By Francesca Donner
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka pounds the table for women and girls.
As she speaks, it’s like a drumbeat — how girls need to complete their education, how they need access to technology, how child marriage and pregnancy will set a girl on a path of economic hardship. You can hear it as she points to girls who are trafficked — “you know they are lost to society and their rights will be violated in unimaginable ways.” And you can hear it as she speaks of the cycles of violence, abuse and poverty that trap women and girls for life. If they raise their voices, the outcomes may be more dangerous than if they stay silent.
Ms. Mlambo-Ngcuka is the executive director of U.N. Women, a position she has now held for seven years. Earlier in her career, she held several positions in the South African government, including deputy president of South Africa — the first woman to hold that role.
Certainly there are reasons to be hopeful — among them movements against violence and demonstrations for inclusivity — but Covid-19 has put at risk those gains.
So Ms. Mlambo-Ngcuka’s pounding beats on: We had better use this crisis to make decisions that can be enforced and enshrined in laws, she says, adding, “We want to go back to the new normal, which is not going back to the status quo that we had before Covid.”
Ms. Mlambo-Ngcuka sat down with In Her Words to talk about the risks the global crisis poses to women and girls in particular and how the entire world has homework to do on an inclusive recovery.
The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
How do you see the pandemic playing out long-term for women?
As you probably know, every pandemic has a gender dimension. There’s no gender-neutral pandemic, and this one is no different. Women are affected not just by the virus or the disease, but by the circumstances surrounding it.
Women are the majority of nurses so they are the ones who are on the front lines. Women are also affected by the unpaid care responsibility. If there’s a spillover of sick people who can’t go to hospital, it is the women at home who are looking after those people. We are very concerned about girls not going back to school after the schools have closed for this long time. If they become pregnant at this time, that is the beginning of a journey of poverty for most girls. If at this time they are trafficked, you know they are lost to society and their rights will be violated in unimaginable ways. All of this shrinks the woman’s economic potential in society for the long term. So the circumstances, not just the disease, are a worry.
And of course, they are in low-paying jobs, they are in the informal sector, they are not in jobs where they can enforce a contract. In that way, even when there’s a stimulus given to their employers, they are not in a strong position to demand that they are also counted.
Parental leave, remuneration, child care. When it comes to societal safety nets, what do you think is most critical?
I really cannot choose which rights we need to sacrifice, so it just starts with legislation that covers all women so that women haverecourse. Countries may not live up to the obligations to all the rights they say women have, but it’s important that those rights are there in law.
Domestic violence is the “surprise” public health crisis that really is no surprise at all. Lockdown to slow the spread of the virus creates ample opportunity for abusers, and the situation is made worse by stress and loss of control. How can it have been a surprise?
Well, it certainly should not be a surprise because every time there is a crisis, this is what happens. With Ebola, it was the same. You cannot limit access to services at a time like this. The services that women need to prevent violence, as well as to protect themselves from it, must be declared essential in every country.
We actually need our responses to Covid-19 to address this issue for the long term. We are flattening the curve of the pandemic; we must flatten the curve of gender-based violence at the same time as well, and stay with it until we’ve been able to see a difference.
In the course of our reporting on Covid-19 and gender, we’ve heard many argue that “now” is not the time to worry about women’s issues, when we have a “real” crisis on our hands. Assuming that as head of U.N. Women you disagree with this view, how do you counter it?
Well, I think you have to break it down for them.
One of the essential ways of fending off the virus, for instance, is washing hands in clean water. There are many countries where women are the people who actually have to walk looking for water, in many cases bringing back home dirty water. That takes a lot of their time and it takes them away from engaging in other economic activities. If you address this issue of water, which is good for everyone’s health, it frees up her time for some other things, and that is good. We need that now.
If you’re talking about gender-based violence, there’s never a good time to beat up a woman, I’m sorry. Whether we are in a crisis or not, we have to use every opportunity to address this issue and to intervene in a way that will make our intervention permanent.
If you’re thinking about access to a digital infrastructure — that would enable more women to have a meaningful future in their work life, that will enable all children to go back to school, that would give girl children access to technology (because there is still a gender divide when it comes to access to technology) — why must we say the girls must be left behind? We’ve worked so hard for girls’ education, for goodness sake. We cannot give up, even now.
Now is not the time to say we can relax and let girls be trafficked and let child marriage go rampant because we’re fighting a disease. Fighting these different ways in which women are oppressed does not take away from the fight for health. These things go together.
We’ve fought so hard for maternal health and it is now at high risk because of what is happening to our health system. Should we say that women who are giving birth now must die because we are helping women and men who are infected? We need both to happen!
No, that argument is not credible, I’m sorry.
It’s very hard culturally and socially to get women to the table. We don’t have a historical precedent for it. So how do we make it happen?
We actually need to engage men. And as much as we do not have enough men who stand up for women’s rights, we have seen a critical mass of men who are willing to use their power and authority to make decisions that promote gender equality. This is the time for them now to do everything they can to bring about change. Frankly, we need to use the crisis to make decisions that can be enforced, that can be enshrined in laws and in policies, that can be implemented. And we need to provide both carrots and sticks for people who are responsible for overseeing those decisions, to do the work.
Many have made the case that female-led countries have steered their nations through this virus more efficiently and more effectively than male-led countries (Germany, New Zealand and Finland, to name a few). What does strong leadership mean to you, today?
Strong leadership is focused on the purpose: Why are you leading? You are leading because you want to address the needs of people. These women you have highlighted of these countries that have done well in fighting the pandemic, have been super focused on the pandemic. No time for petty politics, no time for using these politics to score a point about something that has nothing to do with a pandemic, and super careful about making sure that every step they take leads them to the results that are needed to make the changes.
I think women also know a lot about how you take care of people who are in pain, because this is a disease that affects families, this is a disease that brings a lot of grief when there’s fatalities in families. They have been able to balance all those issues — being firm on how you deal with the resources that you have, on how you enforce the regulations that you made, but also being caring and making sure that your eyes are on saving lives. I’m not saying that men do not have those qualities, but I think women have it more and that they are blessed with those qualities more than men.
Taking into account all we have discussed, what is most critical when it comes to building a better world, post-Covid?
I will go with the leadership. Let ustry and position women in strategic leadership so they’re inside the rooms where decisions are being made; and trust them to make the right decisions for all of us. Let’s just get them inside that door.