In­ter­view: Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Ex­ec­u­tive Direc­tor, UN Women

— Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka

Africa Renewal - - Contents -

It’s been 20 years since the Bei­jing Dec­la­ra­tion and Plat­form for Ac­tion, a his­toric roadmap that set the agenda for re­al­iz­ing women’s rights, was signed by 189 gov­ern­ments. While there have been many achieve­ments since then, sev­eral pledges re­main un­ful­filled. Africa Re­newal’s Zip­po­rah Musau spoke to the Ex­ec­u­tive Direc­tor of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, on Africa’s ac­com­plish­ments and re­main­ing chal­lenges. The fol­low­ing are ex­cerpts from the in­ter­view:

Africa Re­newal: What is the cur­rent state of gen­der equal­ity and women’s em­pow­er­ment in Africa? Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka:

Africa is home to 30% of the world’s poor and many of them are women and girls. This puts a lot of pres­sure on those of us who work for gen­der equal­ity to ad­dress the sit­u­a­tion. It is a con­cern that women in Africa till the land and con­trib­ute sig­nif­i­cantly to crop pro­duc­tion, yet they own only 2% of the land.

When it comes to ed­u­ca­tion, the fact that two-thirds of Africa’s women are clas­si­fied as func­tion­ally il­lit­er­ate means that we have a chal­lenge to en­sure that there is bet­ter ac­cess for women and girls. We also have to en­sure that the girls are re­tained in school and those who drop out are given a sec­ond chance.

Even though women’s lead­er­ship has im­proved, in fact, some African coun­tries are in the top 10 coun­tries that have the high­est num­ber of women in par­lia­ment like in Rwanda, Sey­chelles, Sene­gal and South Africa, women’s rep­re­sen­ta­tion in par­lia­ments glob­ally is still very low. There are more coun­tries in Africa that have very small num­bers of women in par­lia­ment than those who have made progress. Again, we have only two fe­male pres­i­dents in Africa’s 54 coun­tries.

Fe­male rep­re­sen­ta­tion in par­lia­ments is im­prov­ing in the re­gion. But are you sat­is­fied with the qual­ity of rep­re­sen­ta­tion?

In coun­tries like Rwanda, where the num­ber of women in par­lia­ment is high and can take a de­ci­sive vote in sup­port of what they want to ad­vance, they have used that priv­i­lege and com­pet­i­tive ad­van­tage. But there is still room to do more. There is need to in­vest in the build­ing of the women’s cau­cuses in par­lia­ments in most coun­tries, in­clud­ing those that have fewer women in par­lia­ment. I’m talk­ing about women’s cau­cuses in par­lia­ments that are multi-party. Women must work to­gether. The di­vi­sions that women ex­pe­ri­ence as a re­sult of party di­vi­sions eat into the strength they could gather if they were to unite across po­lit­i­cal par­ties. The neg­a­tive im­pact of un­der-rep­re­sen­ta­tion is detri­men­tal to all women, no mat­ter their po­lit­i­cal af­fil­i­a­tion.

Do women par­lia­men­tar­i­ans al­ways cham­pion women’s is­sues in par­lia­ment?

Most of the time women lead­ers will cham­pion women’s is­sues, although there are times when they make de­ci­sions that are detri­men­tal to women. How­ever, by and large, and not just in Africa, women in po­si­tions of author­ity make de­ci­sions that are good for women and girls.

How much progress has been made to­wards ful­fill­ing the com­mit­ments made in Bei­jing?

The progress has been un­even and slow, very slow. On ed­u­ca­tion, for ex­am­ple, many gov­ern­ments in­vested a lot. To the ex­tent that we do not have the re­sults we want across the board, it is not out of gov­ern­ments not try­ing. En­rol­ments have in­creased sig­nif­i­cantly, es­pe­cially in coun­tries that started at a very low base.

There has been a clear shift in how gov­ern­ments view and pri­or­i­tize ed­u­ca­tion.

On gen­der equal­ity, af­ter Bei­jing, gov­ern­ments have set up in­sti­tu­tions such as women’s min­istries, gen­der com­mis­sions and gen­der fo­cal points in dif­fer­ent min­istries. How­ever, struc­tures do not do the work. Most of th­ese struc­tures are not prop­erly funded. In the eco­nomic arena, the num­ber of women who have en­tered the labour force pro­gressed from 40% to only 48% in 20 years. That is so slow. At this pace, it is go­ing to take us 50 years to achieve gen­der par­ity in Africa.

On health, in­vest­ment in ma­ter­nal health has been strong. How­ever, some­times help with ma­ter­nal health comes too late. We should be pre­vent­ing, for in­stance, the com­pli­ca­tions that women and moth­ers ex­pe­ri­ence, which have a lot to do with un­wanted preg­nan­cies. We should be talk­ing about com­pre­hen­sive sex­ual ed­u­ca­tion which many gov­ern­ments have not re­ally im­ple­mented.

