Speech: “Gender inequality is a universal problem”—Executive Director

Remarks by UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies’ Development Roundtable in Washington, DC on 12 April, 2017


Thank you so much for this warm welcome. It is a pleasure to be here, and I wish I was also here earlier on for some of the deliberations that you already had. I wanted to kick-start this discussion with a short clip that frames some of the issues I would like to highlight, and the issues that came out of work that we did together with Dr. Jeni Klugman, who is here with me, and with whom we will have the conversation later.

This is a real story, but these are actors.

(Short Ethiopian film "Alem" screened)

I think this summarizes why we do what we do. There are so many Alems in the world. Obviously, this situation represents the worst-case scenario for what is potentially a very clever girl with so much to give to the world; with an unsuspecting mother; with a father maybe somewhere in the labour market working very hard for the family; maybe in a political system that does not invest in addressing the redistribution of unpaid care work, the norms that discriminate against women and girls, and the wishes of fathers who actually may want to be present in the upbringing of their children.

What would happen to Alem? Let us assume she is 12 years old; what is her life’s trajectory? Get married early? Poverty? And once that happens, maternal health complications and child mortality could also follow.

What do you think would happen to the boys? They would teach their children the same way so inter-generational poverty is perpetuated. What else? The boys might have a possibility to improve their education. Alem’s brother already might get a scholarship, which perhaps Alem was also well qualified to compete for. It’s not that we do not wish the boys to have success, but we want both the girls and the boys to have equal opportunities.

What else crossed your mind? What would we say to the father, remembering that 80 per cent of men in the world will become biological dads, and most of them are not hands-on parents, which exacerbates the burden of care on the mothers and their potential to enter the labour market smoothly. Yes, there is potential for human trafficking. The mother may just need more money to educate the boys, to look after the younger children, and it may be easier to make money from Alem.

So, you see the cycles that repeat and may sometimes just look like the normal course of the way our lives are.

When the UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment met—which I would like to talk about with the help of Jeni—we emphasized the fact that private is public. When we think about the importance of the participation of women in the global economy, we must not forget about creating an enabling environment for gender equality at a household level, and institutionalized to the extent that we have gender equality at home. The chances are that the boys will take their home behaviour to the workplace and they will perpetuate gender inequality if and when they become senior in the institutions that they may be a part of.

Policymakers need to understand how this continuum affects the work relations and the performance of economies; how the fact that mothers and girls have this burden of taking care of family robs us of the chance for women to be actors in the economy. They deserve to be there because it is their human right, but also because they have a contribution to make. It is not about, as sometimes we discuss, changing women and girls to fit into the world, but changing the world so that the world recognizes that women and girls exist.

In the High-Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment we tried to maintain an emphasis on this continuum between the private being public and the public being private. We looked at the structural barriers that are sustained in society; both the formal barriers and the norms and the traditions that carry on from generation to generation. These sometimes are even stronger than the good laws that we pass in order to address gender inequality.

We identified seven drivers that could facilitate women’s economic empowerment, and we looked at how the seven drivers can be used to break some of the challenges that we saw in this one family. I hope that you would also find them interesting in the work that you are doing.

It is important to understand that gender inequality is a universal problem, lest we think that it is only girls who have a life like Alem, or those who live in the countries that Alem’s. There is no country in the world that has attained gender equality, notwithstanding all the hard work that we have done.

In the US, we are still dealing with unequal pay across the board. In the US, we are still dealing with high levels of gender-based violence. We are also dealing with underrepresentation of women in decision-making, in government, in private sector and in different institutions. And in the US, we are also still dealing with some laws and practices that discriminate against women, the most fundamental of them being that there is not, at a federal level, paid maternity leave that is compulsory. There are only two countries in the world that do not have that; the US and Papua New Guinea.

When I spoke to women at NASA, they said, you know we are rocket scientists in every way, but if I get pregnant it is a difficult decision for me, because I have to ask my colleagues if I can have some of their leave days, which they will donate to me so I can have more time at home to look after the baby. Really? A woman in a small country like Djibouti has paid maternity leave, and a woman who works at NASA cannot have that? So, we have these contradictions, which are there in all societies. I am raising that because sometimes we think of fighting to help people who are “out there” and we do not pay enough attention to changing also the conditions where we live. So that experience, in itself, prepares us to work better for everyone in the world.

I am now going to ask Jeni to join me in discussing these seven drivers. Thank you.