Rethinking the Gender Debate: A Conversation with UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka

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Growing up in South Africa, UN Women’s Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka noticed something. When women had jobs and income, their entire household thrived. “You could go from house to house, on my street, in my community where I grew up,” said Ms. Mlambo-Ngcuka. “Where the women of the family were standing tall, the rest of the family was standing tall.” Women, she realized, were critical in helping their families break out of the poverty cycle.

Last September, the United Nations rolled out the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), with gender equality fifth on the list. Empowerment of women has come far since Ms. Mlambo-Ngcuka was younger. Still, women continue to face greater vulnerability than men. Across the globe, women earn 24 percent less, hold just 22 percent of parliamentarian seats, and last year, 303,000 died during pregnancy or from a childbirth-related complication[i], with most of these due to lack of access to basic health care services.[ii]

The Yale Journal of International Affairs sat down with Ms. Mlambo-Ngcuka to talk about the SDGs and gender equality fight.

Yale Journal of International Affairs: How do you approach your position as the head of UN Women? How did you come to this field?

PMN: I did not choose it as a career option, but I was drawn in by reality and one thing led to the other. I realized that if one wants to have a significant impact, you have got to focus on a target group in society that takes most of the pain, yet also has significant capacities to bring about changes. Whichever way I looked at the subject, women were this main group.

YJIA: As the head of UN Women, you’re presently in a position to be able to effect change. What do you view as your biggest accomplishment to date?

PMN: One of the things I’m most proud of is the way my team negotiated the Sustainable Development Goals and made sure that gender is front and center in the agreement. There has never been an agreement in the history of the United Nations that has such a comprehensive embrace of issues of gender equality. You have gender equality as an issue cutting across all seventeen goals—something we did not get in the MDGs [Millennium Development Goals]. And you have Goal Five, which is substantive, and covers all of the issues that we’ve regarded as controversial and fallen between the cracks. We fought for them.

(Editors Note: Goal Five of the UN SDGs targets to end discrimination and violence against women and girls globally by 2030, and aims to ensure women and girls have equal access to education, health care, work, and political and economic decision-making processes.)

Having countries agree that all forms of discrimination have to be eliminated in the next fifteen years, seeing them choose to take a stand and fight to end violence against women and address unpaid care work, and getting countries to agree that we have to eliminate practices such as child marriages and female genital mutilation. That, for me, has changed the game. It’s still going to be tough, but you know we’ve got it now.

YJIA: Now that there seems to be a critical mass of buy-in to the notion that we should incorporate considerations of gender into broader international policy, what do you think needs to be the specific focus of women’s rights advocates going forward? 

PMN: It is important to focus on aspects that are universal to every woman. Violence affects every country. Under-representation affects every country in the world. Issues such as unequal pay affect every country. There is also the burden of unpaid care work. When there is a baby, there are two people: one is a man, and one is a woman. Disproportionally in every country, the baby is the woman’s burden, and most women’s lives, careers, and wellbeing are connected to the child. In many cases, this is to the detriment of gender equality. We need to find a way in which paternity leave, for instance, is compulsory.

YJIA: Now, on the flip side, tell me about your work with the countries that are at the bottom on the UN gender inequality index out of the 187? 

PMN: Most of the countries that are at the bottom have been seriously affected by conflict over a long period of time. Conflict is a major driver of gender inequality. In parts of Africa, there hasn’t been peace for a long time. There is a big correlation. If we didn’t have as many wars as we have in the world today, we would have gone so far [in women’s rights].

YJIA: In such situations, what is the best way you can do your work when you deal with non-state actors or in places where there is a lot of conflict?

PMN: We are there in Yemen, we are there in Syria. You just duck and dive bullets. You have to be there, because there are humanitarian needs. We also invest in organizing women on both sides. We have a strong women’s peace movement in Syria; we have a strong women’s peace movement in Sudan. They contribute significantly in leading their respective countries and have contributed a lot to the solutions that have been reached. For our work, we go and invest in women, and they become the voice of reason.

YJIA: How does conflict influence changes in women’s rights?

PMN: In the midst of a conflict, where there are negotiations about post-conflicts, it is possible for women to argue for a much bigger space than they would get if the country were evolving organically. Because women become very active in those situations, their leadership is demonstrated and it shines and they cannot be ignored. At the same time, we found that where the UN is involved in peace negotiations, the benefits that accrue to women are bigger. We also found that because civil society has made peace and security a central part of their work, civil society is supporting the women in whatever country is going through peace negotiations, and part of it is making sure that you emerge with a dispensation for women that is better than before the conflict.

YJIA: Next year, Hillary Clinton might become the U.S. president. Do you think that would bring any change or impact on women’s rights globally? 

PMN: I don’t know. But whenever we get another women to lead, it’s good for the world. Why should there be so many men leading the world? The men do not bring extraordinary talents to the equation. So, let’s give women a chance. In the United States, in Nepal, in Mauritius—everywhere in the world where you have elections, we have to encourage women to stand up. Because women have not had the chance, the world has missed out on the talents of women.

About the Interviewee

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka is the UN under-secretary general and executive director of UN Women. From 2005 to 2008, she served as deputy president of South Africa, working to combat poverty and bring the advantages of a growing economy to the poor. Prior to this, she served as minister of minerals and energy and deputy minister in the Department of Trade and Industry. Ms. Mlambo-Ngcuka began her career as a teacher and gained international experience as a coordinator at the World YWCA in Geneva, where she established a global programme for young women. She is the founder of the Umlambo Foundation, which supports leadership and education. A longtime champion of women’s rights, she is affiliated with several organizations devoted to education, women’s empowerment, and gender equality.

[i] World Health Organization. Online Q & A. Why do so many women still die in pregnancy or childbirth?

[ii] UN Women. SDG 5: Achieve Gender Equality and Empower All Women and Girls.


Interviewed by Liza Lin, Editor for Interviews



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