We need not incremental change, but bold change – Executive Director

Closing remarks by UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, at the International Conference Celebrating the Centenary of Women´s Suffrage in Iceland on 23 October.


[As delivered]

I thank Kira Appel, Chairperson of the Executive Committee on Gender Equality at the Nordic Council of Ministers, for her kind introduction, and I also thank my fellow panelists for their thought-provoking presentations. You have made sure that as we leave here we will remember the issues that you have raised. At this centenary meeting we have looked back through 100 years, and also looked forward to the next 100 years.

Please close your eyes and think back 100 years. What did those founding mothers and fathers expect today to look like? Did they expect that we would have a woman president here? Did they expect what you have achieved in this country and in this part of the world?

Let us consider, 100 years later, what we have.

Change is now irreversible. We can never again have a situation where we accept a democracy defined by a group of men making decisions for us. This still continues to happen in certain parts of the world, and it is unacceptable. Women are not passive, in any part of the world, from the poorest to the richest country. In the Nordic countries especially, change has been substantive, though incomplete. We expect change for women to be not just about the numbers – though we need them – but to permeate every aspect of life: at home, at work, at school, in the church and in public spheres. This is important because discrimination against women happens everywhere.

We have agreed that for change towards gender equality to be truly meaningful, it has to be universal. It should not work only for some women, it should work for all women. That is why we would like to make sure that the women’s struggle is globalized, because when we talk about the under-representation of women, it is a universal problem. We all have to fight it everywhere. When we win the fight in one part of the world we galvanize change in another part.

We know that the women’s struggle has to be universal, for instance, because unpaid care work and the dominance of women as unpaid caregivers is a problem in every part of the world. When we find ways of reducing unpaid care work in one country – when here in the Nordic countries you are able to entrench paternity care – that is good for women everywhere. This is a practice we can take to every part of the world.

Change has to be universal because of the problem of the way in which women’s bodies are perceived in some countries, especially when we look at the way the media can portray women, as the property of everybody else rather than something that women themselves must have control over. We must all fight this fight because it occurs everywhere.

Violence against women also occurs everywhere. It is a universal problem. If there is domestic violence, for instance in countries in conflict, or post-conflict, it becomes part of the public fight.

We have to make sure that we win this fight at home so that when your envoy goes to represent the interest of your country in peacekeeping, that person is already feeling strongly about the end of violence against women everywhere.

Whether a woman is in a country that is undergoing violence or a country that is post-conflict, violence is not acceptable anywhere, at a domestic level and all other levels.

We are in this thing together. As we win a victory in one region, we must know that we have an obligation to fight for other women elsewhere. To those whom so much is given, so much is also expected. Here, you are in a place where it is possible to make changes for others. This is what global sisterhood is all about, and this is one of the strengths of the women’s movement.

In the last two days we have heard reinforcement of the importance of investing in women, as when we invest in women, society gains much more. It has been proved over and over again that investing in women has a very high rate of return, both in a commercial sense and in a human rights sense.

Our discussions also reiterated that women are not victims; women are solution-makers. Our narrative about women should not be about women needing things to be done for them. Women are mobilizing men to be partners because they are already doing things for themselves. This narrative is of a problem for society, in which everybody needs to take responsibility.

Women understand the need to change the stereotypes about women, amongst women. We want to change the stereotypes amongst men as well, but we must also make sure that we liberate ourselves. For instance, there may be women who don’t want to take a stand against a violent partner because, as we sometimes hear in court, they do not want to disturb the peace in the family.

Empowering women to accept that no one has a right to violate them is also important. Changing the mindset where women allow themselves the respect that they deserve is important.

In the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap report for 2015, it was argued that if we do not do things differently, if we do not take bolder steps in what we are doing, especially in politics and in the economy, it is going to take us 81 years to see parity in women’s participation in the economy, and more than 50 years to see parity in participation in politics.

Now, we do not want a child who is born today to be 81 years old before they can see parity in the economy, or 50 years old before they can see parity in politics.

I think those founding mothers would walk back in and accuse us of sleeping on the job if it takes us 81 years to bring about changes in women’s role in the economy. I think we would have let down many of those women in the last 100 years who have worked so hard.

We definitely need to make sure that we shorten the road ahead, but we must not lose the substance. It therefore becomes important for us to choose which battles we fight, especially those battles that we can fight together across the world.

So that when we make change, we make the change for all the women of the world.

Violence against women is one of those areas where we need to fight together across the world. Issues that have to do with reproductive rights and sexual rights are universal issues where we have to fight together, and so is redistributing and remunerating unpaid care. And of course, increasing the representation of women, which continues to be a difficult area, is a critical area in which we can work together.

It is important, especially for us where we stand as UN Women, to make sure that we highlight issues that help us mobilize as many women as possible. When we win battles that others are fighting, women around the world will also benefit. Of course, the dismantling of patriarchy is a precondition for success, just as the empowerment of women is a precondition for the success of the Sustainable Development Goals and Agenda 2030. Making sure that we communicate in such a way that everybody understands that is vital.

There are highlights in history that define the epoch of the women’s struggle. Women gaining the vote in every country is always an important moment. There are also others. For example, in China, the untying of women’s feet, which were bound so that women were unable to walk around and were enormously constrained, was a critical liberating moment both psychologically and physically. The invention of the birth control pill was also very important, in giving women the right to decide when they have a child, and the intervals of the children, without the permission of a government or a man.

We need other epochal events in our history now that will be just as big as the untying of the feet, as voting for the first time and as having a birth control pill. We need an earthquake that will tilt the system altogether, because little and incremental steps will not give us the world that we want.

We need not incremental change, but bold change, big change, and that is why we have got to act together, universally. And you will be in the forefront of this change, because you have seen so much and already achieved so much.

Thank you.