The 2019 Madeleine K. Albright Development Lecture by Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women

Substantive gender equality: breakthrough change that lasts

Date: Thursday, August 1, 2019

Peggy Clark, Vice President of Policy Programs and Executive Director of Aspen Global Innovators Group; Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of UN Women and  Madeleine Albright, former US Secretary of State. Photo Courtesy of The Aspen Institute
Peggy Clark, Vice President of Policy Programs and Executive Director of Aspen Global Innovators Group; Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of UN Women and Madeleine Albright, former US Secretary of State. Photo Courtesy of The Aspen Institute

Secretary Madeleine Albright, thank you so much for your warm welcome. Dear Peggy and leaders of the institutions associated with the Aspen Institute, thank you for the invitation to give the Madeleine K. Albright Global Development Lecture this year. It’s an honour to be here this evening and to share my thoughts with you.

I would also like to thank Secretary Albright for her leadership and for helping to keep us focused on things that matter. In her book ‘Fascism: A Warning’, she urges us all to stay engaged, and to fight monsters without turning into monsters ourselves. Let me respond by saying to her that these words of warning are not falling on deaf ears.

Every part of the world needs fighters for justice in the face of attacks on human rights and on human rights defenders. There is a critical need for many more people to focus on delivering solutions without becoming part of the problem.

In my talk today I have been invited to consider where the breakthroughs have been in gender equality, and to point out where we have opportunities for targeted action, and investments that will bring us closer to substantive equality and change that will last.

Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action

Let me start with the extraordinary moment in China in 1995, when 189 countries agreed on the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action.

This was the first ever solid pledge by so many nations to agree to advance gender equality to such an extent. It became the blueprint for gender equality and an agenda for women’s empowerment across the world for the next 25 years.

It became for the women’s movement what the UN Charter is to UN Member States: a place of historic, consensual agreement that we can lean on in the face of disagreements and changing administrations. It instigated a global network of gender activists that formed across every corner of the world on every issue.

It set out 12 critical areas of concern for women globally that have shaped thinking and global policy making, with women making sure that they are not victims but are leaders, taking control of their own destiny.

It set us on a path to separating out women’s issues distinctly, at the same time as affirming them as fully-fledged human rights. It was agreed that ‘Women's rights are human rights and human rights are women’s rights’. That helped to change the way some parts of the world saw gender equality. Women’s rights gained respect in more nations and that enabled breakthroughs with continuing impact.

For example, it was after 1995 that we began to see that we should understand ‘the girl child’ as having importantly different needs and concerns from boys. All children have rights, but girls were denied many rights just because they were girls. That is when the world began to strongly champion the end of child marriage which affects girl children in a unique way, and the end of other harmful practices like female genital mutilation.

After 1995 we were much stronger in pinpointing the abnormality of under-representation of women and girls in important sectors of work and in leadership positions. We initiated targeted empowerment interventions everywhere; including in academia, in sports and in politics. And because women did so well, one woman looked like she was ten people. That’s why sometimes there’s an illusion that there are too many women who have succeeded. But we still have a long way to go.

After 1995, we began to question the framing of laws and to see that they do not always impact everyone equally. In some cases, laws are prejudicial to women’s rights, such as inequality between men and women in matrimony in some countries and in some laws. We have been on a drive to eliminate these discriminatory laws and enact enabling laws, but we are not yet done.

After 1995, we created institutions in society such as women’s ministries and gender commissions. Here in the US you also had a global ambassador for women and girls, who did a great job here and around the world to facilitate the drive for women’s empowerment. UN Women was born in that era of creating these institutions.

We developed new vocabulary like ‘affirmative action’ and ‘minority rights’ as critical areas to be considered when taking decisions. We began to differentiate between equality and equity. We targeted and addressed women’s health and sexual and reproductive rights in a particular way. We exposed and questioned unequal pay and the place of women in economies. Data was generated to illustrate the cost of discrimination. The World Economic Forum predicted that it could take over two centuries at the current pace of change to reach pay parity at work –not under our watch! We’re now asking more women to call for equal pay in every sector as we’ve not achieved yet what needs to be achieved on this issue.

