“We want change, and we want it now”—Executive Director

Speech by Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Director of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, at the Congolese women leaders’ summit on 25 July, 2017, in Kinshasa


Thank you very much for this opportunity and for your warm hospitality. Thank you to Ms. Amina Mohammed, UN Deputy Secretary-General, for leading us in this delegation and to my sisters Ms. Bineta Diop, the Special Envoy on Women, Peace and Security of the African Union, and Ms. Pramila Patten, the UN special representative on sexual violence against women in conflict areas, fighting from the front. Although she is new, she is already making her mark, taking over from another great African woman. We also have with us our sister Ms. Kafui Adjamagbo-Johnson, who has come all the way from Togo to support this initiative, a formidable lawyer, leading women in West Africa, working on law development and gender, who is able to understand and interpret the issues we are working on.

We are clear on the solidarity issue. We are here because we want the women of the Congo and the government to know that, whatever happens here, we are here for the long haul. There will never be a time when you are alone. We are also here to say that there is a pressure of time. The fact that there will be elections in this country is a critical opportunity for women to step up, come to the front, and take their rightful place in society. The DRC is blessed with a lot of strong women and political activists. In our observations, DRC is one of the countries in the world that has sustained the interests and activism of women. You are stalwarts. We see an intergenerational formation. Those who were here even before you went to Sun City, who went and started the dialogue, are rich with history. You can hand over knowledge to those may be attending their first political meeting. We want to see this intergenerational fertilization happening among you.

We are also here because, as the UN, together with you, and as the AU, working with you, we are undergoing changes. On the part of the AU, it is about the AU taking its destiny in its own hands, and saying that we are going to resource ourselves, we are going to try and implement the many agreements fully, so that we can see changes in the lives of women. As the UN, we are now more than 70 years old. It is a grandmother now. We have reflected on the road we have travelled, and the changes in the world, and we are asking ourselves what we need to change about the UN so that we are fit for purpose for this era.

In order to reshape ourselves, and as we emerged from the Millennium Development Goals, we adopted a new set of goals for the 21st century to take us forward. Our Deputy Secretary-General was at the forefront of distilling these goals from an initial 500 down to 17 goals. She managed to keep the Member States, the civil society, the business sector, the academics and the young people together, so that we could come out at the end with a set of goals that put women and girls front and centre. This new agenda is about ensuing that by 2030 we should potentially have a world that functions differently from the world as we know it now. And that is why we kept on talking about being ambitious, being bold, doing business unusual.

We would like to emerge, by 2030, into a world where violence against women is an exception, rather than a rule. The fact is that one in three women experience violence. That is a huge number. It means that about one billion women in the world are walking wounded. It is an epidemic of significant proportion. In fact, the World Health Organization called it a ‘public health crisis’. Yet there is not outrage in the world about this crisis. What we want to see by 2030 and preferably way before that is that this one out of three number does not exist anymore. 

By 2030, we do not want to talk any more about the fact that women are paid less than men. It must be a shame and a disgrace, and any employer who does not pay women and men equally for work of equal value must be afraid, because this is the greatest robbery that has ever happened. Women’s labour is being taken for granted. This is the change that can happen in our lifetime, and in the next couple of years.

We want to reach 2030 having achieved effective participation of women in all bodies that make decisions about our lives; in the private sector, in government, communities, in churches, and in schools. This is a very clear target and it can be done.

By 2030, we want to have no children forced into marriage. This is a very clear thing. The suffering and the disruption of the lives of the communities, the lives of the girls, and of the economies, the disruption of the rights of the girls leads to such complex situations in countries, that this is something that cannot continue to happen. We have passed laws on this; there are children’s rights, programmes and initiatives; and together we should be able to act to end this. In addition, we want by 2030 to have no female genital mutilation.

