Remarks by Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Director of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka at the African Women Leaders Network: Second Women Leaders Forum for Africa’s Transformation


[As delivered]


Distinguished members of the panel,

Ladies and gentlemen,

We are here to mark the start of this African Women Leaders Network. This Network has a vital mission: to have African women take their vital place in transforming Africa and the world. It is committed to making sure that we support and align with the African Union and AU leaders in their mission to champion the implementation of regional and international commitments to peace, security, development and gender equality in Africa. This Network is committed to holding its leaders accountable, and to holding itself accountable to the women and girls of Africa. This Network is also committed to take responsibility to build the Africa we want. We are not outsourcing our responsibility; we are part and parcel of the work that needs to be done. But we also look up to the leadership of the continent, without whom we will not be able to reach our destiny.

Today is a moment where we reiterate our renewed commitment to the Network, having reached our first birthday. We have committed ourselves to sustained engagement, because we have no illusions that this work is going to be easy. We also commit ourselves to be facilitators of a Network that goes beyond this room and that - to be truly credible - has to be made up of the millions of women all over the continent. When we come together next time, we hope we will be able to talk about the women we are inspiring, working with and working for in our different countries.

Together we have stressed the importance of a dialogue, including intergenerational dialogue, solidarity and partnerships to advance women’s leadership on issues of development and economic growth, on conflict prevention and resolution, on political participation and on elections that affect women across the continent.

Women have demanded gender parity, at all levels and in all sectors; birth registration for every child, so that every child of Africa is accounted for; and the elimination of violence against women, including by ending child marriage and FGM, as well as violence that is endured by women in politics, at the time when they are running for office, when they are in office and after they have left office.

This Network is committed to addressing that violence which sometimes is invisible. We are committed to supporting quality education for all children, so that no one is left behind. We are also committed to partner with Member States, the AU, civil society, the private sector, the media and men and boys so that we can accomplish our objectives not only throughout the continent but also around the world.

At this point, there are two steering committees that have been formed, in the DRC and in Cote D’Ivoire, and we thank the colleagues in these countries for having achieved this important milestone. Next time when we meet we would like to have a list of countries that have reached this milestone. We thank the Minister of Cote D’Ivoire for his progress. We also want to thank the members of this Network who have used some of the structures that they belong to in order to advance the work of the Network.

We have sought to commit ourselves to working with different women who are focused on making laws that are good for women in different countries. We are collaborating with women and men who are making sure that countries that have not yet passed the laws that advance gender equality, do pass those laws. We are also committed to working to end child marriage in every country in Africa, through thousands of women who are political, business and civil society leaders and activists, so that the work that they do is taken to rural areas and makes a difference to young people.

We recognize that Africa has the youngest population in the world and that is it not going to be possible for Africa to succeed unless we engage young people truly; not token consultation, not as honorary participants in our programmes, but as true participants whose contribution we respect and whose words and concerns we take seriously.

Since we met in New York last June we have also formed the Group of Friends of the AWLN that brought together more than 40 Member States from all regions of the world. We thank Ghana for having led this process. These groups of friends are actively looking at ways in which they will support our activities. It therefore becomes important that the proposed activities are as concrete as possible so that our friends can know what they are supporting. We do not want our friends to support us to go to meetings. We want our friends to support us to make lives better for all women and girls on every part of the continent.

We have also been conducting solidarity missions under the leadership of the United Nations Deputy Secretary-General, Amina Mohammad. We have been in Nigeria and in DRC: you saw some of the pictures in the video. In Nigeria we had the privilege of spending time with the Chibok girls who had returned. We were able, hopefully, to inspire them, to make them know they have a whole life ahead of them, and to support the efforts of the minister, civil society and other stakeholders who were helping them to heal.

We did the same in DRC. During that visit we spent time with women, with civil society, and we were particularly inspired in DRC by the commitment of young people. We gave them a task, to build a strong network of young people that has both women and men who stand for gender equality. I am glad to say that some of them are here with us today. The work that they are doing shows that the Network has a future.

This Network was present this year during the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), held in March in New York, and participated in many side events. The priority theme of the CSW of this year was the challenges and opportunities for women and girls in rural areas. Africa’s presence, especially the rural women this year, was truly amazing. The participation was significant, and a qualitative contribution made to the text that was finally agreed.

