The new head of the UN agency promoting women’s rights says there is “a definite backlash” against equality for women despite some significant progress, pointing to an upsurge in violence against women and the uphill fight to escape poverty and crack the glass ceiling.
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, who was South Africa’s first female deputy president, said 18 years after world leaders adopted a blueprint to achieve equality for women at a UN conference in Beijing, there are still major economic and social barriers and new crimes to confront, including trafficking of women and girls and cyber bullying.
“All of those mean that we need to go back to the drawing boards and strengthen the mechanisms and options that we have to engage in the fight to advance women’s equality and emancipation,” she said last week.
Mlambo-Ngcuka said the campaign for equality of the sexes has been dominated by women and it needs to be broadened to include men as well as the private sector.
“You need men, you just can’t crack these issues without winning over men,” she said. “We need to win the priests, the rabbis, the traditional chiefs to tackle religious and cultural barriers.”
UN Women was created three years ago by the General Assembly to combine four UN bodies dealing with the advancement of women under a single umbrella. Its first leader, former Chilean president Michelle Bachelet, stepped down to run for president again.
As the second executive director, Mlambo-Ngcuka said she plans to take “a very collaborative approach” with the 193 UN member states, other UN offices and agencies, and civil society groups who are crucial for success.
Under Bachelet’s leadership, in March, 131 conservative Muslim and Roman Catholic countries and liberal Western nations approved a UN blueprint to combat violence against women.
Data from the World Health Organisation and other research has shown that an average of 40 per cent–and up to 70 per cent of women in some countries–face violence in their lifetimes.
Ending violence against women and girls remains a top priority for UN Women, and Mlambo-Ngcuka said she wants to take this campaign to every city in the world and mobilise local governments, non-governmental organizations, religious leaders and interested citizens to fight the scourge and create safe communities.
UN Women’s other priorities include expanding women’s leadership, economic empowerment and participation in peace and security efforts.
“Women’s voices need to be heard in the household, on corporate boards, in peace talks, and in public institutions,” Mlambo-Ngcuka told a news conference.
“Women need equal access to education, opportunities, and to economic resources such as credit and land, and to justice. Women need to have choices and for this sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights are essential.”
Access to finance for women is a big issue, Mlambo-Ngcuka said, and she will be pressing for more small loans to help women escape poverty but also for ‘big bucks’ to help them climb the economic ladder.
“There’s no reason why women should not be in the commanding heights of economy,” she said, pointing to the success of women in China from rural areas and poor families who have been able to “crack the city and crack the big markets.”