“Now is the time for talking about concrete measures, not generalities” — Executive Director

Opening remarks by UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka at the UN Women Global Civil Society Dialogue on 23 November.


[As delivered]

It is a great honour to open this Global Civil Society Dialogue today with our Civil Society Advisory Group members, feminist leaders and partners. Thank you for coming, from near and far, to make this a truly landmark event.

We have all invested significantly in this meeting. I thank civil society partners, all the networks, the coalitions, the grassroots groups and the individuals who work so hard and with so much dedication in order for all of us to serve women and girls.

I thank you for sharing so much of your time, and your resources so that we could have the results that we want in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the Addis Ababa Action Agenda on Financing for Development negotiations, the Security Council resolution 1325 Global Review and the forthcoming World Humanitarian Summit, Habitat 3 and so much more. In each of these events, UN Women would not have been able to make the contribution that was made, if it were not for you.

I thank the women’s groups and coalitions at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change who, as we speak, are ensuring that we make a strong and meaningful contribution.

In the next two days I hope we can use this discourse as an opportunity for us to plan for a series of high-impact collaborative actions leading us to 2030. This time is for us to plan, as it is said in Agenda 2030, for shared prosperity, for people, for the planet, and for partnerships. This meeting must leverage UN Women’s convening power, set out universal milestones on a roadmap for results by 2020 and 2025, and work for major achievement by 2030.

I do not want us to think just about 2030. We must pace ourselves so that we have concrete milestones even sooner. We have come this far. We now have to be ambitious and work for the substantive and irreversible change that is captured in our ‘Planet 50-50 by 2030’ slogan.

I also want us to recognize that our world is in a violent crisis, in a way that demands unity like we have never seen before. Women and girls are caught in the crossfire and their plight deserves our attention. Yet, they are hardly mentioned when these issues of security are being discussed.

The world is struggling to calibrate a response to the vulnerabilities of the vast numbers of refugees and migrants seeking a better and safer future. We see the plight of those left behind in the countries of origins that are in in turmoil, those who are too old, or too young or too infirm to travel. The total number of displaced people reached 59.5 million in 2014, the highest level since World War II.

At the same time we are seeing a tidal spread of ‘a poisonous discourse’ of intolerance, fear and exclusion. The recent attacks by competing groups of extremists, the killings of school children in Pakistan, and of innocent people in Beirut, Paris, and Bamako and elsewhere, have brought a sharpened sense of vulnerability to a world that has already seen nearly 300 violent terrorist incidents in 2015 alone.

The need to work for a fair world within countries, between countries, and between peoples has never been so urgent and so obvious. Failure to do so is deeply threatening to the progress we intend to make, and to the world we have to build. This situation demands that we hold the line with a unified and ever –loudening assertion of the counter-narrative – of peace, gender equality, sustainability and shared prosperity that can also benefit the many excluded people of the world. This is the universal narrative of Agenda 2030. This is what the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are about, including Goal 5.

Transition from MDS to SDGs

Next month, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) will be retired and their unfinished business will be taken over by the Sustainable Development Goals. We will build on the legacy of the MDGs, which includes increased access to education in the poorest countries of the world and a reduction in the scale of people that are living in extreme poverty. Yet, despite this progress in poverty reduction, the richest 1 per cent of the world are expected to own more than half of global wealth by next year. Significant  progress in the MDGs was made mainly in the areas where the public sector led. This also has to change.

My question to us all, which I would like us to discuss, is: what, in practical terms, we must do and can do to influence the trend towards the shared prosperity intended by the SDGs, given our strengths and determination, as well our limitations. What, practically, can we do in order to change the narrative so that it is consistent with what we want to achieve with the SDGs? How do we achieve public conversation and public action on the fact that 99 per cent of the world’s population, the majority of whom are women, are not sharing and not expected to share in the abundant and anticipated prosperity which is projected to benefit only a few?

We now know, from the Millennium Development Goal experience, that internationally agreed goals can be a source of positive peer pressure amongst nations and fertile collaboration. Agenda 2030 is even more ambitious than the MDG agenda, and the definition of SDG results must also be more ambitious. This requires that we make an effort to address these macro-economic trends and advocate for the correct changes, especially the structural changes. We also need to think on a scale that will affect millions of women every time we act—not pockets of small initiatives. We know they have their place. But this is the time to aim for universal, macro-initiatives that can point the world in the same direction and leverage the diversity of the groups that have endorsed the SDGs, holding them to account for the success they have already endorsed.