In any country, by 2030, we want to make sure that the face of poverty is not the face of a woman. We want girls to be supported from a young age to choose the subjects that will put them at the forefront of the economy. When girls go to university, they are performing very well—including here, where the girls are outperforming the boys—but girls are not the ones leading industries, and they are not in top management. By 2030, we want girls to be on top of the game. The UN, government, the private sector, media, everywhere—we want to see women and girls in their rightful position. When we do all of these things and we do them collectively, in every corner of the world, because we are the UN and we can work everywhere with you, we can shake up the world, and create something new.

My child once said to me, ‘you know mama, there are so many people in China, if they were all to jump together, they would create an earthquake that would reach everywhere ’. I want us to jump together on the specific issues we are choosing because if we jump together on the same issues at the same time in every corner of the world, we can create the earthquake that will make the pillars of patriarchy crumble, never to be reassembled again. 

One of the obstacles to change at the moment is the fact that we are not jumping together at the same time on the same issues. What the Sustainable Development Goals provide is a framework to jump together. We have to jump together in DRC. Everywhere in the world, whether in Argentina, in South Africa, in India, or Egypt, we can say DRC is a priority. All the women of the world are jumping together for DRC; we support the changes; and let’s make sure that we are productive. This is what made the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action happen more than 20 years ago—because we chose to jump together. We did not have the resources then that we do now, of the Internet, of WhatsApp groups, we could not afford the tickets that we have now to let us fly, but somehow we made it happen. We came up with the most comprehensive agreement. There was something achieved there that we have lost—mobilizing people from the bottom up—and which we are trying to recreate with you. You are one of the first countries we are focusing on. That is why we are here for this visit, and this is why we have visited Nigeria. These women sitting here before you have decided that we are not in a job, we are in a cause. This is our lives, so jump with us.

One of the critical milestones for the Congo is going to be making sure that the parity law in the electoral legislation is reflected as intended in the Constitution. We want to work with you to make sure that it happens.

We want access to justice in this country to be unlimited. Let us support Government when they try to make this happen, let us engage them when they have shortcomings, let us use the resources that we have as civil society and as other partners, and let us meet them half way to change the trajectory. When a woman has to have access to justice, she has to pay in order to make the perpetrator come in front of law enforcement. That is not an acceptable situation. So, we have formed a network of women (which Ms. Diop will speak about more) all around Africa, and I see many faces here that I have seen many times. We have had long conversations, and even tears about the future of this country. And now no tears – action! Action and results!

The network of women decided that, as African women, we are taking back our destiny. We have a saying in my language—Zulu—which says that you have to report to somebody when men have given up. You can only report to women, because they are the higher authority. We have reached that point. Not just in DRC, but in Africa, where women have to step up and bring about the change. It is not a coincidence that this delegation is made up of African women at this point in time, because we have to take responsibility to change the game. The African Women Leaders’ Network must be leaders that are worth our salt. We must be leading real people, with real issues, at grassroots levels. So we are asking you to build numbers with people who share your dream.

Secondly, we agreed that we will address the laws in our countries that stand in the way of our big jump, by improving or amending or inventing it. We do have a law like that in this country and we will address it. 

We agreed that we will also address laws that affect the countries in the continent. We will arrive physically to inspire women where it is needed, and to speak truth to power as we are doing now. This will be an action-oriented alliance, and we will report twice a year on the progress that we are making. The next meeting is in February in Addis—so get your tickets now. 

We agreed that elections and women’s participation are critical, so women will be canvassing in all the countries where there are elections. We are on the ground in Senegal mobilizing women, and in Nigeria we are also talking to women and will be going back, zigzagging through the country, to mobilize women. Of course we are strategic, so we focus where the women have the strongest chance of success. So we are going to jump together in those constituencies and make sure that the women can succeed where they are strongest and so we do not compete where we cannot win.

We want to emerge with a comprehensive report in the first year of how we are building this movement from the bottom up. Do you remember how on one day, the women of America walked the streets, and we watched on television. We can walk the streets of Africa, in villages and everywhere, on one or two days, and bring the whole continent to a standstill. We can say to the powers that be that we want change, and we want it now, and we want to take our own responsibility to build this country and this continent.

So that is why we are here today.

Are you in, or are you in?