The gender equality agenda
In 1995, 189 countries pledged to meet bold targets on gender equality at the fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. We asked Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women, how far she thinks gender equality has come since then and what still needs to be done.
What prompted you to take such an active role in defending gender equality?
I’ve been a gender activist for as long as I can remember. While in school I was part of the teenage movement of girls, which fought against discrimination on race, class and gender in South Africa. I grew up in an environment where these issues were very present, as my mother was an activist in reproductive health. This meant that as a Catholic she sometimes took a stance that was not the preferable stand for the Catholic Church, on the availability of family planning for example.
So I grew to believe that the fact you’re not born with everything should not define who you become, and that by fighting for gender equality, you’re actually standing up for a much larger part of humanity, by preventing other forms of discrimination.
How far has gender equality progressed since the Beijing Conference in 1995?
The past 20 years represent a mixed bag. We’ve certainly seen more women coming into the labour market, especially in Latin America and the Caribbean. Many countries implemented programmes to better women’s health. Girls’ access to education has improved, though drop-out rates are still high. The legal landscape has changed fundamentally: almost all countries enacted laws to promote gender equality, and many created what we have called “gender machinery”, that is, women’s ministries, gender commissions, equal opportunity institutions.
However, the implementation of new legislation has been patchy and unequal, so we haven’t yet derived the progress we hoped to. Not enough concerted efforts have been made in reducing violence against women: around one in three women will experience violence in her lifetime, in all regions of the world. Economic opportunities are also lagging: some 800 million women worldwide are kept out of the labour force due to a range of factors including discrimination and a lack of access to education and training.
What are the main obstacles to achieving gender equality worldwide?
Most “gender machinery” was created with limited budget and power so hasn’t always been as effective as we would like it to be. Investment needs to be equal to the size of the challenge.
A big issue for both developed and developing countries is stereotypes related to women and girls. There’s a perception that discriminatory or violent treatment of women is not a crime, and that you can therefore discriminate against them with impunity. A professor from an Ivy League institution told me that when she mentioned to a male colleague that she might pursue another job due to her faculty’s unequal pay, he replied “but what are you complaining about? It’s not so bad, and you have a husband anyway.” These are the very people you’d expect to be the most open-minded, so imagine how the rest of society might behave…
There is no legislation or programme to address these stereotypes as an issue in its own right, which is an extremely difficult thing to implement as it relates to changing behaviours. That is why we need to make men and boys a part of the dialogue on how this should change.
What needs to be done to improve gender equality and women and girls' human rights?
We must legislate to remove barriers to equal opportunities in education and the economy, and at the same time, implement existing laws. Laws such as those mandating equal pay for equal work are not enough in themselves; we have to ensure that those commitments are backed by real action. Another essential strategy is overhauling the way education curriculums look at gender. Teachers, for example, are key figures in boys’ and girls’ socialization and should be trained to give a comprehensive and open-minded view of gender issues.
Improving law enforcement is also a key requirement. Even when perpetrators of violence – including online violence – against women and girls are brought to justice, they face extremely low rates of conviction. That perpetuates a culture of impunity.
In the next 15 years of implementing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), we need to push as far as possible for gender equality. We can’t give the impression that this is an open-ended debate – I don’t want to argue in 50 years about the same things I’m arguing about now. Countries need to “step it up” and commit to specific and measurable interventions, so that they can be held accountable if they fail to hit their targets by 2030.
The fact you’re not born with everything should not define who you become.
How can we assist women human rights defenders, who often face threats for seeking to advance women's human rights at the national level?
We need to recognize women human rights defenders as a category of women who face a particularly deadly kind of violence. They are probably the group most in need of global solidarity – in countries where they operate the legal framework is often neither protective nor enabling. Women human rights defenders also need material support: in many cases they are forced to go into hiding and live away from their families, so the trauma they face is not just physical but moral. We need to engage with the human rights institutions and justice systems of those countries, so that the women there have some level of protection.