New head of UN Women discusses role

African-born Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka says she would like to see women’s rights more prevalent.

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the former and first-ever female South African deputy president,
Mlambo-Ngcuka was the first-ever female South African deputy president [Photo supplied by UN Women]

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, a former South African deputy president, has been appointed by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as the head of the UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, also known as UN Women.

Mlambo-Ngcuka, who stepped into the relatively new position on Thursday, replaces former Chilean president Michelle Bachelet, who resigned in March to pursue a presidential bid in her country.

UN Women was formed in 2011 as an “overseeing” role for promoting women’s rights, an area that Mlambo-Ngcuka is well versed in, having worked at grassroots levels on gender equality in South Africa and eventually becoming the first-ever female deputy president in 2005.

“Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka brings to this position a wealth of experience in advocating for women’s issues, with a combination of strategic leadership, consensus building and hands-on management experience,” UN spokesman Martin Nesirky said.

Mlambo-Ngcuka talked with Al Jazeera’s Safeeyah Kharsany about the new role.

Al Jazeera English: UN Women is a relatively new UN body. How did it form and what is its purpose?

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: The programmes that were in this division were standalone programmes. They’ve now been consolidated into what I hope will become a formidable women’s programme. And my predecessor has already begun with the good work and I will be following on in her footsteps.

AJE: What is it that you hope to bring to this new role?

PMN: I would like to take this work to a much larger constituency so the work of the woman is embraced by a larger constituency, beyond the traditional constituency for women.

women bear the brunt of the pain that comes with human rights in general.

by -Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, head of UN Women

And of course I would like to ensure that we take the woman’s issues to greater heights, addressing the woman’s rights has fundamental human rights so they are not seen as something that is an add-on but fundamental to the challenge that we face in human rights.

In any case, women bear the brunt of the pain that comes with human rights in general.

AJE:   What are the main issues facing women worldwide today?

PMN: The issue of human rights is definitely at the top of the agenda.

[For] women in areas where there is conflict and women in areas where there is peace, domestic violence is huge problem across the board and in different parts of the world. Poverty, poverty, poverty – this is one of the biggest challenges facing women.

And then the issue of representation is taking serious of the voice of women in all institutions. Most institutions have clauses that are supposed to make it easy to include women, but in reality we do not see the higher representation of women where it matters.

AJE: Women, depending on where in the world they live, go through different experiences. How do you hope to address their experiences given the regional context?

PMN: Everywhere we work, the UN works through and works with the people of those countries, so one of the things that I would want to do is to invest in forging alliances and partnerships with the different role-players in different parts of the world. So we will not be parachuting into a situation, but we will blend and collaborate with the stakeholders: the men, women, governments, in the different countries that we will be working in.

The women’s work needs to be the most senior of the people in these institutions. If we are talking about the police, it must be the head of the police in a country who clearly articulate the challenges and is able to tell the foot soldiers what is to be done to address this.

And in pushing the agenda of the women, together with those countries, we will need to engage with those authorities in order to ensure that we are supporting the to do the right thing. And when they do the right thing [we need to] give them positive feedback and when they do the wrong thing, we are also able to put the challenge in front of them, to point out the short comings.

AJE: How will you implement and use your South African experience on this global scale now?

PMN: To begin with, the women in Africa are among the women who have got the hardest time. So in that instance, it is to highlight the plight of women in Africa, which include women in South Africa and some parts of South Africa are worse than others. So that would be one way. And I have an intimate knowledge of the challenges that women in Africa face.

Obviously the job is about all the women of the world, but it is understandable in this sector in general, that the women in Africa face more challenges and therefore we will be paying greater attention to women in Africa.

AJE:  Violence against women continues to receive increasing coverage in the media. Given the incidents of violent rape in India, Egypt and even in South Africa, how do you hope to address violence against women on a global scale?

PMN: It’s going have to be [by] working together with advocacy groups that are fighting on that front. There are lots of women’s groups who work on preventing the violence against women, but we also have to work with the law enforcers whose responsibility it is to both protect the women from being violated and to be there to follow up, and prosecute and to make sure that justice is done.

So I see an opportunity to work across the board with all these stakeholders and authorities to address the issue and clearly I will not be doing something new that other people have not done, but directing that UN attention on this issue also means that we can collaborate with other UN agencies and dedicate, single-minded on addressing this issue.

Source: Al Jazeera