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Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka (65, South Africa) has been the director of UN Women since Ban Ki-moon, the then United Nations Secretary, nominated her for the position in 2013.
By then he already had extensive experience in breaking glass ceilings.
With a degree in Education from the University of Lesotho (1980), she was elected Member of Parliament in 1994. Little more than a decade later, in 2005, she was the first woman to be Vice President of her country until 2008, the year in which she created a foundation to support schools in disadvantaged areas in South Africa and Malawi.
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This 2021 he faces another challenge: to lead the Generation Equality Forum, which could not be held last year due to the pandemic and has yet to be determined.
And do it in the midst of a health and economic crisis that has neglected any other agenda, especially the feminist one.
Women's rights have taken a back seat to politics when, according to the UN, they are in serious danger.
But Mlambo-Ngcuka does not seem the type to tire or back down.
In this interview, conducted via videoconference, she patiently endures outages and joins the conversation over and over again until it ends with a message: “I want to invite people to join International Women's Day, with a focus on their leadership in these times of crisis ”.
Why is progress towards gender equality so slow?
The advance has suffered from the rejection that exists in the world against women's rights and, to some extent, against rights in general.
Populist movements are not supporters of women's rights, and we have seen a rise of leaders who claim, for example, that reproductive rights and women's health must be combated.
When governments have financial difficulties, they also tend to cut back on social services, which are important for the quality of life of women, such as those that have to do with childcare, fundamental for them to have the ability to participate in the labor market.
One of the most significant challenges is, on the other hand, the reduction of the space for the democratic activity of civil society.
Women's rights progress faster in those countries where there is greater freedom of activity for civil society, so cuts in this sense also affect.
Progress was very slow and now the pandemic is going to reverse some progress.
No pandemic is gender neutral.
And neither is this.
Women have experienced the impact disproportionately.
For example, in the economy, two-thirds of lost jobs were female.
This is because they work in the sectors most affected by the pandemic, such as the hospitality industry.
In many cases, they do not even have a legal contract and are the majority in the informal sector.
Therefore, they have not been able to benefit from the aid mechanisms that governments have designed.
And we have, of course, the problem of violence against women, which has increased especially during confinements.
Many governments have taken steps to address it, and we want these to continue beyond the pandemic, so that we do not return even to previous levels of violence.
We must do more to eradicate it.
We are particularly concerned about young women, about the number of adolescents who have become pregnant during the confinement, those who will not return to school, the increase in trafficking in girls.
All of these are challenges that women and girls face due to covid.
To which is added the scarce representation and female leadership in decisions that have to do with the pandemic, not only in the health sector, but in all aspects.
The majority of leaders are in favor of gender equality, but the policies do not accompany.
Do you think we are caught up in sheer rhetoric when it comes to women's rights?
Yes. It is a very uneven field.
Some countries are making progress and some are making no progress at all.
There are some that even go back a bit.
And the pace is slow.
I'll give you an example: when the United Nations was formed, there were no women heads of state.
At the Beijing Conference, there were 12. In 2020, on the 25th anniversary of that appointment, there were 22. We can say that it is progress.
But slow slow slow
At this rate, we will have to wait beyond 2050 to reach parity in the heads of state.
At the meeting in Beijing, there were 10% female parliamentarians.
In 2020, the world average is 23%.
It is progress, but at a snail's pace.
We must emphasize the need to accelerate and ensure that progress is not easily reversible.
At this rate, we will have to wait beyond 2050 to reach parity at the heads of state
You underline the importance of female leadership, in that sense, does it help to have examples like Kamala Harris?
In fact, any example helps.
But because the United States is so influential and what happens there, for better and for worse, is visible to everyone, it is good to have a Kamala Harris.
It will also be particularly positive if Harris represents the feminist agenda.
Her statements about wanting to be a role model and inspire girls and not being the last to be in this position send an excellent message that challenges other countries.
The example of Estonia is also very good.
Both the president and the prime minister are women.
Please tell this story in your article so people see that it is possible.
We have always had countries where men occupy the first and second position.
For the first time we have women and the sky has not fallen.
Do you think the Generation Equality Forum will make the leap from words to action?
To be part of Generación Igualdad you have to present what you commit to do, both from an economic and political point of view.
Judging by the countries that have signed up and what they are launching, I am very optimistic, but cautious.
One of the things we learned in Beijing was that we adopted a declaration, but we did not draw up an action plan, nor did we identify the money to implement it.
We did not have accountability measures that held countries accountable.
What we are doing now through Generation Equality is putting in place an action plan.
I was worried about losing momentum from the pandemic, but we have not lost a single country, private sector or civil society participant.
It is complex because we bring civil society and Member States to the same table as equal partners.
And in the United Nations this does not usually happen.
But we wanted to make sure that there are people involved who will demand accountability.
