Speech by UN Women Executive Director at the 28th World YWCA Council

Speech delivered by UN Under-Secretary-General and UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka on 16 October 2015, at the 28th World YCA Council, “Bold and transformative leadership – Toward 2035,” held in Bangkok, Thailand, on 11–16 October 2015.


[Check against delivery.]

It’s good to be back, and to be in a familiar place. Being with the YWCA brings back many fond memories. To me the Y is the place where my journey to UN Women began.

I will always be grateful for my years with the YWCA and what it taught me about the meaning of sisterhood and the hard work of ordinary women who do extraordinary things every day, in every corner of the world. I continue to see those women today, in every part of the world.

My first World Council meeting was in 1984, in Singapore, with a wonderful group of young women. A decision to create a Young Women’s Programme in 1985 was made. The timing was perfect. This was on the eve of the 1985 International Youth Year. We started the programme in a vibrant global environment.

I had the privilege of being the first co-ordinator of our Young Women’s Programme. This was one of the most meaningful engagements I have ever had. I was helped by colleagues at the World Y, and by national associations all around the world, to find young women who inspired us all.

Some of those leaders I am sure are with us today at this World Council meeting. Is there any one here who was part of the young women cohort around 1985–1990?

Many of those young women helped to build the Young Women’s Programme in different countries, carving a niche for young women in the world. I have watched how you have all built a formidable programme.

The YWCA has become a truly “go to” organization on matters of young women. Thank you for being such an excellent partner for UN Women on matters of adolescent girls, young women and much more.

We are evolving our youth strategy for UN Women focusing on young women and adolescent girls. Thank you Nyaradzayi, for your contribution to this process. At the next Commission on the Status of Women in 2016, I hope we can make you proud with the extent to which we will carve a niche for young women within UN Women. Thank you for being a model multigenerational women’s organization. You are truly showing the way.

I also wish to congratulate the YWCA for organizing this impressive 28th World YWCA Council 2015 meeting, and to thank you for having me here. I would have wished to be here earlier, but this week we marked 15 years of the implementation of Security Council resolution 1325 on women, peace and security. This resolution pre-dates the existence of UN Women.

As UN Women we have had the privilege of supporting the UN Secretary-General in the review of the implementation of resolution 1325 by an independent lead author who produced this report. It is titled “Preventing conflict, transforming justice, securing peace,” and it gives me great pleasure to present the YWCA with a few copies from the first limited copies to be printed.

Security Council resolution 1325 was a ground-breaking UN resolution in 2000. The insistence of civil society on the issue of women, peace and security being taken more seriously finally paid off.

They got the nations of the world, and the Security Council in particular, to state in a formal resolution that gender inequality is a threat to peace and security. And that not only are women the biggest victims of the wars that they do not start or believe in, they are also key to conflict prevention, peace-building and to negotiating lasting peace agreements. Importantly, actions to put these recognitions into practice were part of the implementation of the resolution.

The review of that implementation has just been concluded.

As we found in the review of the implementation of the Millennium Development Goals, and as we found in the review of the Beijing Platform for Action:

  • Some progress has been made, but it has been slow and uneven, with far-reaching implementation the exception rather than the rule.

But, in the Security Council resolution 1325 review, we have found conclusive evidence to show that involving women in conflict prevention and peace making contributes to more sustainable peace.

  • Peace negotiations influenced by women are much more likely to end in agreement and to endure. In fact, the chances of the agreement lasting 15 years goes up by as much as 35 per cent.

The world is more complex than in 2000 when the Security Council resolution was adopted. The situation of women and girls in many parts of the world has worsened—just as in some parts of the world it has improved. In the theatre of war too many women are not only caught in the cross fire, they are targets of extremists, and their bodies are the battle ground, spoils of war and source of making money.

Despite the gloomy picture for women in different situations, change is possible. But only if we adopt a “business unusual” attitude in our work, and put the women and girls front and centre of the world’s agenda.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) offer us such a possibility and platform. The SDGs call on us to “leave no one behind.” To start with those who are “most left behind.” In every situation, women and girls top the list of those “left behind.” Yet without them, progress for humanity cannot happen.