We also drew attention to the burden of household care that disproportionately falls on women and showed how this stops women from enjoying a full work life with full rewards. We were able to convince countries to address the participation of men in the care economy, leading to countries passing laws on parental and paternity leave. Not enough men are taking advantage of these opportunities even when it is paid leave, so the work is not finished. 

Across the world even the poorest countries have seen acceptance of the importance of girls’ education. Two-thirds of countries have now reached gender parity in primary school enrollment. This is not enough yet because we started at a very low base in some countries, but it’s important to mention. And 13 million more girls enrolled in lower secondary school in 2014 than in 2002. More work is needed to address the quality of education and the representation of girls in STEM subjects. We’ve also seen girls graduate from college in much higher numbers in many countries, and out-perform their male counterparts.

In the past 25 years we have exposed and fought against gender-based violence and sexual violence; we have argued for the notion of consent to be recognized in law and exposed the harm that gender-based violence inflicts on women’s health and well-being, as well as on society. Thank you to #MeToo for driving this point home. Back in 1995, domestic violence, frequently committed and rarely punished, was not a crime in many countries. Just in the last decade, 47 countries have introduced laws to criminalize domestic violence. We now have 145 countries that have some form of legislation against domestic violence. But we’re not done yet in this area because there are about 40 countries still remaining to address this.

The fight to protect the planet, combat the effects of climate change, and to position women as fighters in that protection must have a gender lens.

We have also worked for women to control their bodies. At the Aspen Institute, I was part of the team that worked in Malawi in order to support the work there to entrench women‘s reproductive rights and health.

In June 2019, the International Labour Organization adopted the landmark Convention 190 on violence and harassment at work after many years of trying. We are not done here either, but we have definitely been moving forward.

I must also point out that some of the gains made have been reversed, and change is painfully slow.

Agenda 2030

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals are fully aligned with the aspirations that we have as women and the need to move faster. UN Women helped to ensure that gender equality is front and centre in the 2030 Agenda. The biggest deliverables of that Agenda, which will benefit all nations, depend on making substantive progress on gender equality.

We realize that collective thinking that is not shaped by an embrace of gender equality in all nations will be a setback for both the Beijing Platform for Action and to the Sustainable Development Goals.

The state of the world

The world today is certainly not an easy global environment in which to be fostering gender equality. If we were to convene today in the same way as countries did in Beijing almost 25 years ago, we would not get 189 countries agreeing to entrench gender equality. As a result, we are not opening that document for anyone to touch. The risks are just too high.

We also know that, just as we have these challenges and pushback, we also are seeing progress - with women and an increasing number of men pushing back against the pushback.

The 2019 report by Civicus on the “State of civil society” says that only four per cent of the world’s population in 2018 lived in countries where the fundamental civil society freedoms—of association, peaceful assembly and expression— are respected.

The same report also reminds us of some of the wins, where rights were claimed—for example, abortion rights in Ireland and LGBTI rights in India last year, laws to end early, forced marriage in about a dozen countries, and removal of laws that are lenient to perpetrators of rape and honour killing. 

These are some of the gains in the midst of pushback.

Trust deficit

The 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer reveals that trust has changed profoundly in the past year. Most people trust their employers above all institutions. It has not always been the case that workers trust bosses, but this is the way the world is today. What has happened to public sector institutions? This makes employers and private sector key partners for change.

The UN is a body that is responsible for forging global consensus among diverse players and setting standards for the world on various matters of national and global interest. The UN also has to earn the trust of nations.

Peggy Clark, Vice President of Policy Programs and Executive Director of Aspen Global Innovators Group; Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of UN Women;   Madeleine Albright, former US Secretary of Stat; John Allen, President of Brookings; and Anita Bhatia, UN Women Deputy Executive Director. Photo Courtesy of The Aspen Institute
Peggy Clark, Vice President of Policy Programs and Executive Director of Aspen Global Innovators Group; Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of UN Women; Madeleine Albright, former US Secretary of Stat; John Allen, President of Brookings; and Anita Bhatia, UN Women Deputy Executive Director. Photo Courtesy of The Aspen Institute

We were therefore relieved that Edleman reported that trust in the United Nations has increased in 19 of the 26 markets surveyed. People with the harshest lives need to see that we work for them and that we have continuously earned their trust. Women especially need to feel that we are working for them and that we are serving their needs.