It is our way of protecting ourselves from lack of accountability and implementation.
Most have accepted, although there are some countries that do not want to participate because they do not agree to these terms.
The youngest are feminists and environmentalists, they are feminists and activists against racial inequality, they are feminists and they fight against homophobia.
All at the same time.
And they include men
Do you think the fourth wave feminist is losing steam?
I would not say that we are losing momentum.
But the reality is that we have a new kind of feminism.
The youngest, who are now at the forefront of feminist expansion, have a different vision, they are more intersectional than previous generations.
They are feminists and environmentalists, they are feminists and activists against racial inequality, they are feminists and they fight against homophobia.
All at the same time.
And they include men.
They welcome male feminists more easily than feminists of my generation.
We faced so many problems with men that we had a hard time working with them.
But young women find it easier to work together and fight all these evils in society.
The examples are important, but the UN has not had a Secretary General in 76 years of history.
How is the body moving towards parity?
Progress is also slow in the United Nations family.
The Secretary General has taken action in the areas where he can make changes.
So at the executive level, we have achieved racial parity and diversity.
But below that, in those UN entities in which the member states decide, there is no progress.
We see it in the election of the Secretary General: if the countries do not bet stronger so that there is a woman at the top of the UN, we will not have one.
We need citizens to demand the appointment of women.
At the UN executive level, we have achieved racial parity and diversity
At UN Women we are strong defenders of male feminism
What change or progress would you like to see made in 2021?
First, more female leadership.
It doesn't cost money, no one can tell me that because of the pandemic, you can't support women's leadership.
The fact that we have a financial crisis does not prevent it.
It is only a question of political will.
Second, gender violence.
We have seen the architecture of the battle against a pandemic, what it takes: you put your front-line workers to fight 24 hours a day, you take important measures, such as closing borders, which is not an easy decision, and you leave the planes on the ground without going anywhere.
Gender-based violence is a shadow pandemic, as devastating as the coronavirus, which is why it needs frontline workers with an adequate legal framework to put an end to it.
Third, I would like to see economic justice progress.
Governments are making numerous decisions to revive the economy.
A lot of money is being provided and that money also has to benefit women.
Only with more women leaders and laws do we know that harmful practices for girls and women such as female genital mutilation or child marriage are not eradicated, how do we work against the traditions, social and religious norms that sustain them?
We have endeavored to collaborate with traditional and religious leaders.
And with men.
Those are the three fronts for changing cultural norms and practices that are harmful to women.
We have formed in Africa a pan-African organization of traditional leaders, a very strong organization that continues to fight, for example, providing regulations in the areas where they have jurisdiction to prohibit child marriage, female genital mutilation and combat violence against women, as well as prevent parents from taking their daughters out of school.
They are finding families that are not meeting those standards, annulling girls' marriages and sending them back to school, even paying their fees.
We are evaluating whether we can replicate this model in as many places as possible, where there is traditional and religious authority.
We have found that the most law-resistant and slowest countries are those with strong traditional authority and strong religious influence, so we need to work with those leaders.
And, of course, in both, the common factor is men.
Men still have a dominant role in shaping the culture and in the decisions that women can make
But even when there is no strong religious and traditional influence in society, men still have a dominant role in shaping the culture and in the decisions that women can make.
For this reason, our
He For She
, which challenges men, is intensifying and collaborating with other projects of a similar nature.
At UN Women we are strong defenders of male feminism.
And men should know that when they join the feminist movement led by women, they not only support us, but also do something for themselves, they free themselves to be better people.
Do you remember any special stories from when you could still travel?
I have lived very memorable moments.
I remember women from a village in India who could not read or write.
But they were tired of the laws and regulations of their community not taking into account their priorities and they organized to run for leadership positions.
Many were chosen.
And you know what?
In the areas where they won, there are more progressive laws in favor of the family, improvements for childcare, for transportation and safety.
This shows how much change women can achieve.
In that same community, they took over the radio and began to tell their stories to the point of changing culture and norms, and showed their neighbors what they can achieve for society.
When we talk about the participation of women, we should not only think about managerial positions, but also those who can transform their villages, but the environment is not conducive.
We need these women to be empowered in their own rights.
This is a positive story, but don't you feel tired sometimes when witnessing violations of women's rights?
Yes, sometimes I break down.
I have met many whose rights are trampled on.
I have seen disabled women being abused by their caregivers, who not only keep the small allowance they receive due to their situation but then sexually abuse them.
I have witnessed that kind of pain.
There are countries where we are still fighting to stop honor killings.
We have made progress, in very few countries are they likely to occur or are allowed by law.
But it's sad because, despite what we fight, usually when we make a breakthrough it is because something horrible has happened to a woman.
I have seen femicides.
I have seen young people, old women, babies, being victims of sexual assault.
I don't want to burden you with so much pain, but we must always remember these women.
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