A former school teacher from South Africa, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka has served as the Head of UN Women since 2013. Prior to that, she was deputy president to Thabo Mbeki and the most senior female politician in South African history. Under the apartheid regime, Mlambo-Ngcuka led a gender-equality organization. This interview took place in Istanbul, Turkey during the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit.

A recent McKinsey report said achieving gender equality will add USD$12 trillion to global growth and the global economy, as women enter the formal economy for the first time. What issues arise for women and society when women enter into the workforce?

Firstly, I think that it’s important that governments, employers, and society make the adjustments for women. It’s not women who must adjust to society, because it’s the structure of society that makes it difficult for women to go into the labor force in large numbers. For instance, accessible, affordable childcare is probably the single biggest issue that would unleash the power of women in most economies. And that needs a collaboration between government employers who could subsidize and societies making the necessary cultural adjustments that facilitate. It also means employers need to accept that it is ok for men to be a father and to be at home. In that way, we redistribute care work that would enable more women not to feel guilty about not being at home with the children.

So it’s an all-around adjustment of society. Sometimes women are expected to become super women—you must be a good mother, a good wife, a good worker, a good this and that.

We were surprised at the data showing that only 0.4 percent of UN funding goes to women’s groups and women’s ministries. How is that possible? Were you surprised?

Saddened. But not surprised. Women’s organizations have one thing in common: they are all underfunded. When women need a truck, they get a bicycle. Only 10 percent of necessary funding has been given for most national action plans that have been approved. There is an expectation that gender inequality is not an expense, it’s a past time. It’s not a hot issue for society. That would be infrastructure or schools. Those are important, but if you do not have gender equality you won’t reap the full benefits. The penny has not dropped.

If we just do incremental funding increases, then we’re always chasing and running behind the targets and we’re never on top of our game. And yet there’s a cost in not supporting women. If you don’t invest in girls’ education, then you have the drop outs and the early pregnancies, and then we have to fund the problems that come out of that. If we do not fund the economic well-being of women at the household level, so they are not destitute, you then have compromised the nutrition of the children, and you have left the woman at risk of being in an abusive relationship, which is a cost to society and the state. So it’s a vicious circle.

The fact is that a woman on Wall Street, in a factory in India, and on a farm in South Africa are all being underpaid. Undervaluing women’s talents is so ingrained in the most sophisticated countries. And these men have not sat together in Wall Street and India and decided to do this. It is so ingrained, this concept that women are care givers and have a breadwinner who supports them—we do not have to pay them a lot.

It’s industrial revolution logic—women stayed at home and men worked. It doesn’t exist. One of the areas the women’s movement has not invested enough energy is the transforming of attitudes. It’s hard. It’s not easy to think—I have talked to a person and they have changed their attitudes. We have focused on some of the things that were more tangible to deal with, but this issue is the big elephant in the room.

It’s really when we need communications within families, country, and societies in order to change attitudes between each other, we have a long way to go. But we need every one within their own countries and institutions to really help us to get this message and win over those diehard sexists—that is why we have the #heforshe campaign, so we have to realize we need the men speaking on this issue and on their own terms—dude to dude—about the challenges and benefits of gender equality for men and women. We don’t have enough yet, but it’s growing.

Theres a big push now to collect more data on women, from Gates to UN Women to The Womenstats Project—is that playing into this communications push to change attitudes? 

UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka visits the Tomping Internally Displaced Peoples camp at the UNMISS compound in Juba, South Sudan.

Firstly, we always want to mention that we have to address gender equality, because it’s the right thing to do. It’s the woman’s right. But that argument does not get the right response from everybody. We still have to prove that discriminating against a woman is a bad thing financially and in every way.

We can do that when we provide data.

It’s also important for us for our own work, so we can take lessons and share our work and have baseline studies. If by 2030 we want to achieve substantial equality, how will we know we’ve done that?

If we talk about equal pay, how have we closed the gap, what worked, what else do we need to do? If we’re talking about redistributing paid care work, where will we redistribute it, how will we do so?

Here at this summit, we want to look at the number of girls that currently don’t go to school because they’re affected by crisis. How will we know we are bridging the divide in conflict when it comes to girls accessing education?  We will know because we have counted. Obviously we don’t want the boys either out of school, but we want the data to know and to track. Fifty percent of maternal deaths are preventable—what should we be doing to prevent these deaths, and what opportunities are there for us? If we do provide those interventions, what percentage are we able to reproduce and share so that they become part of the way the life and health systems? So data is essential to monitor ourselves, cost better, share better, and also to convince the skeptics—and there’s a lot of them.

What lessons have been learned in combating domestic violence?

The culture of reporting is important. There should be an enabling environment within law enforcement and social workers. When all of these service providers work together, and when women’s appearances in courts are managed in a tasteful way, and not treated like they’re being accused for having brought this on themselves, it works. So it has to do with the training of the law enforcers, and the systematic connection of the services to ensure that social workers, police, and prosecutors work together.

What about better integration of women into police departments?

Absolutely. We haven’t had a country that has reached the level of integration that is desirable. But this is a global campaign that we need in every country. Because when we say violence against women is a global issue, it’s because it happens in every country, rich and poor. Integration of men and women in the police force is a problem in every country. And some countries are better able to increase and fast track the integration, but it’s not happening. We need a global campaign.

Would having a female president of the US play a role in any of these efforts?

Well if you judge by the trends—how many people in the world follow the US trends? On all kinds of things—I think this would have the same impact. The same with the UN, if the UN had a female Secretary General.

Women and people look up to role models. Young women will aspire to be doctors because they’ve seen a female doctor. Voters will vote for women because they’ve seen women presidents in other countries, and because the US is so visible.

Policy-wise, has Hillary Clinton been an advocate for global women rights?

Just go back to Beijing when she said, “women’s rights are human rights.” I rest my case there. There’s a track record there. We have worked with her, and we supported and collaborated with the data collaboration initiative. And during the 20-year anniversary of the Beijing speech, she was one of the people who came to mobilize and motivate and encourage the implementation of the Beijing platform and that we shouldn’t drop it.

There’s been criticism of the effectiveness of aid and development, and I suspect UN Woman has its own criticisms. What are they?

In some cases, the intended beneficiaries are not targeted in the most direct way.

The pipeline is problematic. There could be better coordination for impact. Say child marriage, which we recognize as a big problem in some countries. It would be helpful to have a coordinated strategy by different donors in countries that are most affected.

When donors act individually, the impact of bringing down these pillars of patriarchy is not felt. Because if each one of us with limited resources tackles this issue and that issue with low intensity, we reduce the possibility of us clamping together with maximum intensity to bring down a structure and do it decisively. We take longer and slower.

If you could get in a time machine and go ahead 50 years to a world where gender equality had been achieved, what would that world look like and what changes and decisions happen today to get us there?

To me the biggest thing is poverty. The fact that poverty is the face of women and girls sums up everything, because in that poverty-stricken existence is violence, disease, disempowerment, etc. So a world where poverty—if it still exists—is not just the burden of the women but is distributed in society, would be my first prize. Once women have overcome poverty, the freedom for them to live a life that is more fulfilling and meaningful takes care of itself.

Women do not want people to look after them. They just need opportunity and circumstance. So to remove all these circumstances that bring women down, then women could be whomever they want to be and make choices, bad ones sometimes, but choices nevertheless.


Christina Asquith

Christina Asquith joined Solutions in 2009 as one of the founding editors. She has been an investigative reporter, war reporter, and narrative nonfiction author; working both as a staff writer and freelancer...

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