South African Named New Head of U.N. Women

Three years ago this month, the United Nations merged four offices to create the UN Entity for Gender Equality and Empowerment of Women—UN Women—to strengthen efforts for gender equality and empowerment of girls and women worldwide. Last week, South Africa’s Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka was named the new head of the organization, expected to take leadership in August. She replaces Michelle Bachelet, who resigned the position so she could launch her presidential campaign in Chile.

Mlambo-Ngcuka has been in the public realm for years, but now will have a global platform. A former schoolteacher, she began advocating for women’s rights three decades ago. By the early 1990s, she was elected to South Africa’s Parliament, and in 2005 she became the country’s first woman deputy president. In 2008, she founded the Umlambo Foundation to improve disadvantaged schools.  She has been dedicated to issues of poverty alleviation, maternal health, education and women’s leadership.

The announcement of Mlambo-Ngcucka’s appointment coincided with the 10th anniversary of the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (known as the Maputo Protocol). Although serious challenges to African women’s equality remain, women have made important advancements in the past decade. In fact, African women have been models of global leadership in recent years: In 2011, Liberians Leymah Gbowee and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf received the Nobel Peace Prize; in 2012, Fatou Bensouda of the Gambia became both the first woman and first African to be named chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Court, and the African Union Commission named South African Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma as its new president, the first woman to lead the organization.

Furthermore, as of this July 1, Rwanda has the world’s highest percentage of women in parliament, with 8 African nations ranking in the top 25. The United States, in comparison, is ranked #77, with only 17.7 percent female representation in Congress.

Photo of Mlambo-Ngcuka from Flickr user World Economic Forum under license from Creative Commons 2.0


Emily Musil Church is a professor at Lafayette College where she teaches African history, human rights, history of the modern world, and women’s and gender studies. She received her Ph.D. from UCLA, and has taught International Studies and History previously at American University in Washington DC and Trinity College in Hartford, CT. She has worked with Nomadic Wax to help promote the work of African hip hop artists and activists, and with Film Your Issue, a competition highlighting short films about social issues. She is working on a book about black women intellectuals and their contributions to the development of human rights.