Speech: The power of proximity

Remarks by Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Director of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, at the Skoll World Forum

Date: Tuesday, April 10, 2018

[As delivered]

In 2018, Google reported that the world searched for ‘women’s rights’ 700 per cent more in January. This suggests increased interest in the subject of women’s rights. I think it was guys searching, because women know what women’s rights are, but better late than never! This could also be part of the journey that ensures that women too respect women’s rights. But we cannot be complacent. We cannot say that because there is an upsurge of interest, we have arrived and our journey is ending. We should see this instead as a tipping point moment, because we know that it will take much more for us to change the systems and the structures that impede gender equality. We also have to be opportunistic, and when we see a moment, we must turn it into something formidable.

Let us look at sexual harassment and abuse in the workplace. I want to focus on this because it is much more difficult for people like us to deal with this issue in the home. The workplace is an institution, and this is a workplace hazard. If there isn’t a functioning air-conditioner at work when it’s needed, someone has to do something about it, to fix it and be accountable. It should not be left to the women to fight for themselves. It should also not be left to the perpetrator to decide how to deal with it. The perpetrator must take responsibility, and so should the institution, the department of labour, the minister responsible for employment, the shareholders, the customers—all of whom have a stake in making sure that we bring about systemic change.

Those of us here also have a stake in seeing progress, because of our proximity to both the issues and to the institutions. We also have proximity to each other. It is a luxury to be able to use our proximity with each other to bring about change, with results coming from collaboration. We have proximity to the women and girls who we seek to support, and to ensure that they are not abused. We also have proximity to the powers that be, in different ways. Informal power has come with the era of social media, where no one has to be elected to have people listening to them in their thousands and millions. That is power that we all have proximity to. So we must and can use these levels of proximity to be the change that we can be.

Sometime back, in my other life, I was a Minister of Mines and Energy in South Africa. That was at the height of the time of ‘blood diamonds’, especially in Angola, DRC and Sierra Leone. Even though in my country the problem was not as significant, it was disheartening for me to see what was happening in those countries. Not only was there a problem of abuse of rights, of deaths and killing, and disruption of communities, but also those governments had no revenue to collect. This one resource they had to run their economies was slipping through their hands, because of the way it was traded.

You know, diamonds are a dirty business. You have the buyers, the miners, the sellers, the processers, and many other persons in between. In order to stop the slippage, we needed to bring everybody together to address the issue of blood diamonds. To cut the story short, we ended up with the Kimberley Process, which some of you may know about. It helped us to track the diamonds from the mine to the market, so that we were able to separate the illegally traded diamonds. That for me was one of the most complex processes I’ve ever been involved in. At that time, there was so much concern in the world about the issue. It was there as a tipping moment and an opportunity, but no single country could do anything about it by itself. We needed to come together, to get everybody inside the tent, to be able to take the matter forward.

So too, on the issue of gender equality, do we need everybody inside the tent and to pull all the strings together, because we are all affected, although in different ways.

Today is ‘Equal Pay Day’ in the US—another injustice that needs a complex solution. And yet there’s a potential tipping point. It depends what we do with the moment. Today the average gender pay gap in the world is 23 per cent. It gets worse if you are a woman of colour, indigenous, disabled and in some cases, your sexual orientation also makes a difference. This is a problem that has a solution. Frankly this is robbery: the fact that women work as hard as men, but are not paid the same for selling their labour to the same bidder for doing exactly the same work. The different laws that hinder women’s economic renumeration require all of us to be inside the tent and to use our proximity to the different stakeholders, like trade unions. At this point in history, they should be fighting as much for higher wages as for equal wages. Once this issue is in the bargaining chamber you can begin to deal with it in a different way. This is an issue again for customers who care about equality. This is an issue for shareholders.

