On the Issues with Michele Goodwin

26. Why Women’s Rights are Human Rights (with UN Women Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka)


March 15, 2021

With Guests:

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, United Nations under-secretary-general and executive director of U.N. Women. Sworn into office on August 19, 2013, Mlambo-Ngcuka brings a wealth of experience and expertise to this position, having devoted her career to issues of human rights, equality and social justice. Mlambo-Ngcuka has worked in government and civil society, as well as within the private sector, and was actively involved in the struggle to end apartheid in her home country of South Africa.

26. Why Women’s Rights are Human Rights (with Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka)

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In this Episode:

“Women’s rights are human rights,” proclaimed then-First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton in September 1995 at the United Nations’ Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. This groundbreaking speech marked a turning point for feminism and international efforts toward gender equality, articulating women’s rights as a basic fundamental concept of civil rights, human rights and dignity. During the conference, 189 countries unanimously adopted the Beijing Declaration and the Platform for Action for women’s equality.

In this show we consider the impact of the U.N. agenda for gender equality and women’s empowerment. Where has there been progress?  What are the setbacks? What comes next in the global agenda on women’s rights?

Have a guest recommendation, topic idea, or just want to say hi? Drop us a line at ontheissues@msmagazine.com.

Background Reading:

Celebrate International Women’s Month with us! You can find a full list of virtual events including discussions, exhibits, screenings and more here.


00:00:05.2 Michele Goodwin:

Welcome to “On the Issues with Michele Goodwin” at Ms. Magazine, a show where we report, rebel and tell it like it is. On this show, we center your concerns about rebuilding our nation and advancing the promise of equality. Join me as we tackle the most compelling issues of our times. On our show, history matters. We examine the past as we think about and pivot to the future. On today’s show, we focus on why women’s rights are human rights. 

In September of 1995, the United Nations held the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. It marked a significant turning point for the global agenda for gender equality, and during that conference, 189 countries unanimously adopted the Beijing Declaration and the Platform for Action, an agenda for women’s empowerment. It’s considered the key global document on gender equality. It sets the strategic objectives and actions for the advancement of women and the achievement of gender equality in 12 critical areas of concern.

So, this blueprint, created by the Declaration and Platform for Action, continues to shape the struggle for women’s equality and that for girls, too. And in 2021, equality has yet to be achieved in every country. Though, the truth of it is, women are fighting and girls are fighting at every level to achieve that equality. What are some of the global challenges facing girls and women? How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted girls and women? What has been a key achievement or achievements in this realm in the last 25 years since the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women?

Now, helping us to think through these issues and to sort them out is an incredibly special guest. I’m joined by Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka. She is the United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women. For nearly a decade, she has brought a wealth of experience and expertise to this position, having devoted her career to issues of human rights, equality, and social justice.

I couldn’t be more thrilled than to have her as a guest on our Ms. Magazine podcast. Thank you so much for joining us to discuss these very sensitive and often overlooked matters, and you’ve so graciously allowed me to call you Phumzile, but please just know how deeply honored I am that you’ve decided to carve out time to join us at Ms. Magazine for this important conversation. So, why don’t we dive in?

We are currently living through a unique and devastating period in the world. The COVID-19 pandemic has ravaged the world, and its impacts have been disproportionately felt by girls and women globally. Recently, Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of the UN Women, Phumzile, you have been outspoken about this, and recently, you gave opening remarks at the UN Women’s Executive Board First Regular Session and noted these modern challenges.

You said, in part, our world is in grief. The pandemic has deepened food insecurity, increased the number of orphans and children-headed households, and lockdowns have resulted in more abuse of women and girls. You also said this is a looming debt crisis that’s taking place, and it has caused the displacement of women from the labor market.

You said there is a threat of going back to the era when it was assumed a woman’s place was in the home, and you said, you know, we face a troubling and turbulent world. You know I’m so thrilled to have you on this show saying all of that, such power. So, my first question to you is, you know, can you give us a sense about the UN priorities on girls and women? Why has the UN sought to center the lives of girls and women?

00:04:34.2 Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka:

Thank you so much for having me in your podcast. I’m glad that I finally arrived and we have this time together. Well, it’s indeed a very difficult time. Sometimes I say we are at a crossroads, in the sense that we were at a time when we were hoping, from 2021, we’ll be pushing ahead, addressing the unfulfilled promises that were made in Beijing. We arrive in 2020. Not only do we still have to fulfill those promises, but we have to stop the erosion of the gains that the pandemic has brought about.

In the economic field, the loss of jobs by women means that there is more poverty for women. There is a particular concern of poverty for women between their 20s and 30s. These are women with young children, women of childbearing age, who often have to make a choice between parenting responsibility and going out and work, and many times, women will opt to look after their children, and in that way, fall deep into poverty.

And we are also seeing the dropout of girls from school increasing, when, in the last two decades, we were focused on increasing enrollment of girls in schools, and we’re not doing a bad job. It was going the right direction. It is not perfect, but going the right direction. Come COVID, girls who have returned to school after the closure of schools are much less than boys. Girls have been trafficked.