These are some of the issues I hope we can discuss in the next two days. For instance what does redistributive economic justice that benefits women and girls look like? How do we get there? Given that what we have in the SDGS requires everybody to collaborate and requires all of us to look at these issues as universal issues, how do we make social policies affordable in countries and communities where they are most needed, which is not the case right now? How do we advocate for minimum wages, and access to quality, affordable education that teaches equality? How do we address improved conditions of work for women overall?

Redistributive economic justice

In our efforts for the 2030 agenda and women’s economic empowerment, can we start in the industries and sectors that already employ large numbers of women, such as agriculture, such as garments and textile, such as the social sector, the care economy and domestic work? For example, there are  44 million female domestic workers worldwide, a third of whom are excluded from the national labour legislation and nearly half of whom are not covered by minimum wage laws. Can we, together with the International Labour Organization, take on this task of changing the reality of these women?

It is equally important to support women in the informal economy so that we can facilitate progress to sustainable and decent jobs; but where should we be doing it? What are those decent jobs we anticipate women would have? Who are these women we are talking about, realistically?

Now is the time for talking about concrete measures, not generalities. We also have to act on expanding opportunities for women in industries where women are not currently well represented, such as infrastructure, and technology, and the levels at which women are represented in all aspects of the economy.

The care economy

In order to achieve shared prosperity we must address unpaid care work and reshape the care economy overall. For this we have Goal 5 and an intention to take action on the unpaid economy. Let us take it into our hands. Women dominate the unpaid care economy, not because of their choice. We have to take action to end the ‘motherhood penalty’ that the ILO has elaborated on so well.

As part of the work we are planning for Agenda 2030 we have to advocate for the provision of paid maternity leave, and affordable, accessible childcare. The millions of mothers of the world must be able to live up to their full potential, with safer care for their children, as a result of the Sustainable Development Goals and the agreement and support that these goals have.

For men in all countries, there should be paternity leave for the 80 per cent of men who become biological fathers. And we must support the cultural and workplace adjustments that make it feasible to take that leave, so that unpaid care work can be redistributed. These life changing adjustments are part of what is needed for the shared prosperity that will allow us to leave no one behind. The number of women and families that will be positively affected if we make these changes makes this an important objective.

Equal pay

But this is not all that women and girls need.

The inclusive society intended by Agenda 2030 cannot continue to pay men more than women for the same job. The gaps extend beyond daily wages, including less access to pensions and other social protection, and resulting in deficits in women’s income of up to 75 per cent of what men earn in some countries. Clearly there is a greater discrimination against women. The global gender wage gap average is 24 per cent, but it is clear that there is much more than this figure to factor into the real deficit, and the mechanism for change.

The World Economic Forum’s just-released depressing report for 2015 states that as things stand, it will take another 118 years—or until 2133—until the global pay gap between men and women is finally closed. Not on our watch! I think this is a wake-up call for us. We have to take on this challenge with more and more companies who are already starting to do this work on their own. Far-reaching success will however need governments to lean in and to drive this agenda.

We have to begin to bite this elephant, piece by piece, and sooner rather than later.

Climate change and poverty

As we consider the steps that will accelerate the climb out of poverty, a major factor must be the potential impact of climate change on the poorest. The danger of an even higher wave of climate migrants is real. Climate change could push more than 100 million additional people back into poverty by 2030. The poorest regions of the world—sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia—will be hardest hit. In Bangladesh alone, an estimated 38 million lives are at risk between now and 2050 because of climate-change related disasters. It is essential for these people to have social safety nets and universal health care and we have to plan for that now. After all, there is no Planet B. Our actions need to be decisive.

In the same way that we have together been key players in the negotiations of the text of the Agenda for Sustainable Development, and the Addis Ababa Action Agenda on Financing for Development , we must continue to mobilize in order to ensure that all climate action is gender-responsive. For the 2015 Paris Climate Conference, we are working with the Women and Gender Constituency to ensure that gender perspectives are included in climate change adaptation, mitigation, financing, capacity-building and all other key areas.

Rights, discrimination and ending violence against women 

The Sustainable Development Goals do not have as strong a rights agenda as we wanted, but we have a good basis to build on, which is richer than the MDGs. We must take full advantage of it. Our actions must include tackling cultural practices that are harmful to women and girls, and boosting access to education, economic inclusion and climate justice. 

