'Irking opponents comes with the battle for equality'

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka is used to the rolling of eyes when she starts talking about women’s empowerment.

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, who has been appointed the chief of the UN women’s agency. Picture: UN.

LONDON - As the head of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka is used to people rolling their eyes when she starts to talk about women's empowerment and the need for equality for girls globally.

But Mlambo-Ngcuka, a veteran South African politician, holds no fear about irritating people in her mission to stop violence against women, secure education for all girls worldwide, and address the gender pay gap in all nations.

She is hoping a key platform to help drive change will be a conference this week, Women Deliver, the first major women's meeting since the 193 UN member states last year agreed a new set of 17 global goals to fight inequality and extreme poverty.

Men, young people, religious leaders and the media are all targets for Mlambo-Ngcuka who says it is essential to get support to address and end prejudices against women in order to achieve the UN's goal of achieving gender equality by 2030.

"You can't win a struggle without irritating those who you are trying to convert," Mlambo-Ngcuka, the executive director of UN Women, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview from South Africa.

"We need to get across the message that feminism is not about hating men, hating those who don't buy into our agenda, but it is about extending and advancing women's rights.. and ending the deep prejudices against women that still exist."

She said it was important to get men on board - a key factor in UN Women's launch of the #HeForShe campaign in 2014, as gender equality affects all people socially, economically and politically and is not just a struggle for women by women.

Religious leaders were also key to change, she said, citing the example of needing clerics from all religions to be part of any campaign to end violence against women in Pakistan.

But Mlambo-Ngcuka also acknowledged the need to involve the next generation, aware many younger women were rejecting the traditional women's movement, seeing it as having succeeded.


She said the facts proved the fight was not over and the UN's global goals, or Sustainable Development Goals, were an opportunity for both rich and poor countries to invest in women.

For although women and girls make up more than half the world's population, data shows they are often more deeply impacted than men and boys by poverty, climate change, food insecurity, lack of healthcare, and economic crises.

And this inequality is not only a developing world issue.

In the United States studies show that women earn on average 79 cents for every dollar earned by men and hold two-thirds of the jobs in the lowest paying professions, employed as domestic workers, cleaners, and caregivers for children and the elderly.

Mlambo-Ngcuka, who became the second executive director at the United Nation's organisation dedicated to gender equality three years ago, said her aim was not to sideline anyone from the campaign but to convert and widen the support base.

"Even if a young woman says she is not a feminist and there is no oppression of women, I will still fight for her if she gets raped or attacked by a mob," she said.

Mlambo-Ngcuka hopes Women Deliver, in Copenhagen from 16-19 May, will be an opportunity for world leaders, policy makers, the private sector, civil society and celebrities to join forces for change with over 5,000 attendees from 150 nations.

Billed as the biggest women's conference in a decade, World Bank President Jim Yong Kim, Melinda Gates of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus, singer and UNAIDS campaigner Annie Lennox and actress Jessica Biel are all expected to attend.

The focus of the fourth Women Deliver will be on how to implement the UN's global goals relating to women, with a key focus on health as well as education and financial strength.

The summit will begin with the launch of a new 12 point global campaign called Deliver for Good to boost investment in girls' health, education and empowerment.

Mlambo-Ngcuka acknowledged achieving gender equality by 2030 was an ambitious target.

"But if we work together in as many countries as possible we can by 2030 have substantive equality and changes that are irreversible," she said.

"If we can do this the next generation will not look back."