Girls fell pregnant, most likely after non-consensual sex, and girls in communities where there’s a lot of poverty have been married off because parents needed to raise income for food. So, we are…as the United Nations, we are in this situation where we have to collectively try and make sure that the pandemic does not become a milestone around the necks of women and girls of the world, and this is what we need assistance with and we want a greater recognition by society of.

00:07:21.5 Michele Goodwin:

This is why I’m just so enamored and in awe of you. Listeners, we have on with us right now one of my favorites in the world, just because you’ve been so indefatigable. You’ve been so courageous. You’ve been so brave on addressing these issues. So, part of this conversation brings us back to September 1995 when the United Nations held the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, which you mentioned. It was a profound moment in the history of women’s rights. It convened 5,000 official delegates from every country in the world, and there were more than 30 thousand activists at a parallel forum for non-governmental organizations.

And so, just so much power behind that, and I want to go back to some remarks that you made. So, during your opening remarks at the UN Women Executive Board Regular Session just this year, you made a reference to Beijing, and you said the gains in gender equality made since the adoption of the Beijing Platform for Action have been under almost universal pressure. What did you mean by that when you said that it had been under universal pressure, especially last year? And I guess part of that is really talking about COVID.

00:08:52.9 Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka:

Well, certainly, last year was the last straw, because none of us saw COVID coming, right, but we already under pressure from populism, because driving populism is also the rejection of the rights of women, and living in the US, I’m sure you know a lot about that.

00:09:15.6 Michele Goodwin:

Yes, I do.

00:09:18.6 Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka:

We are seeing the pushback on women’s rights coming from the official platforms, which is much harder to fight. You are able to mobilize a followership that follows you to the wrong direction if you have a platform. So, it’s really been difficult to fight populism and its inherent rejection of gender equality, but you know, the statement that was made in Beijing by Hillary Clinton at that time, that women’s rights are human rights and human rights are women’s rights, was actually profound in the sense that, at that time, women’s rights were not quite seen as rights, as we understand human rights.

26. Why Women’s Rights are Human Rights (with Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka)
Hillary Clinton speaks at the Fourth Women’s Conference in Beijing, China, 1995. (Clinton Presidential Library)

It was development issues. You assisted women almost as charity, not because it is a right. The jurisprudence of the rights of women had not evolved. That statement helped elevate the rights of women, and it helped to usher an era of passing laws and legislation that has gone on to correct that and to enshrine women’s rights in law. We have, as we are women, helped countries to amend constitutions.

We have, in each year, at least helped to pass at least 50 laws in countries where we’re correcting this, and by the way, most of the laws that have been in the forefront were laws that have to do with violence against women. For instance, the notion of honor killing, that you could kill a woman for marrying someone that they choose to marry, and if, as a family, you object to it, you can then kill the woman, and if you kill the woman, you are doing the family an honor, which is why this is called honor killing, because the woman has no rights.

So, when you go to courts as a woman, you are likely to lose because this person who has killed you has done nothing wrong. So, elevating women’s rights and insisting that women’s rights are human rights has helped to change and to hold abusers of women accountable. We have now universal expectations from all countries. Not everyone is implementing the laws as we’d like them to be, but we’ve provided a platform.

00:12:10.2 Michele Goodwin:

So, part of this explains why the UN is so important, and we have listeners that are across the age spectrum, but some of them are younger and maybe weren’t even born at the time of Beijing, and for some of them, what you’re saying is stunning. That, at the time of Beijing, that it was profound to talk about women’s rights as human rights. Are you able to she some light, then, on what was the world like then for women at that time? Because we still see the honor killings. We still see the forced underage marriage, but it was even worse then. So, can you talk about that and then about what the UN has done to make inroads and to make changes since Beijing?

00:13:03.9 Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka:

Well, it’s been very good that we have seen perpetrators being brought to book in different countries, and when something like that happens, we make sure that we publicize the cases because…

00:13:17.6 Michele Goodwin:

I love that.

00:13:18.8 Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka:

We want to make sure that other perpetrators are warned that there is consequence for bad behavior. Only recent, have we had a perpetrator of violence against women, rape against women in conflict areas, being brought to book. Seeing a warlord being brought to book for mass rape was revolutionary, and ­a younger person would say, well, that was always wrong.

Why is it even worth talking about, because it didn’t happen before? We actually had to fight to create an environment with courts. The international courts would see this as a violation of rights and find against the perpetrator. Now, in 1995 in Beijing, we also had a situation where countries who had come to Beijing would have come there with their…from different persuasions, and we wanted to have a dispensation that makes it the responsibility of all countries equally to respect the rights of women.

This was important, because if you leave each country to make its own laws, we would have different interpretation of what is women’s rights? So, the United Nations, therefore, provides an institution where everybody is held to the same standard. There may be people who are not rising up to the standard, but then they know that they are not. You call them for not doing so. You create peer pressure. There are those that will overperform. They raise the bar for everybody.