The issues of sexual violence and of equal pay are complex and significant, and they also need all of us as society to come together. I feel we have reached a point in the struggle for gender equality where we have exhausted what we can do alone as women. We have reached the point where in South Africa we would say ‘this is a time for Truth and Reconciliation’. But I want to call it the time for Truth and Correction. Because if you address the issue of sexual violence at the workplace, only about 10 per cent of the women who are affected do report it and have access to justice. If all the women who have been harassed were to stand up, can you imagine what would happen to companies? But that’s not a reason to keep quiet and to leave women in that state. Someone has to lead from the front for dialogue to begin in nations, so that we can track this situation, and move on to make sure that justice is served to women.

Let us think also about the issue of equal pay: some companies have said to me “we just don’t have the money”. So what should happen to women? Should this be it, for the rest of their lives? Must the women ‘take one for the team’? Consider how much shareholders are able to take for themselves. There has got to be a time when we sit down, we intervene, and we say ‘something has to be done’. These issues are complex, but they need answers.

This is something you cannot leave to civil society, or to women’s organizations, who only have placards sometimes to fight with, and who are doing everything in their power. Any person, any leader, any head of state, and all the different institutions, including institutions such as religious institutions, need to be part of this because this is the tipping point, where Truth and Correction has to happen in society.

Let us take the issue of forced and early marriage of children. These are children who are being married off to people who are old enough to be their fathers, their grandfathers or their caregivers. This is a practice that is sanctioned by society in the presence of their parents, by governments, communities and traditional leaders. We know the building blocks and the interventions that are critical to turn around this situation. There are people in this audience who have worked very hard to take us where we are today, where we are beginning to see the decline of the practice in some parts of the world. But we cannot leave the next generation and our children in this situation. This is a battle we have to win, and we are the generation that must win this battle, with everybody onside who can help us with solutions.

One thing I learned from Nelson Mandela was the importance of working with people you disagree with when you need a solution. Many of these problems that have to do with gender inequality require the people we disagree to be part of the solution. This is why we also reach out to men and boys - not because they have to protect women – but because they have got to do their duty. Thankfully there is an increasing number of good men who are making a difference. Although not enough. Therefore, whether you are talking about ending violence against women; or about addressing the issue of equal pay and the denial of the renumeration women have worked for; or about the forced marriage of children to people that are old enough to be their parents; these are complex issues. These issues have got answers, and we need everybody to be part of the solutions.

We also need effective use of data and evidence so that we are able to work in a targeted way. We did a study towards the end of last year, checking the implementation of the SDGs and their impact on women and girls in 89 countries. In particular we were looking at poverty. We found that women between the ages of 24 and 35 remained the poorest people on earth. The reason why, in all countries, rich and poor, was motherhood and the burden of care. Because at that age they are struggling to raise a family, and they are trying also to settle in the labour market. They may have older parents to look after, and they may also be leaders in their community, doing many of the little things in the community as well as the big things that other people do not want to do. And for that, they get marginalized from active economic benefits. These women are young enough to start their lives all over, so it is important to take correctional action and to make sure that we can support them.

What this means to us, and to many of you who follow this issue, is that the issue of the care economy and the burden of care has a significant impact on the future of our economies and a devastating impact on the lives of women. These are some of the big challenges of our time that need us to find solutions, not just to reduce, but actually to end these practices. Because for each one of these issues, where we find a solution, the benefits are there for everybody. If we end violence against women, if we address unequal pay, if we address unpaid care work - we all know the upside for economies, for families, for health and for education.

I chose those three examples to illustrate that some of these complex things - for which our proximity gives us a unique possibility to provide solutions - are killing our nations and yet are where the answers lie to some of the big advantages that society needs.

So, this is 2018. People are searching for the meaning of women’s rights in an unprecedented manner, but the moment may only happen if we also take the other necessary steps. This is 2018. We are the first generation with the real possibility to address power relations between men and women. This is 2018. We have the possibility to address the poverty of women and girls in a significant way, even if we just focus on those between 24 and 35 years old. This is 2018. We are the last generation who can do something meaningful to avert some of the consequences of not paying attention to the challenges of climate change. That makes us special. That gives us significant and strategic proximity. I think we should cherish our place in history. Thank you.