However, to achieve to the necessary extent to drive forward gender equality, we need diverse allies who were not there in Beijing. We need young people, we need men and boys, we definitely need the private sector, and we need religious bodies and traditional authorities and leaders.

Men and boys

Men and boys are a key constituency to be engaged for gender equality and I have dedicated part of my term to cultivating these relationships.

Commitment of men with power and privilege could be a major game-changer, for example on equal pay, parity and inclusion of women in all areas where women are under-represented, and ensuring that the rights of the disabled, and people of different sexual orientations are also respected.

Men are key to ending violence against women, and to the recognition, redistribution and rewarding of unpaid care. Men are key to ending harmful practices that impact on women and girls such as forced marriages, as well as stereotypes and norms that are harmful to women and girls.

The anti-slavery movement did not only have slaves fighting for themselves. The fight to end colonization and racism, or apartheid in my country, did not depend only on the people who were affected. It was a broad front, where the insiders and anyone who cared to make the world better took a stand. We need more people to do that for gender equality. We are not there yet; there just are not enough people on the right side of the fight.

Men with influence can choose to make bold changes about who sits on corporate boards, who are in the political parties where there are political bosses. They can also choose to make sure that representation of women in institutions is institutionalized.

In UN Women we have launched the HeForShe movement, aimed at mobilizing men to play a significant role to change the world for the better. These champions for change include CEOs, heads of state, and presidents of universities, who must step forward and do their job. And we will not reward them because we will not reward fishes for swimming. This is their responsibility.

Discriminatory laws

Discriminatory laws, which are institutionalized discrimination, are still a big challenge that we face. We have recognized that these laws go a long way towards robbing women of a lifetime of possibilities.

As we speak, there are over 2.5 billion women and girls around the world who are affected by discriminatory laws, who live in jurisdictions where not all their rights are protected. We have a fast track initiative (Equality in Law for Women and Girls by 2030) to make sure that we have changed this by 2023 in 100 countries that are willing. I am inviting you to join us to make this change. We should not arrive in 2030 in a world in which we still have these laws.

Over the past 25 years, there has been some progress, but gaps in legal protection remain worldwide, leaving women without protection or legal basis to claim their rights, and to share development.

Ending violence against women

Ending violence against women is another important area that needs all of us to work together.

In particular, we are targeting the police, as protectors, as preventers of violence against women, and as the people who are responsible to make sure that perpetrators are brought to book. Women are fighting every day for themselves. We want law enforcement also to do their job.

Parity and inclusion

On parity and inclusion, we are also fighting very hard to ensure that we move away from the current scenario where 75 per cent of parliamentarians in the world are men. These men make laws that affect all of us. Surely this is a lot of work for them, while we are available, and able to do the work. We know what we want for ourselves and for our nations. We therefore see this as another broad front for change in order to make sure that we support women and that we create the possibility for women to take their rightful place.

Coalition building

As we implement the Sustainable Development Goals, and as we push forward with the implementation of the unfinished business of the Beijing Platform, we are also consolidating all of these big changes and taking them forward. We are calling on young people to be part of this. We are calling on everybody to join us in what we are calling ‘coalitions for change’. These are coalitions that will make sure that we focus on the remaining hardcore issues for the achievement of gender equality.

We are reviewing scientifically what the issues are that need to be pushed forward. We already have 140 countries that have presented us their reviews and their reports where they pinpoint the areas that need a big push in their different countries.

Together with you we want to make sure that we use these reports and this information to take the world forward.

As Secretary Albright says in her book, Presidents Mandela and Lincoln ‘each fought with monsters; neither of them became one’.

Gender inequality is a monster that we can defeat together, without becoming monsters ourselves, but by unleashing the Mandela and the Lincoln in you.

Thank you.