Remarks by Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Director of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka at the Special Session “From Beijing to Durban: addressing racism to leave no woman or girl behind”

Intense and highly normalized discrimination: a call for anti-racist states and anti-racist institutions


[As delivered]

I have really fond memories of my visit to Brazil, when we marched together to celebrate the Decade of Women of African descent. It is befitting that we address the intersecting issues of race and gender in this way because these are the two areas where the discrimination is both intense and highly normalized.

In the feminist movement, people may sometimes think that if you are a feminist and you are in a women’s movement, this is not a space where you will find racism. And yet, we have learned that unconscious bias can occur everywhere and anywhere. Just as gender discrimination and sexism can occur in any institution, so rights-based institutions are not immune to these unfortunate prejudices of race and gender. So, we have to stay ‘woke’ and keep calling them out, highlighting the intersecting danger that is associated with them.

Twenty-five years ago in Beijing, China, as Vice President Epsy Campbell Barr was saying, the blueprint for gender equality - the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action - did not address the issue of black women. Efforts to try and address these issues were not successful. We also heard from women who are gender non-conforming how hard they tried to get their issues to be part of the Beijing Declaration and how that too was not possible. But we also know that some of these themes have a historic context. And the context right now is that we have to put them on the agenda. That is why, in the context of Generation Equality, we cannot lose another opportunity to make sure that we address these issues strongly and appropriately.

Twenty years ago, in my hometown of Durban, South Africa, people assembled to attend the historic conference on racism. Indeed, many women from all over the world who live in racialized communities were there in their numbers. Who would have thought that in 2020 we would be dealing with an upsurge of racism in the most brutal way, even in what are supposed to be the most developed countries. We are seeing racism against black women; racism against black people in general; racism against Asian people, and xenophobia in general. So, this is not the time to relax. This is the time to be very articulate and to put these issues on the table.

In the Durban Declaration, the intersection between race and gender was recognized. It calls for the training of public officials and law enforcement officials to integrate race and gender, recognizing that public officials had the capacity to kill black people; to kill women, such as we have seen in Mexico a few days ago, with the death of Victoria Salazar. We have seen in the United States of America the killing of Breonna Taylor, and in many other countries, women have died at the hands of law enforcement.

The Durban Declaration also called for an increase in participation and leadership of women in decision-making bodies that deal with human rights – and that’s us. We ought to be in those places because we do have a special role to play. That demand is as valid now as it was 20 years ago when it was made.

We know that other countries took steps to respond to what was in the Declaration but there are many countries that did not. That is why, therefore, we need to call for anti-racist states and anti-racist institutions.

What does it mean to be anti-racist? It means that you are actively against racism, that you have a set programme of addressing racism. You know the results that you want, and you don’t leave it to chance.

As we speak now, at UN Women, we have an anti-racism posture where we are actively identifying and addressing shortcomings that we see. For example, through the career progression of women of colour. We are addressing the shortage of data that helps to highlight the issue of the disparities that women of colour face. If, for instance, we talk about people coming from developed countries and we just leave it at that, a woman who is black with American citizenship can be regarded in the UN and in other institutions as someone who comes from a developed country, and not get the affirmative action that people who come from developing countries and who are black are getting.

We need to blow that myth, because the experience of a black woman in a first world country is not the same as women of the dominant races in that country. Both George Bush and George Floyd - whose life we saw slipping away in front of our eyes - have American passports, but their lives are not the same.

So, our work is to learn how to disaggregate the data in the area of racism, just as we call for disaggregated data in the area of gender. The pandemic has highlighted to us how much gendered and racial inequalities are a factor in everything that we do. If we do not put in place measures that provide remedies, we may institutionalize this already-systemic racism in a manner that would make it impossible to uproot in the next generation.

So, for us, women of African descent, and all people who are genuinely freedom loving, we ought to be very clear about what we need to achieve and how we achieve it.

It is an honour to be here together with Afro-Descendant women who have played a key role in the national and regional processes to prepare for those conferences that have been important to us – women like Ms. Valdecir, Ms. Vicenta, and Ms. Epsy Campbell. In their names I take the opportunity to congratulate the strength, creativity and resilience of all women of African descent. I also want to highlight the important role of young activists and young Black feminists, and congratulate them for taking the stage in such a significant way everywhere they are. Here, in Generation Equality, they definitely are occupying centre stage, and this is their time, this is their place. We are inter-generational so they should stand on our shoulders and look very far, so that through their eyes, we will be able to see where we are supposed to be.

So, keep it up and as we say in South Africa – Amandla [power]. Thank you.