I have no doubt the YWCA’s forward-looking “Bold and transformative leadership – Towards 2035” also calls for extraordinary steps if 2035 is to be a different world.

We must be single-minded about the fact that change for women and girls more than ever before is possible in our lifetimes. We are the first generation with a real possibility to change the power relations between men and women significantly, substantially, and enduringly. But only if we choose to focus the whole world on the most strategic, transformative and structural changes that remove recurrence of the intergenerational barriers to gender equality.

Together with a critical mass of men, boys, political and economic leaders, religious and traditional community leaders, youth, and media, we can remove some of the key pillars of patriarchy.

The faith-based communities make up a sizable number of people on earth who can be both liberators and oppressors. The future we want is not attainable without their massive buy-in and unwavering commitment to end this last and most pervasive injustice.

Just by ourselves as the torch-bearing women’s movement and civil society we cannot remove the pillars of patriarchy. We also need those who benefit from patriarchy to renounce it actively and decisively. While we must ensure women and girls define the future we want and take part in shaping it.

That future is so close and yet so far. Only if we choose to do it together through the most transformative acts, if we can mobilize people from all walks of life to believe in the change and to act, then change is possible, and will come before 2035.

The period 2015–2030 is the time frame for the implementation of SGDs. UN Women has called for attainment of substantial equality with and through the SDGs Agenda 2030. Our slogan, “Planet 50:50 by 2030. Step it up,” is a call to action.

By 2035 we should report “mission accomplished.” Because this is mission possible. We are the first generation with a possibility to reduce poverty substantively.

What does far-reaching sustainable poverty reduction mean? It means more empowered women, more women who can end abusive relationships, more girls in schools and out of forced marriages, healthier women, more women with the will to be able to stand for public office.

This is our 2030/2035 mission possible.

Every CEO in the world who has faith has to step it up for gender equality, if they believe we are all made in the image of God. Now is the crunch time.

A century ago we had the crunch time for people who believed in justice to denounce slavery, and the crunch of denouncing and acting against racism. Now is the time for business leaders with faith, who believe in justice, to take action and be part of transforming the economy and making it work for women. The barriers for women’s participation in the economy are quite universal. Every CEO in every country in the world has work to do.

All can say:

  • No unequal pay under their watch.
  • No glass ceiling under their watch.
  • All can condemn violence against women, including online gender-based abuses.
  • All can drive investment in programmes that keep girls at school longer and direct them to STEM.

Do I hear amen?

The issues are universal.

If we believe, as I am sure we do, in the “integrity of creation,” we need them all to step it up for environmental justice and for climate change. Governments and the private sector need to step it up and protect the planet.

We are the last generation with a strong possibility to reduce and reverse the negative impact of climate change and save the next generations from the negative impact of years of the unsustainable lifestyles of a few nations and peoples.

In 2030/2035 we must have put in place the correct measures to protect the planet. When it comes to the planet there is no Plan B.

In the evaluation of the 20 years of the Beijing Platform for Action, one stark reality emerged as the biggest elephant in the room and a barrier to change for women—whether a woman is in New York, Delhi, Cape Town, Fiji or DRC. The gender stereotypes run deep. Therefore, efforts to prevent gender stereotypes and to change the attitudes that condone gender inequality must take centre stage.

Changing these stereotypes and ending gender-based violence must also start early—in schools, in society and in homes. It must be part of the socialization in our religious communities.

It starts with us, your peers. We women are part of the problem when it comes to perpetuating gender stereotypes. There is lot of unconscious bias in all life situations. From cradle to grave.

Change must also come to the media we consume. We know that entertainment and news media play a central role in creating and sustaining perceptions and attitudes and in shaping social norms. Women must be equally represented in the media, consulted as experts in their fields, and reflected in their stories.

But the internet also brings a darker side. Violence against women and girls has spread to the online world in the form of harassment, stalking, harmful images and stereotypes, facilitation of sex trafficking, and too many others.

