full potential and become the citizens standing tall that we want them to be.

And again, even if the agenda of reproductive health and its expertise do not reside within UN Women, we have a very tight and collaborative relationship with UNFPA, who is leading on this matter.

Yes, we have made a lot of progress in the past century. Now we have to make the 21st century truly a century for women. A century in which women participate fully.

This requires collective effort in partnership with governments, with civil society, and with the international community. And I would like to expand our work to include men and boys and the private sector, in order for us to make sure that this burden that we have is shared and that this transformation that we are talking about is not just about women being transformed, but it is about society and it is about men being transformed.

We must call for increased investment in women and gender equality and in UN Women as we still face considerable resource constraints – just like the women’s organizations we are supporting. I am very grateful for the continued support we receive from Norway.

As we are approaching the 20th anniversary of the Beijing Women’s Conference, and a global agreement on the post-2015 development goals, we will need to work together.

This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity, where there is this nexus of all these critical and iconic events in the calendar of women. It is an opportunity for us to take forward gender equality and women’s empowerment at the forefront of the global agenda

Today I ask you to support UN Women, to collaborate with us, to stand together with us in order to make sure that what we bring forward for post-2015 is truly a GAME-CHANGER for women and girls.

I thank you.

To watch an archived Livestream of the conference: