“We want actionable recommendations that will change systems” — Executive Director

Opening remarks by Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Director of UN Women, at the consultation event for the Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment in South Africa.


[As delivered]

Thank you very much. It is wonderful to be here at home, especially for this purpose.

I thank my UN colleagues here. Many of you will know Anne Githuku-Shongwe, who is the head of our office in South Africa, and who, like me, has been dying to have this kind of interaction. You also would have heard from Margo Thomas, who is our head of the Secretariat for the Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment. Thank you very much also to Oxfam for this partnership. Oxfam is a very important and strategic member of the High-Level Panel.

Why are we doing this High-Level Panel? It is because women’s economic empowerment, with rights, is one of the important areas of work for UN Women. It also happens to be one of the areas of work where we are finding our feet. UN Women, in its short five years, has done a lot of work in the area of women’s leadership, in the area of ending violence against women, in the area of women, peace and security, in the area of gender-responsive budgeting, and of course in women’s economic empowerment.

Because we came from UNIFEM—which all of you will know was a UN agency that was more like an NGO and very much rights-based and activist in its approach—working in the economic space was not always our strength. And I think there has always been this tension between rights-based organizations and working in a capitalist environment about ‘what is our role?’ and ‘how do we make this system work for women?’ But the reality is that to make this work for women we have to bite this elephant piece by piece.

After having been at UN Women for almost three years, one thing that has been clear to me is the fact that leaders are disengaged when it comes to issues of women. A classical head of state does not think about women and girls as a critical constituency whose problems belong on his desk—because many of them are men—and it is not an area that they will measure their success as a Head of State by.

It has been really troubling, because if you look at the work and the responsibility of women’s ministries, the work is big, the budgets are small and the authority is very small, so women’s ministries and women’s commissions always need this extraordinary support so that they can fulfill their mandate, which is usually very big.

We have the same challenges as UN Women, to some extent. We also have a very big mandate, which we are very passionate about, but besides being a relatively young organization within the UN, we are determined not to be in any way demobilized or discouraged by all of these barriers.

We picked the Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel for Women’s Economic Empowerment, because we want the outcomes of this panel to speak to Heads of State much more than they speak to women’s ministries. This is what you are able to achieve through a Secretary-General’s report. We then had to identify people who would help us within a relatively short space of time to cover a lot of issues. We also had to make choices about which of the issues on women’s economic empowerment we needed to cover, which tended not to be covered in the broader spectrum where issues of women’s economic empowerment are being handled.

A lot of the work that we do on women’s economic empowerment tends to be issues around women in boards, which is also very critical because without those women on boards we actually do not have anyone who is our eyes and our ears in that decision-making fora.

We also do a lot of work on parity and representation of women in the formal sector, again very important because we actually need women to be stronger in the formal economy. But we noticed that we do not have enough focus on the informal sector. We as the UN, have not produced any groundbreaking report, proposals and interventions for this sector.

We also identified the fact that we have not in a concentrated way intervened in the care economy. We have discussed it, and the UN has done a lot of research with Member States in many parts of the world, especially in Latin America. But we need to consolidate this work and come with actionable, scalable and replicable recommendations that have been tested somewhere, or at the very least, work that is promising so that it can be implemented and we see real changes in the lives of women.

One thing that we identified also in the care economy is that it is one area where you see very clearly the failure of the dominant macroeconomics, because it literally does not account for the contribution that women make in unpaid care. So, this enables us to broach the subject and to put it on the table very strongly. While this commission might not be in the best positon to crack the issue, we intend to raise it very strongly so that the work that UN Women is already doing in this area will be strengthened going forward.

The issue of the informal sector, which in many countries has been addressed relatively successfully through adequate social policies that address women who are not covered by the labour law, is sometimes compromised by the fact that there is an artificial difference between social policy and macroeconomics.

I remember very clearly when I was in government here—I think those of you who were here in South Africa remember—that you have a social cluster, you have an economic cluster, you have a security cluster, you have a foreign affairs cluster. The economic cluster tends to be the dominant cluster in government and almost treats the social cluster as a burden, almost with irritation.

When I became Deputy President, I tried so hard to see between these clusters. At that time, if you remember, we were trying to chase 6 per cent Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth per annum, which was quite a tall order if you think of where we are now. I tried to demonstrate to the economic cluster that that it is not going to happen, not unless we take into consideration the needs and the context of the social cluster and turn it around and see it as a resource, and count that contribution and redistribute some of the burdens that the social cluster faces.

I cannot claim to have succeeded. I think it continues to be a tension, but now with the Planning Commission there is a much greater recognition. And I think the issue has evolved and that in our report we can actually raise these issues in countries like South Africa.

There is a lot of evidence that we have seen in countries that have really struggled to bring these issues together—Chile would be one of them—where the results have been positive. So again in this commission, on this panel, we must work hard to make these connections.

We also in this commission wanted to deal with the issues of women as entrepreneurs, and access to the inputs that women need to be successful entrepreneurs. We also wanted to deal with the issues of digital and financial exclusion of women in the economy, which is a challenge in most countries.

But let me get back to women in the informal sector, because I think, just from the presentations that were made, a lot of the women are struggling. From the consultations, what is coming across very clearly is that women in the informal sectors are not represented in policymaking. So in many countries, policies are not informed by the real situation that the women may face, or they just may not consider the sector at all. I would hope that one of the areas that comes out of this consultation is the prioritization of policy and representation, because when we present the report, we will be presenting it to all the Member States, so we are trying as much as possible to follow up to see that there is an uptake of the report.

The other insight that we have gained from the consultation is the fact that in many countries the basic infrastructure that women need to trade in the informal sector just does not exist, either by municipalities or by provincial governments or by national governments. And the cost of having to establish the infrastructure by women on their own just kills the business, yet if the infrastructure is provided as a public good, it actually reduces the burden on the women.

So, at the end, these are some of the issues that really belong in the realm of government.

The other issue that we have picked up is the disconnect between the informal sector and the formal sector, and the opportunities that are there for the formal sector to actually invest, strengthen, support and make the informal sector functional. Those opportunities are missed, and policy, governance and people like us, who are activists in the space, probably can do more than we have done to make those connections. And lastly, the macroeconomic context does not even acknowledge the existence of this sector.

So, we are hoping that at the end of this consultation, if we do one thing as this Panel, it is to put this sector on the map and to make sure that the UN at its highest level grapples with this issue.

One issue that has also been taken forward during the work of this Panel is the issue of domestic workers, which we are hoping to take as far as we can. As you know, ILO Convention 189 covers domestic workers, but out of the 192 countries that are UN Member States, only 22 countries have ratified the Convention. Thankfully, South Africa is one of them, although we still have some work to do to tighten our regulations. But the fact that only 22 countries have ratified this Convention is something that is quite sad. There are about 64 million women who are domestic workers. Can you imagine the number of women whose lives we can change if we get the [Convention] ratified and implemented properly?

So, what we want out of this is an actionable recommendation that will have not only long-term impact, but that will change systems so we can start making a difference in the lives of women sooner rather than later. From the tone of the presentations, I can feel that this impatience is shared by you and I hope that we can work together to accompany this report so that it has the desired impact.

Thank you so much for being here.