“This agenda is truly an agenda for this generation to deliver on” — Executive Director

Remarks by Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Director of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka at the South Africa Women in Science Awards Gala in Johannesburg, South Africa

Date: Friday, August 19, 2016

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Minister of Science and Technology, Mrs Naledi Pandor,
Ministers and Mayors,
UN colleagues,
Distinguished Guests,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is my great honour to take part in this award ceremony tonight and recognize a group of exceptional South African women. In fact, exceptional South Africans—period. I also want to recognize the First Lady with whom I attended another event in New York on the same issues and I am glad that here at home you continue to support women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).

Nothing gives me more pride than to see women from my own country succeed and excel in their chosen field. I wish to congratulate the awards committee for your focus on the Physical and Engineering Sciences and the Humanities and Social Sciences, but especially for sponsoring a special category on research and innovation leading to socio-economic impact and/or empowerment of women.

In fact, I spent the whole day today in a discussion on the UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment, sitting together with women from the informal sector and women who are macroeconomists, because the macroeconomics of the world does not work for women in the informal sector, and yet they are the majority of the working poor.

In the global south, we have a macroeconomic dispensation that is established for a minority and for the economies we wish we had, not the economies we do have. So I brought women from the informal sector around the world who are exceptionally articulate about their situation, and macroeconomists who are also exceptionally articulate about how they calculate Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

It was really interesting to see the understanding that is evolving. I am hoping that we will generate a report that will help Member States begin to engage differently, and begin to create macroeconomic policies that actually work for the majority, including in our own country. I was really proud of the South African macroeconomists because they have a real grasp of these issues.

I am also grateful to see the South African Women in Science Awards create a platform for mentorship. This is desperately needed, especially among young African women in this field, both in South Africa and in the African continent at large.

In additional to this, I would like that when we deal with mentorship we also add sponsorship, so that when we mentor, we mentor with the intention to sponsor someone to shatter the glass ceiling. Because perpetual mentoring can also be frustrating. There has to be a trajectory that mentoring leads us to. Whenever you are being mentored and you have someone who is experienced, who is looking after you and paying attention, you just have the feeling that someone is saying, “I got you”. It gives you the strength to move on and not stand in the same place.

The women who are being honoured tonight have chosen to be part of the dynamic and exciting field of science and technology—a rapidly growing industry with ever-expanding opportunities for learning, entrepreneurship and employment. As someone who went back to school at an older age, after having been a Deputy President, I took time to really understand how technology and ICT can be effective in education. So I really appreciate what you have achieved, because I had to learn about some of it at an advanced age and it was not a walk in the park.

I also want to thank you because you are in an area that is revolutionizing how we live and how we work. It impacts the future and our potential for growth, and conquers many of the challenges we face.

Computerized work environments, both at home and in our private space, almost dictates how we live, and soon the internet of things will be something that we live with every day. E-learning platforms enable us to get to the hard-to-reach communities in large numbers and ensuring that we can deliver quality. Innovation is making it possible to bank with our phones, create green production technologies, and climate-smart agriculture that will make sure that when the weather changes because of climate change, we do not starve.

However, we can and must expand the reach of technology to the poorest of the poor. What is still missing in my view is the use of the technology in the best interest of the poor.

Women and girls stand to benefit as much as boys and men when we are also focused, and combining this amazing intellect with bridging the divide that exists in our society, between men and women, rich and poor, is something that for us in South Africa is high on our agenda. By working together like this, and having events like this we give ourselves an opportunity to think collectively on what is most important for our country.

Again, we also live in a world where the importance of driving economies that grow with jobs has never been so important. Right now, fewer than 17 per cent of computer science degrees go to female students, and yet we need to be encouraging more girls because of the work opportunities that will be there in that sector.

Globally, women only make up— at the upper end—only 15 per cent of top decision-makers in the tech sector. But we know that more than 50 per cent of social media users and gamers—a billion dollar industry—are women. We need to make sure that globally women are also decision-makers, innovators and creators in this industry.

Only 9 per cent of apps in Europe are created by women. So while women are having their lives changed by this revolution of science and technology, we still have to make sure that we are creating a world where women also excel in the industry.

I also want to highlight the fact that we are living at a time of significant change in the world. As you will recall, last year in 2015 the world adopted a new agenda that replaced the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). We adopted Agenda 2030, which is composed of 17 Sustainable Development Goals. It also addresses the perils of women, including the impact of climate change, and on financing for development, which focuses on mechanisms to finance this last agenda that we have developed.

Agenda 2030 the biggest agenda since the United Nations Charter was adopted. In theory that should be a game-changer and create amazing opportunities for scientists as well as social scientists because we are trying to rethink the world with the lessons that we have learnt since the creation of the United Nations 70 years ago.

People ask, do these internationally agreed goals work? I can tell you that they work, starting with the Beijing Declaration adopted 20 years ago. When we evaluated that Declaration, we actually found that, yes, we have not achieved everything that we wanted to achieve out of that agreement, but at the same time we saw positive peer pressure within countries, between countries, that helped to make sure that countries were lifting as they climbed.

