“Gender equality demands a concerted push” – Executive Director

Statement by Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of UN Women at the Intergenerational dialogue, held at the 59th session of the Commission on the Status of Women, New York, 13 March 2015.


[As delivered]

Thank you for being here, and thank you for the long road that you have travelled and that you will continue to travel.

The year 2015 is the start of a make-or-break period for gender equality and women’s empowerment.

We have to complete the work of the last 20 years.  There is a great deal of unfinished business.

We have to ensure that the commitment of Beijing to gender equality and women’s empowerment is taken forward in the post-2015 development agenda.

This means being present in the negotiations in whatever way you can, whether lobbying in your own country, or if you are in New York, being active wherever the negotiations are taking place.

Gender equality demands a concerted push: progress is needed in all areas and across the board.

Between 2015 and 2020 we want to frontload our actions, so that we get the substantive, critical game-changers on the table first and do not wait for the latter part of the period of the sustainable development goals to begin to gain speed.

With this, we can project that by 2030 we can talk of Planet 50-50.

Planet 50-50 is about the equal representation of women, the depth of their participation, the substantiveness of their participation, as well as being about the numbers – because numbers do make a difference.

I do not under-estimate the challenges. I do not think that together we have ever underestimated the challenges. But we have to be bold, because it has never been so possible to make the changes that we want to make.

We are the first generation that has the possibility to make a truly significant reduction in the rate of poverty in the world, and in the poverty of women and girls.

We are the generation with a real possibility to fundamentally change the power relations between men and women.

I think we can be ambitious, because if not now, when? If not us, who? This task is upon our shoulders.

Progress over the last 20 years has been slow, has been uneven, has been patchy and has been fragile. Much of what was gained is under threat.

Many countries have overhauled their legal codes, but left unchanged the daily experience of customary and traditional practices. 

Some changes have brought benefits to women. But the reality is that the world has not changed for men. Even good men still continue to enjoy patriarchy.

This situation has to change for everybody. This is about breaking the walls of patriarchy brick by brick, not surviving within patriarchy. I cannot emphasize that more. We have to figure out how to achieve this.

The attitudes that perpetuate the culture of male superiority, and the stereotypes that diminish women remain.

If we do not address this, our progress will always be compromised.

This is what we have to deal with now, once and for all. This is what we are referring to when we talk about dismantling patriarchy. This is what requires men to disown this institution of patriarchy – that many of them did not ask for.

If I could rewrite the title of Goal Five, it would be called “Dismantling Patriarchy,” because when we talk about gender equality something is lost in the translation. If we call the thing by its name, we may just be able to focus our energy exactly where we want the change to be.

The traditional rules that govern marriage, family life, property and inheritance – even health care and education – need to change because this is where those challenges reside.

Access to education, high school enrolment of girls – these do not change the fact that a girl will still be subject to the stereotypes that keep her out of the kinds of positions to which she needs to have access.  

In many countries we still have child marriages, female genital mutilation/cutting and child labour, notwithstanding the excellent work that has been done in highlighting and pushing for the rights of children. Again, this is because the infrastructure through which we are implementing new legislations and policy is not changing to comply with the policies we have passed.

We still carry a disproportionate burden of care and work as women.

Women still do not have the power to make decisions in their own lives. The most frightening aspect of this is in the area of reproductive and sexual rights.

We find violence against women and girls everywhere we look.

Women’s talent and decision-making capacities continue to be undervalued in every corner of the world.

It is important therefore that we look at this agenda as a universal agenda; these problems are having an effect in every part of the world.

Female genital mutilation/cutting may be seen as one of the crudest traditions that oppress women. That culture therefore is a challenge that we need to engage with.

The same culture can be seen in countries that are much more developed, but which still discriminate against women by not paying them equally to men. It is a different kind of emphasis; but the same psychology – that says that the woman is worth less – exists in every country, no matter the level of sophistication.

At worse, wherever progress has been made there is a backlash from violent extremists, and from those who feel threatened by the idea of gender equality. Those threats have become more and more violent, calling us to revisit how we strategize to fight and to withstand these threats.

We know that the least progress has been made among those who experience multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination. Women who have lived in areas where there have been climate disasters, where there has been conflict, where the impact of a financial crisis has been worst. When women are older or disabled it is even worse, because all of these factors accumulate impact.

The interest groups represented here today each have specific agendas. But we have the drive for gender equality in common among us. And we have that in common with many people who are not with us here today. Civil society has always known that gender equality is front-and-centre of our agenda, no matter what we do.

Gender equality, however, has to be everybody’s agenda. We have got to take it out of our own comfort zone. It has to be the business of business. It has to be the business of parliament. It has to be the business of footballers. It has to be the business of media. It has to be the business of security operators.

