The Future of Gender Equality

An interview with Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka is executive director of UN Women, the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women. Formerly deputy president of South Africa and a veteran of the antiapartheid struggle, she has devoted her career to issues of human rights, equality and social justice, and has worked in both civil society and government.

In this interview, the SGI Quarterly asks Dr. Mlambo-Ngcuka to reflect on the future in light of UN Women's key objectives of the elimination of discrimination against women and girls, the empowerment of women and gender equality.

SGI Quarterly: How would you assess progress in the promotion of gender equality and women's empowerment under the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) over the past 15 years, and what more can be done?

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: The MDGs played a critical role in galvanizing attention to gender equality and women's empowerment. As a result, we have seen important gains in some areas, such as girls' access to and enrollment in primary education. A good start was also made in reducing maternal deaths and infant mortality. But progress has been unacceptably slow in vital areas such as increasing women's access to decent work and to safe, reliable and hygienic sanitation facilities. Progress has also been uneven within and among countries.

Women in New York mark International Women's Day (March 8) with a call for global gender equality and women's rights [UN Women/Ryan Brown/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]

Although the MDGs made gender equality a global priority, their targets were narrowly framed and did not address several fundamental issues.

We know from the experience of the MDGs that broader progress will not be possible unless gender equality and women's empowerment are integrated thoroughly across all policy areas and outcomes and at all levels.

SGIQ: Although many countries have passed legislation to promote gender equality and women's empowerment, an overwhelming number of women and girls continue to suffer great inequality. How can we ensure that gender equality and women's empowerment are successfully achieved by the year 2030 as set out in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)?

PMN: It is true that we have made progress in gender-equality legislation, but laws alone are not enough, especially where traditional practices are deeply embedded.

Discriminatory laws that blatantly diminish women's opportunities remain--for example, laws that restrict land ownership, property title and inheritance or that limit the jobs women can do. There are still 128 countries where laws discriminate in some way against women.

We urgently need to increase the representation of women at all levels of decision-making. Women are virtually voiceless where advocacy is most needed--where the laws are made and implemented.

Gender equality, the empowerment of women and the human rights of women and girls must be a central priority in all aspects of the new SDGs. Our aim is nothing less than full equality, a Planet 50:50 by 2030, with substantial progress made over the next five years.

In order to reach this goal, we need better data, stronger accountability mechanisms and greater investment in gender equality from governments, the private sector and the global community. We need the full participation of civil society in holding duty-bearers accountable and in supporting them to implement their gender-equality commitments; and we need investment in civil society to support the work that they do.

Achieving gender equality requires reconfiguring power relations and breaking the social norms and gender stereotypes that limit opportunities for women and restrict men and boys to certain roles. That includes redefining our deeply ingrained perceptions of masculinity.

Creating a world where women and girls enjoy their human rights is one of the most defining and urgent challenges of this century.

SGIQ: What role can civil society play in bringing about this change?

PMN: The fact that women's rights and issues like violence against women are in the public discourse today is due to the incredible efforts of a vibrant and determined civil society.

Women's organizations have been champions of change, but we need gender-equality advocates everywhere. We must create a broader social justice movement with gender equality at its core. That means trade unions and workers' movements must also get on board. It means that men must refuse to be bystanders and actively work to change social attitudes and behaviors. And the media must take responsibility for accurately representing women's lives, for giving equal time and consideration to their stories and perspectives and for not perpetrating or perpetuating stereotyped and objectified images.

SGIQ: Can you share some examples of how certain countries have successfully improved conditions for women and girls?

PMN: UN Women's Safe Cities Global Initiative against sexual harassment and other forms of sexual violence toward women and girls has generated a number of innovative results through partnerships with mayors' offices, national governments, women's groups and other community partners. The municipality of Quito, Ecuador, for example, has amended a local ordinance to strengthen action against sexual harassment in public spaces, while Egypt's Ministry of Housing, Utilities and Urban Development adopted women's safety audits to guide urban planning.

In terms of increasing women's political participation, one example is Pakistan's 2013 elections in which an unprecedented number of women voted. In addition to the massive voter registration drive, UN Women, along with the United Nations Development Programme and other UN partners, worked with the Election Commission to integrate gender equality in election management, including through gendered codes of conduct for political parties, election observers and the media and voter education materials specifically designed for women.

Particularly in poorer communities, UN Women has supported the practical dimensions of improved livelihoods as a direct route to empowerment. For example, in Upper Egypt, the most marginalized area of the country, UN Women supported women in forming agricultural cooperatives. A first in the region, they collectively raise cattle and provide many members with their only option to earn an income. Training on business development has helped the cooperatives flourish.

For the peace negotiations to resolve Colombia's long internal conflict, UN Women has rallied women to claim their right to participate and provided evidence on gender considerations under each item on the agenda. These moves contributed to the inclusion of gender issues across the talks. The government appointed two women to its five-member delegation--none sat on it before--and designated a woman negotiator with specific responsibilities to raise gender concerns and consult with women's groups.

SGIQ: What is your vision of a healthy and positive partnership among men and women?

PMN: Although women have made great strides over the past decades, gender equality can only be achieved if men and boys take full responsibility, working side by side with women and girls, to redress the dynamics that hinder progress. We know that we must continue challenging society's deeply ingrained assumptions about gender roles, care work and domestic duties. Men can help us examine and redefine these concepts.

Men can stand up against sexual harassment of women and stop other men from behaving violently or aggressively toward women and girls, and they can help achieve women's leadership and participation by removing themselves from organizations that are not gender balanced. Men can take responsibility for reducing and redistributing the unpaid care burden in their own homes and communities. They can refuse unequal pay or to sit on panels or boards that are not gender balanced.

When women and men stand side by side and fight for the same gender-equality goals, we can achieve transformative results.