Most gov­ern­ments have fo­cused on the fight against HIV/AIDS, which im­pacts women sig­nif­i­cantly. But limited re­sources have wors­ened the prob­lem de­spite ef­forts by many coun­tries. How­ever, one thing that coun­tries did not do enough is strength­en­ing health sys­tems as a whole as we have seen in coun­tries af­fected by the Ebola virus out­break.

On is­sues like fe­male gen­i­tal mu­ti­la­tion (FGM), most coun­tries now have leg­is­la­tion against it. We have not been able to com­pletely erad­i­cate it. We have to ad­dress a very wor­ry­ing trend where doc­tors and nurses are se­cretly per­form­ing FGM, say­ing there is a ‘ healthy way’ of do­ing it. There is no healthy way of do­ing FGM; mu­ti­la­tion is mu­ti­la­tion.

There are con­cerns that the gains African women have made over the years are grad­u­ally be­ing eroded in some coun­tries. What is your as­sess­ment?

The ex­trem­ism and con­flicts we are see­ing in some coun­tries are wor­ry­ing. This is where the gains women have made are fac­ing the big­gest threat. Since Bei­jing, the coun­tries that have had the least progress for women are those in con­flict. This is where women are in the eye of the storm. The rise of fun­da­men­tal­ism and its ha­tred of girls is a ma­jor set­back for women’s ad­vance­ment. We can­not re­ally blame gov­ern­ments for this, but the bur­den for women is much heav­ier.

Gen­der par­ity in pri­mary ed­u­ca­tion is im­prov­ing but huge dis­par­i­ties re­main in the tran­si­tion to sec­ondary ed­u­ca­tion and drop-out rates are high. What is be­ing done to ad­dress th­ese is­sues?

This is a multi-sec­toral chal­lenge. We need to fight early mar­riages be­cause girls are driven out of school while their male peers re­main in school. Men need to take a stand on this. We need to mo­bi­lize men and boys, where men must say ‘I will not marry a child’. If men take up this cam­paign them­selves, we could re­duce early mar­riages sig­nif­i­cantly. We must also mo­bi­lize par­ents, in­clud­ing moth­ers, who some­times marry off their girls. Of course, leg­is­la­tion is im­por­tant too. But we have to push for its ef­fec­tive im­ple­men­ta­tion.

The other chal­lenge is that the fi­nan­cial cri­sis robbed gov­ern­ments of the re­sources needed to in­vest in so­cial devel­op­ment. It is usu­ally the first item to be thrown out of bud­gets and it has neg­a­tive im­pact on the well-be­ing of women and girls. That is why we are push­ing for gen­der-re­spon­sive bud­get­ing. A few coun­tries like Sierra Leone, Nige­ria, Morocco and South Africa are em­brac­ing it and we would like to see more do­ing the same.

What is your com­ment on ac­cess to tech­nol­ogy in Africa?

In ed­u­ca­tion, ac­cess is crit­i­cal. The ad­van­tage of us­ing tech­nol­ogy is that you can ac­cess more young peo­ple than you can in a class­room. We need to in­vest in de­vices that can ed­u­cate chil­dren. Imag­ine how much chil­dren in poor coun­tries could do with de­vices if they were made avail­able. You could have a teacher in New York, for ex­am­ple, if he is one of the best in teach­ing a par­tic­u­lar sub­ject, us­ing the tech­nol­ogy to teach chil­dren any­where in the world. Tech­nol­ogy has to be seen as a pro-poor in­ter­ven­tion and not a luxury as we some­times tend to do. Many chil­dren do not have ac­cess to li­braries and have to walk long dis­tances to get to a li­brary. It will take a long time to at­tain the num­ber of teach­ers we need, yet we can pro­vide tech­nol­ogy at low cost.

Look­ing at Africa in the next 50 years, what do the women want?

In the first place, women want eco­nomic well-be­ing. With that, women can make de­ci­sions for them­selves and their chil­dren to make life bet­ter for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions. In­vest­ment in women has very high and sus­tain­able rates of re­turn. Sec­ond, women want their hu­man rights to be re­spected. The vi­o­lence against women in many parts of the world, in­clud­ing in Africa – phys­i­cal vi­o­lence, sex­ual vi­o­lence, FGM, early mar­riages, or traf­fick­ing – must stop. One of the big­gest needs for women there­fore is lead­er­ship. They want lead­er­ship that is con­cerned about women is­sues, cares for them and is will­ing to pro­tect them from vi­o­lent ex­pe­ri­ences.

UN Photo/Devra Berkowitz

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Ex­ec­u­tive Direc­tor of UN Women.

UN Photo/Ky Chung

Women from all over Côte d’Ivoire gather to cel­e­brate In­ter­na­tional Women’s Day at the Palais de la Cul­ture in Abid­jan.

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