Why we need new allies for gender equality

By: UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka

Date: Monday, January 26, 2015

One of the key defining challenges for us in 2015 is going to be to secure and leverage game-changing partnerships. The United Nations traditionally and by its very nature emphasizes the reach of governments. As UN Women, we also have a strong relationship with civil society. To make the radical changes we want to see in the empowerment of women and gender equality, we need to mobilize not just parliaments but populations, not only civil society but all society.

We will need friends in great places, in small places, and most importantly of all, those who are not friends, and with whom we urgently need to connect and start the hard conversations. This is networking at an extreme stretch. Strategic partnerships are the smart way to tap into the networks in which we need a voice, and through which we can exert pressure for action.

Gender inequality: a global problem

We know that despite the logic and good business sense of empowering women, some of the most pernicious gaps are in women’s economic and political participation and opportunity.

These two identified areas also present us with key levers to make the greatest changes. This is a global issue – and is going to take the leadership of employers and legislators, right across the spectrum of size and political persuasion. CEOs of both small and multinational businesses, aware of the dividends of increased female employment, are already signing up to commit to programmes of enablement, and committing personally and corporately to join the reframing of approaches to equality.

Given the paucity of women currently in positions of political leadership (just 22 per cent of the world’s parliamentarians are women), it is hardly surprising that obstacles – practical and psychological – remain to more women joining them. We know that in too many cases still, girls are leaving school without competitive qualifications, and that even when girls do make it to tertiary education, gender-based violence and intimidation on campus is a daunting prospect.

Yet these young people are the change agents of our future, and this recognition is reflected in initiatives springing up globally, large and small.

Male allies

UN Women’s HeForShe is one such initiative, challenging men and boys to take responsibility for gender equality and to confront discriminatory social norms and gender stereotypes in order to create positive norms of gender equality, non-violence and respect. In its “10x10x10” campaign, HeForShe is directly mobilizing leadership in three crucial spheres of influence where there is huge need, vast potential but too little present action.

The campaign targets an initial set of 10 private sector leaders, 10 heads of State, and 10 student bodies to spearhead mobilization and change programmes that can be widely replicated. These are prime areas for some of the “difficult conversations” to take place, to air and deal with long-standing assumptions of entitlement, and establish new platforms for enabling increased participation by women and protection from gender-based violence.

We are still struggling to change the structural foundations of inequality and until those are removed, and new foundations laid, we will not be able to count on gains being irreversible. Each partnership can cascade into others – and reach constituencies that may not otherwise hear our voice. When Emma Watson spoke at the United Nations as Goodwill Ambassador, she was heard by an initial audience of a few thousand that almost immediately grew to millions as trending exchanges on Facebook and Twitter created a mass of provocative conversations.

Behaviour change is a massive undertaking; confronting unconscious bias and stereotyping is one way to start the process. A network of partners who explicitly set out to enable women’s equal participation and empowerment – and to act as leaders of others in doing so – is one way to ensure that process has a definite, productive and sustainable conclusion.

Investing for change

Change is an investment. For too long there has been too little financial commitment to gender equality. At a government level, development aid commitments have to be met, fiscal and monetary policies have to be reoriented, and domestic resource mobilization must be broadened in order for national budgets to allocate necessary funds to gender equality across all sectors. In parallel, the private sector has a crucial role to play in its own internal investments in women. The investment case has been thoroughly made from both a broad economic angle and individual institutional profit.

An important year

2015 is going to be the year where we must prove that we are serious about transformation. As a world, we are adopting a new set of sustainable development goals for “people and planet”, with gender equality at their heart. To achieve this we need new, productive, strategic partnerships that engender a proliferation of action, with renewed commitment to financing our goals. 

This blog post has been cross-posted from the World Economic Forum.