We must act together to prevent and finally to end violence against women and girls. It is unacceptable and should not be tolerated. Our focused discussion on eliminating violence against women is much needed at this meeting. Based on reported acts of violence against women and girls, we have reached what WHO calls a global epidemic. An average of 35 per cent of women are living with violence, rising to 70 per cent in some societies. In all its forms, in its crippling and even fatal effects, the dehumanization and devastation of women and girls is a terrible burden for individuals and all our communities and our families to carry. It is a gross violation of women's rights, it directly saps the capacity to grow and flourish, and leaves a legacy of perpetuation among the children who witness and experience it. It has to be stopped at the source—prevented before it happens. That is what we should be discussing.

This week at the beginning of the 16 Days of Activism, I will launch a joint UN framework to prevent violence, and in early December, at the end of the 16 Days, I will launch another that concentrates on focusing the efforts of the essential services for women survivors’ safety, health, and access to justice. The idea is to share interventions that have shown possibilities for positive impact that are also scalable. This has to be one of the areas that Agenda 2030 delivers on. It is up to us, and the many more women, youth and men that we have to cultivate. 

Violence is in many ways the visible manifestation of the inequalities that remain in every society, even those nations that have made good progress. The prejudices that maintain the status quo are universal, deep and persistent. We must make sure that we take actions that will accumulate to remove the underlying structures of patriarchy and other forms of intersecting discrimination such racial prejudice and homophobia. Women of colour, indigenous women, lesbian and transgender women, and women with disabilities are the worst victims and they are subjected to the most cruel forms of violence. Their plight is sometimes not heard or understood. This also needs to change.

Legislation and access to justice

Part of our discussion must be on improving on the poor implementation of the good laws we have all assisted to pass, as well as confronting adverse customary laws that neutralize the impact of good laws. We cannot waste the laws that we have worked so hard to pass by failing to ensure their implementation. We must continue within the set timelines to make progress in repealing laws that directly discriminate against women and girls. We know which laws they are, we know where they are, and we know their impact.

I am thankful for the collaboration, the leadership and the initiative of some of our civil society institutions, as well as some of the other institutions that are tackling this issue. And of course UN Women is also active in this space.

The World Bank 2016 report on Women, Business and the Law identifies 155 countries that have at least one law impeding women’s economic opportunities, with 18 countries where husbands can legally prevent their wives from working. This is especially important for women with intersecting disadvantages, whose agency is denied on gender, race or class bases or because they are rural inhabitants or from indigenous groups. And we must continue to support and demand an end for unequal laws wherever they exist. These are all clear targets that we can set ourselves as we march on to 2030.

We must find a post-2015 approach to better leverage the power of the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the excellent work that is already being done by this important body. Given that 187 out of 194 countries have already ratified the treaty, we must find ways to make sure that we use it to its full capacity, and that the remaining six countries that have not ratified this treaty are encouraged to come on board. I will not name names—but one of them is a big country.

Addressing the normative environment and access to justice is a must do and a priority for early action—so that we can make sure that by 2020 we have made good progress.

Peace and Security 

Agenda 2030 aims for peace in a world that is anything but peaceful. In 2015 we evaluated the implementation of Security Council Resolution 1325.We reconfirmed how the prevention of conflict is more important for peace than military attacks; that the participation of women in peace negotiations enhances the durability of peace; and we showed how gender diverse peace missions provide a better and more comprehensive peace keeping service and reduce sexual misconduct incidents by peacekeeping missions.

As we face a rapidly changing global context for conflict and its consequences, it is especially important that we use the findings and recommendations of the review and the new  Security Council Resolution 2242 on Women, Peace and Security in order to choose the actions that are pivotal.

I salute the women peace defenders. We bow our heads to those who have lost their lives while defending their communities. A plan is needed to support women defenders, many of whom died defending the world, defending their families, defending their communities, and defending our values. 

An alliance between women and youth is critical for preventing conflict and for addressing the issue of radicalization. This too has to become part of our work. We have to make sure that the women’s movement is truly a multi-generational movement and embark on co-ordinated efforts with youth. Can you imagine an alliance of women and youth for the world that is focused on bringing about change? We would be unstoppable. But this will not happen by chance. We have to plan, and we have to choose the issues that we want to do better with, with youth on our side

The Commission on the Status of Women has to reflect a multi-generational women's movement.


Partnerships are essential for the road to a 50-50 planet. UN Women cannot make progress without the women’s movement and civil society more broadly. Our Civil Society Advisory Group (CSAG ) guides these relationships at all levels; at national levels, at regional levels, at global levels. But we know that we can improve and that we can do better than we are doing now. In this discourse, we will explore how to further strengthen the role of CSAG so as to build truly formidable partnerships with all civil society, which that can lead us to the realization of the goals and the vision of Agenda 2030.

