While the world is electing more women into politics and women’s protests have taken centre stage in recent years, many say issues of violence, discrimination and underrepresentation remain roadblocks in the fight for gender equality.
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka is the executive director of UN Women and has overseen its work in addressing gender issues since 2013.
Al Jazeera asked Mlambo-Ngcuka whether International Women’s Day on March 8 is an occasion to celebrate, protest, or take up activism.
“All of the above,” she said. “Because even though we’ve made progress, and it’s important that we celebrate the achievements, but we also haven’t come far enough, we have a lot of work that we still need to do. So we still need to be activists. But also some of the gains that we have had are being eroded, so we have to protest and defend, and there is misogyny, and many other harmful and hurtful challenges that women still face and because of that, protests are also in order.”
Feminism is not just about and for women. Feminism is about men and women working together to make the situation better for everybody.
UN Women is working to collect gender statistics, often lacking in countries worldwide, to help provide more focused solutions. For example, collecting data on girls’ school attendance and dropouts may help address the issue of girls missing school because of their menstrual cycle.
“If we are unable to provide evidence about this phenomena, sometimes when we raise the importance of sanitation in schools as a critical human right, people don’t believe that it is this serious, but when we have, then you are able to show this pattern. It means when you build, you build smart. When you innovate, you make sure that you provide the services at school and at home so that this right, which is about dignity … is respected and taken seriously,” Mlambo-Ngcuka explained.
For her, women’s equality benefits everybody.
“Feminism is about respecting the rights of people of all sexualities, but more than anything else being active in trying to correct and to address discrimination where it exists. This is not the responsibility of women alone, this is the responsibility of everyone who believes in equality. So feminism is not just about and for women. Feminism is about men and women working together to make the situation better for everybody.”
One positive trend is the increasing number of women in the political arena; about 23 percent of women were in single or lower houses of national parliaments in 2018, a roughly four-percent increase from 2010, according to the UN.
Mlambo-Ngcuka agrees that more women in power will make a difference, but there is still progress to be made.
“We have not reached the critical mass across the world that would ensure that you actually swing the pendulum decisively. We are going the right way in some situations. We are going the right way in particular because of activism of ordinary people trying to hold their leaders accountable. But we need people to vote for women when elections come.”