I want to thank the AU for having enabled us to prepare for the Commission, so that by the time the delegates and the participants got to New York they were ready to make a difference. Africa held that Commission together right up to the end, and I think that deserves a clap.

We were able during CSW to focus on the needs of rural women, which include agriculture, access to land, infrastructure, ending violence against women, the conflict of unplanned urbanization of populations, insufficient general investment in rural areas, the consequences of disasters and environmental degradation, and the challenges faced by women in rural areas as a result of conflict and displacement. The Agreed Conclusions focused on what needs to be done to address these issues, with significant relevance to what needs to be done in Africa. I thank the members of the Network who in their different ways enriched both the discussion and the outcome of this document.

Women on this continent face complex and multiple challenges, both new and old, with consequences that heighten the risk of conflicts enduring, and new threats emerging. Our work is to make sure that we are present to mitigate these challenges.

Boko Haram and other terrorist groups continue to affect the lives of millions across the Sahel and the Lake Chad region, the majority of whom are women and children. In Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger, almost one of every five suicide bombers is a child, and three quarters of all child suicide bombers are girls. That is our challenge.

As this Network we need to consider what we are going to do in order to change this trajectory. This is not only to change the impact of these violent acts on girls and women but also on men and boys.

We also have agreed as this Network to find ways of supporting our work and generating and mobilizing resources so that we can truly be agile. We are not intending to build an empire of institutions, but we are intent on facilitating movements, consultations, and more than anything else, bringing about change in the lives of women and girls on the continent.

We want to be part of silencing the guns in Africa by 2020, and we want to define what that means. We want to be part of making sure that Africa realizes the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, and that Africa is able to build the Africa we want in Agenda 2063. The critical role of women needs to be defined by us and we need to build on the work that is already going on.

We want to make sure that we increase significantly the role of women in political processes across our countries. The fact that, right now, we have no female president in Africa is a sore point. The fact that, right now, only Rwanda, Senegal and South Africa have parliaments where women make up more than 40 per cent is a challenge that we want to tackle, so that we can increase the number of women who are in parliament.

We also want to increase – maybe it is not in our hands – but we would like our leaders to increase the number of women who are in cabinets. Cape Verde was a leader in this area, but their numbers have recently fallen. The fact that Cape Verde has been there, means that this can be done.

Around the world, countries with 50-50 cabinets are Canada, Guatemala, France and Bulgaria. It is an important achievement for women to be in cabinets. It is therefore worth fighting for, urging our presidents to see this as an important contribution that women can make in the development of their countries.

We look forward to you going back home to your different countries and elevating the women’s agenda in and outside your parliaments, and to be above the differences we have as political parties. In each country we would like to encourage a women’s caucus, where women of different parties, together with the men, raise the issues of women above the other issues that may divide them. Because when we are taking about violence against women, it does not matter which party you come from when a rapist is in front of you. They do not ask for the ticket of your political party, so all women need to stand together to fight this scourge. It does not matter which party you come from when as a woman you are suffering because you are not being recognized and you are not being promoted. This is an issue therefore that should unite us across every divide in every country.

We celebrate the emerging women who are showing exceptional leadership on our continent. A woman like Jaha Dukureh of The Gambia, who is UN Women’s Goodwill Regional Ambassador for Africa, and who is a survivor of child marriage and FGM but is fighting ahead and fighting on behalf of all women who have experienced the same harmful cultural practices.

We are also proud that in 2018 the Time 100 list of the most influential people of 2018 lists a young Kenyan woman activist, Nice Nailantei Leng'ete, who works on ending child marriage. Through her work 15,000 women around Kenya have been saved from either being cut or child marriage. At this young age she is already a changemaker. This is evidence of how much we are prepared to move forward.

So, whether it is from Cape Town to Cairo, Mogadishu to Ouagadougou, women are standing up. This Network is ready to work. We here today have 45 countries that are represented. This is truly remarkable. But we are aiming for nothing less than 100 per cent of African countries being a part of the network.

Thank you for giving us a year that is encouraging, a year of hope. But we need much more from everybody.