Beyond the solidarity of those who have always been supporters of our agenda, and of those who we know are with us, we need a wide-ranging partnership that goes beyond our historic allies. We specifically need to speak to those who do not agree with us. It is unsustainable for us only to speak to ourselves and to agree all the time. It is not we alone who will change the world. It is not we alone who need to own this agenda. Inclusion and outreach beyond our committed audiences is key.

I would underline the need to foster engagement and to ensure that the media, for instance, plays an important role in addressing this agenda—as employers, as conveyers of news and narratives, as shapers of views of people. The media can help to bring about positive change. We need to reach out to faith-based organizations, to the private sector, to sporting bodies, to men and boys. The treatment of women in all arenas has to change from a minority focus to a majority stakeholder in every society.

This was the intention behind our convening of world leaders on 27 September to speak to a different constituency. Not only are we extending our outreach horizontally, we are also extending our outreach vertically by ensuring that our leaders own this agenda and take responsibility for finding solutions to the problems. In that event on 27 September, the Global Leaders’ Summit, the top commitments that were made by the leaders were on ending violence against women, which seems to be an issue that is dominating most countries as we know, together with political participation, economic empowerment and education.

We are looking at setting up a High Level Panel to gather the best research and advice available in progressing women's economic empowerment, an area in which we feel we have a lot to do going forward. From this knowledge we seek to galvanize political and other efforts towards fulfilling promises for improvements in women's lives. This will culminate in an actionable report by the Secretary-General.

Commission on the Status of Women 60

The Commission on the Status of Women is our annual opportunity to meet as partners, renew our dedication to the agenda for women, and build a stronger, bigger shared space for the women’s rights agenda. Next March’s meeting, the sixtieth Commission, which is the first one after the adoption of the SDGs, will focus on the road map to 2030 with measurement and tracking of progress in implementation from day one.

Its priority theme for CSW 60 is women’s empowerment and its link to sustainable development. It will need to highlight the critical milestones to be achieved between now and 2030, so that we do not wake up five years before the end. It must help us shape the path to a planet 50-50 with actionable, universal, high-impact decisions that we have to take together, at national, regional and global level. Let us resolve to make every CSW a festival of ideas where we are able to dialogue, to reflect, to communicate across divides, and to consolidate with like-minded people. We will present an SDG evaluation mechanism at the sixtieth Commission that will benefit from the good work that has been done on indicators. 

The gender funding gap

This two-day discourse is also a moment to discuss action on the gender funding gap. The importance of the agenda for women is better understood, but it is not matched by growth in financial support. The unconscious bias which tends to frame the issues of women as deserving only of small interventions and investments is problematic. This is what I call the mentality of sewing machine solutions. That attitude does not recognize the far-reaching changes that we can achieve, for instance through the SDGs, which need significant investment. It is our job to make sure that gender equality is understood to be part of the solution, and not a small and a separate initiative and endeavour. 

In conclusion

In conclusion, we can only dislodge patriarchy’s stubborn hold if we abandon incremental change and coordinate the bold and the big steps we are itching to take. We need an equivalent of that apocryphal story when all the schoolchildren in China jumped together and created an earthquake. We need a series of earthquakes that bring down a pillar of patriarchy every time we jump together, on the same issues and at the same time, in every corner of the world.

There is a critical difference between a thousand women jumping separately and millions of women jumping together at the same time. The first is a fragmented series of small actions. The second can cause an earthquake to make the patriarchal pillars crumble. I hope here we can agree on the series of critical actions that will support the advancement of the Beijing Platform for Action, and implement Agenda 2030 at the same time. Each one will be the equivalent of a united jump that we can take together so that we create earth-shaking and high-impact responses.

We can address issues of discriminating legislation decisively. We will use CEDAW in a stronger way in line with Agenda 2030. We must in our lifetime witness the end of child marriages. We will engage the business community and the public sector worldwide for action on equal pay, and removal of the motherhood penalty within specific timeframes. We will work relentlessly to see changes that reduce and redistribute the care burden. We have to insist with specific timeframes on the special measures and quotas that can bring women in every sector into leadership roles and support the tipping point. We will work tirelessly to change the persistent and chronic underinvestment in gender equality and the fragmented manner in which we are resourced.

I believe that in this meeting we can come up with the ideas that will allow us, collectively, to lead our networks so that we can influence, and execute change. I want us to conclude these two days with concrete strategies, coalitions and mechanisms to activate these changes.

Today, together, I invite you to consider that we have the opportunity to jump together and to jump decisively.

Thank you.