One of the biggest winners of the implementation of both the MDGs and the Beijing Platform for Action was girls’ education, especially for the countries that started at the bottom. Our own country participated, positively aligning the implementation of the MDGs with our own National Development Plan (NDP), and through that we can see now the fruits of our labours. Girls in our schools are just as many and doing just as well as boys.

With the adoption of the Beijing Platform for Action and the MDGs, we also saw great progress in addressing maternal health and child mortality. Countries exchanged lessons on how to target some of these areas of concern, and scientists were at the forefront, working together with social scientists, to understand what needs to be done in these communities.

It was interesting to see that countries like Bangladesh, for instance, with its level of poverty, were amongst the countries that did exceptionally well in the implementation of the MDGs. Most countries in Latin America also made significant progress, especially in girls’ education.

In Africa, because we started at a very low place, we did very well in primary education. We are now poised to systematically work through secondary education, improving the quality and making sure that we strengthen the pipeline that is needed for tertiary education. At events like this, we give the young boys and girls who are going through secondary education a reason to aspire to get into tertiary education because of the opportunities that we are celebrating today.

So, the Sustainable Development Goals are about the lessons we have learned, in implementing the Beijing Platform, in implementing the MDGs. The SDGs are also about the unfinished business of the MDGs. There are 17 goals and that you should take as a challenge as scientists, because this is about making the world your oyster.

These goals, unlike the MDGs, are universal. They are for implementation in both developed and developing countries, because the problems that we are trying to solve occur in all countries. If we take an approach that only sees development as something that is needed in developing countries, we risk ignoring the pockets of underdevelopment in rich countries. But more than anything else, the change in attitude in the countries that are rich is just as important, especially when it comes to gender inequality, because prejudice against women and girls exists in every country. That is why there is no country in the world that has achieved gender equality.

So collaboration across the board, making the world your oyster, and working with you counterparts anywhere in the world—from the mountains of Afghanistan to Stockholm to Columbia to South Africa—in every part of the world, there is room and a road for you.

For instance, Goal 1 is about ending poverty; Goal 2 is about dealing with hunger; Goal 3 is about health; Goal 4 is about education, Goal 5 is about gender equality; Goal 6 is about water, sanitation and hygiene; Goal 7 is about energy; Goal 8 is about economic growth; Goal 9 is about industry and development; Goal 10 is about dealing with inequality. All the way to Goal 17, which is about partnership. In each of these goals there is a role for you. And these are the issues that occur in most of the countries on the planet.

If we group these goals they are about, firstly, shared prosperity, dealing with inequality between countries and within countries. Even in the rich countries, you find pockets of inequality and poverty, so shared prosperity is something that concerns everybody. In every country you have got the very rich and those that are just surviving. Very few countries in the world have been able to deal with inequality in such a way that poverty is not a matter of concern.

Secondly, these goals are about protecting peace and preventing conflict. We all know that this is a collective responsibility. If there is a war in Syria, the refugees are going to turn up in Oslo. So it is inevitable that we choose to invest, first in preventing conflict, but when we have a war, in making sure that the war is ended quickly.

Today we have about 39 conflicts in the world that are raging all at the same time. Diplomacy as a mechanism to solve problems has been challenged as it has never been before. And therefore, the issue of peacemaking is what brings us together as nations because we all want a peaceful world.

Southern Africa is a post-conflict region. We have had a war in Angola, a war in Zimbabwe, we have had to deal with our own apartheid in South Africa, and a war in Mozambique, so we know exactly what it is like to have conflict within our society. We are therefore concerned and are in solidarity with the rest of the world where there is conflict. So, these goals are also about dealing with these issues.

They are also about protecting the planet. The responsibility of protecting the planet is everybody’s responsibility. If you pollute in America, we are going to feel it. If you pollute in China we are going to feel it. If we pollute in Sasolburg, everyone is going to feel it. So the need for everyone to work together for a low-carbon economy is a shared responsibility for the world. Again, this is what makes these goals global and universal, and again also your oyster as a scientist because you have a need to collaborate with your counterparts everywhere in the world, because you have got shared concerns.

These goals are about leaving no one behind. They are about people. They are about ensuring that in our communities those who are at the end of the queue are brought to the front. And those who are most likely to be left behind are the ones that we start with. Women and girls in every society are the ones who are most likely to be left behind, unless they are targeted. Disabled people are likely to be left behind, LGBTQI women and men in countries where there is a preference for certain sexual orientations are likely to be left behind. Older people in communities where they do not have care and services are also likely to be left behind. So when we talk about leaving no one behind, all of us have people in our communities and our countries that we can work with.

So this agenda is truly an agenda for this generation to deliver on. In every generation you have a cause to bleed for and you have a mission to accomplish. I believe that in this generation, the causes that need to be accomplished, the things that you need to address with both hands and work together across borders, are very clear.

As Frantz Fanon says, “each generation must discover its mission, fulfill it or betray it...” And as scientists and social scientists, I hope that I can trust you not to betray the mission of your generation, because here tonight we are motivating you and showing you that you have got what it takes.

And therefore I congratulate you, I celebrate you, and I look forward to sitting there and clapping and of course thinking about the wonderful things that you are already doing and the wonderful things that you will continue to do for our country, for our continent and for the world.

Thank you.