If we do not cover the bases everywhere, in every endeavour of life, we will not get the results that we want. We see the oppression of women in every aspect of life, and therefore our fight has to be taken to every endeavour and every aspect of life.  

We must make sure our own organizations are gender-equal, and that our programmes and campaigns reflect gender equality. This is something that we at UN Women do not have a problem doing, but a lot of other people cannot imagine how their work has anything to do with gender. It is our responsibility to take the message to those people so that they can begin to make the changes.

We have introduced accountability mechanisms for gender equality at the UN, such as the UN-SWAP, gender markers and gender score cards. I would argue that every institution needs some sort of a score card.

Ninety per cent of the UN system is now reporting back with a robust database of information. With that, we are able to track the changes that we make. This does not on its own resolve the problems, but it does allow us at least to know what we are monitoring.

We would also argue for the importance of partnerships. These will give us great strength, and great headaches. We will be working with people who do not agree with us and people who we do not understand. We will be challenged and it will be controversial sometimes. But if we avoid controversy by only working with the people who we like, who agree with us, who are with us, we will only be working with the small circle of people who are fighting for gender equality.

Numbers matter in what we have to achieve. Therefore young people matter; men matter; religious bodies matter; as well as cultural leaders and societies where we think gender equality is significantly compromised. 

We must reach out and partner with people and organizations who think like us in order to strengthen ourselves and to be able to approach a bigger world with this agenda.

We encourage you to work especially with young people. Young women need us to support them, but young people and young women also are leaders in their own right. They are making fundamental changes in their own lives and they are raising the bar for others.  

Yesterday I just heard the inspiring stories of Domtila and Jaha, two extraordinary young women from Kenya and the Gambia who stood up against female genital mutilation (FGM) and who are breaking the silence in order to change behaviour in practising communities.

They opened up their own pathway. They dared to differ from the path that their community had structured for them.

Sometimes you have to break from the set path in order to follow what is good. Sometimes you are part of the good and you have to break a new path in order to reach out to those who are not like you. Either way, all of us need to be breaking pathways in order to make sure that the post-2015 agenda achieves the goals that we want.

All of us here have attempted to work on the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals, and we have worked on the implementation of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. We are also working on specific programmes in our own countries. We have influenced the passing of legislation. But all of us have struggled to have the implementation of these policies give us the impact we are looking for.

We need to look into how to make sure that this work and this legislation translates into a different life for women and girls.

We have not been able to achieve this in the significant way that we need to. Some of you have made extraordinary strides in your countries; some of you have pushed the frontiers. But, by and large, the report shows that there is lots of good legislation that we have yet to implement.

The issue of access to resources also is significant.

We have to break the silence in many countries, in many departments, in many governments, where the allocation of resources to women is miniscule. As women’s organizations, we must be loud about this and challenge the percentage allocation to women of resources. This impacts local civil society movements, and it impacts global organizations such as ourselves.

I would like to end by highlighting a few critical areas where we need to pay close attention.

Leadership—my view at this point is that we have to delegate upwards. Every Head of State, every CEO of a company, every leader who is appointed and elected, has to grapple with this issue as long as they lead a community or an institution that has men and women. And, in fact, it is important as long as they lead, because if the institution does not include both men and women – that on its own is a problem.

We therefore need to make sure that we are not always expecting those that have the least resources and those that have the least authority, to carry the biggest burden. We are looking at those that hold the pens, those who can make a difference just by signing. That is where we need to engage intensively to make sure that these people own the agenda, and that they use their authority and their power to make the changes faster.

We need also to make sure that we intensify the relationships among ourselves, and that we re-energize the women’s movement, because we can never succeed without a strong women’s movement.

We can never succeed without a strong civil society that is united in its efforts.

I would like us to reach out to and work more purposefully with trade unions in order for us to address the changes that need to happen in the private sector. It is easier in some cases to work with the trade unions who are already fighting for good than it is to work with business.

We also need—I want to repeat again—to work with young people. They are critical for us to break the ground and do some of the things that will be extra-ordinary in the time ahead of us.

We need to work with men and boys. We need to make sure they take their responsibility to be partners, to be in solidarity, and to make the fundamental changes needed.

Men must say, ‘I will not marry a child’. Men must say, ‘I will not be involved in violence against women’ – in fact they must be the ones who stand in court when there is a case calling for justice. Men must say, ‘I will not take a pay check that is unequal to that of my female counterpart’.

Men must be the ones who are actually taking the lead in changing the status quo that affects them, and that benefits them.

We, however, must continue to be the torch-bearers.

Thank you.