We are now at a historic moment. The full implementation of all 17 Sustainable Development Goals, combined with the full, effective and accelerated implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action, has the potential to change the lives of women and girls forever.

Goal 5 on gender equality and empowered women and girls has to be fully implemented by all of us. In it are some of the key elements for dismantling the pillars of patriarchy, if we galvanize unprecedented action beyond our inner core of our feminist family. We cannot continue to preach to the converted and speak to ourselves. Goal 5 is for all to contend with.

Goal 5 – the targets [shortened]

  • End all forms of discrimination.
  • Eliminate all forms of violence in public and private spheres, including trafficking and sexual exploitation.
  • Eliminate all harmful practices (child marriage, FGM).
  • Recognize and value unpaid care and domestic work.
  • Ensure women’s effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership.
  • Ensure universal access to sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights.
  • Undertake reforms to give women equal rights to economic resources.
  • Enhance the use of enabling technologies, in particular ICTs.
  • Adopt and strengthen policies and legislation.

That is what we have to do, together with ensuring all the other 16 goals deliver for women and girls in accordance with the vision of the SDGs.

We regard all leaders as responsible stakeholders for the success of Goal 5 and for achieving positive outcomes for women from implementing all SDGs. Hence we have gone out of our way to seek commitments from heads of state and government.

On 27 September, more than 70 Heads of State and Government spoke in New York at our Global Leaders’ Meeting. For the first time ever, these leaders had come together specifically to commit to taking action on gender equality and women’s empowerment.

We saw commitments to ending or supporting the elimination of child marriage or female genital mutilation from the leaders of Bangladesh, Georgia, Ireland, Italy, Kenya, Liberia, Malawi, Mozambique, Spain and South Sudan.

The participation of 140 Member States made this the largest and most influential gathering of world leaders dedicated to achieving gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls. From 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., we heard from countries and regional bodies. Keynote speakers from CSOs and business were also invited and made strong statements of support.

I have gone out of my way to bring men and boys into the conversation and to collaborate with men’s organizations. Our HeforShe campaign is our outreach platform.

Men dominate leadership in politics, church, and business. With approximately 80 per cent of men becoming biological fathers at some point their lives, it is vital that we engage fathers in breaking cycles of violence and reducing and redistributing unpaid care work. They have to be part of the solution.

The HeForShe campaign encourages men to take action for gender equality in their own lives. It seeks to redefine ideas of masculinity, and to get men and women working side by side for the benefit of all.

We recently launched our new HeforShe #GetFree bus tour in the UK and France, which will visit universities around the world to engage young people in gender equality initiatives.

And our IMPACT 10x10x10 initiative is further engaging universities, corporations and governments in committing to measurable action to advance gender equality on campuses, in boardrooms, and in countries around the world.

Let us see what we can do with the YMCA and other men’s organizations such as Men Engage, Promundo, the Boy Scouts, and Sonke Justice, to liberate them as well.

Young women and girls have a critical stake in the full, effective and accelerated implementation of the SDGs.

All of the goals in our 2030 Agenda are interlinked, so achieving improvements in education or energy, for example, can have ripple effects on girls in many areas of their daily lives.

Young women and girls are one of the largest population groups affected by poverty, violence and poor health outcomes. Their voices and perspectives must be able to define the present and the future they want.

A girl born in 2015 anywhere in the world must have a different life. And must be part of a new post-MDG generation.

She must never:

  • experience pay discrimination,
  • be excluded from school and life-long learning,
  • be forced into marriage.

She must not carry the burden of disease, or be a victim of endless wars with no possibility to build and lead peace-making.

She must be protected from violence.

She must never suffer a “motherhood penalty” and carry an oversized burden of unpaid care work.

She must not:

  • live in a world where 1% of the people own 99% of the wealth (Oxfam),
  • be threatened by preventable climate disasters with no resilience,
  • be the face of the informal economy and poverty.

We have 15 years to give this achievable agenda a chance. It is a marathon but we must sprint.

The YWCA is a formidable partner of UN Women, and together we must live up to the dreams of women and girls.