So, in my work, whenever I see countries, like Iceland, that do very well, I clap my hands because I say you are raising the bar for everybody. I have to say to other countries, look at Iceland. You can do this. One country has already done this. So, in Beijing, we created a platform that was binding to everyone, because, before that, we did not have something like you have as far as children is concerned, the rights of a child. All countries are held to the same standards about how they should get children. They may not all do the right thing, but there’s a standard that is there.

There was no standard for women. Hey, you could do whatever you like. So, we created that standard, and for younger people who have also asked me, what’s this Beijing thing? Why are you so crazy about this Beijing…this is because, if you remove Beijing, we have nothing to hold countries together, to account for their treatment of their women. So, that is why we have been protecting this at the slightest provocation. We want to get all the countries to recommit to it.

00:16:38.8 Michele Goodwin:

That’s fabulous, and it is so inspiring, you’re right. The devaluation of women and girls, such that no uniform rights and setting the standards being so important, because what would be the standard in one country, not necessarily in the other. In some places, could be the norm to sell off your daughter and she’s at the age of 10, and in other countries, no, but that’s what the world looked like, I mean, just that egregious, and as you were mentioning the rapes, mass rapes, and mass rapes not being held to account. It’s stunning.

00:17:17.9 Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka:

Absolutely. Yeah, but also countries who don’t have laws and constitutions that make that illegal would have no instrument to address this. So, we have had to pronounce this as a crime and make sure that the countries have got the laws to follow through.

00:17:43.5 Michele Goodwin:

Yes. Oh, that’s so inspiring. Well, I want to go back to something else that’s really important that the United Nations has been doing. So, on September 25, 2015, there were 193 member states of the UN that unanimously adopted the Sustainable Development Goals, which is a set of 17 goals aimed at transformation and transforming the world by 2030, and there’s the UN Women Strategic Plan from 2018 to 2021, which supports the implementation of the Beijing Declaration. Can you tell us a little bit about that strategic plan and how those priorities fit with the work that you do?

26. Why Women’s Rights are Human Rights (with Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka)
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka (center, speaking) speaks at Gender Equality: from the Biarritz Partnership To the Beijing+25 Generation Equality Forum, a side event of the 74th session of the UN General Assembly, in New York City, Sept. 2019. (UN Women / Flickr)

00:18:31.2 Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka:

Well, the work that we do to advance gender equality is supported by existing agreements of the United Nations. One of the real cool agreements that member states have committed to are the Sustainable Development Goals. What is also nice about the Sustainable Development Goals is that they were not just adopted by the member states. Private sector was involved. Civil society was involved. Academic institutions was involved.

So, it was really an agreement that brought together people from all walks of life. So, in our strategic plan, we try to interpret the goals and create a work plan for ourselves to accompany nations in the implementation of the goals, and within these 17 goals, will also, in each goal, include something to advance gender equality, but there’s also one goal which is just about women.

00:19:46.4 Michele Goodwin:

Well, this is what’s wonderful about you and your work, and can you tell us about that one goal that’s just about women because I saw your hands all over that. When I look at those goals and I see women, women, women, I know that that’s your leadership and the leadership of others that you’ve trained and who work with you, making sure that women are a part of that.

00:20:06.0 Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka:

Well, yes. So, the one goal that everybody must read when they look about Sustainable Development Goals is Goal 5 on gender equality. That is the goal that calls on country to end all forms of discrimination, and in particular, we focus on legislative discrimination. All countries must have laws that forbid discrimination so that women have a recourse when they experience discrimination, and we also include, in that country, the end of violence against women, which is something that has stalked us and still stalks us right now, and we can use all the help we can get.

It also calls on the end of harmful practice, such as child marriage or female genital mutilation, but also a harmful practice in countries that come in other forms, because different countries may have their own subtle ways of discriminating, but we are just saying that you cannot say this is my culture. If a culture harms women, we are calling on countries to phase that out. We also call on that for economic empowerment of women, and if you look at all of this, what you have in Goal 5, can you imagine if we could have an elimination of all laws that are discriminating, if we would have no norms…

Because norms is about subtle discrimination in some cases, but in some countries, is very pronounced, like child marriage, but we have subtle discrimination where the promotion of women at work, for instance, you are just passed over for somebody else, and it’s not something that is a big deal. It’s a subtle, unconscious bias, but it takes away a lifetime opportunity for women to progress in the workplace, and oh, of course, we also have women’s leadership there.

Women’s leadership, if we were to increase women’s leadership just by women showing up, being there at the places where decisions are making, once women are inside the room where decisions are made, they figure out the plan. They will make things happen. So, can you imagine if, in the world, there was equal number of women who are decision-makers as men, where we would be? Because there’s a correlation between underrepresentation of women and slow progress as far as gender equality is concerned.

So, Goal 5, it’s all of those things, and as you can see, this is not rocket science. These are all doable actions that can be taken, and these are problem that exist in every country, irrespective of their level of development, and that is why we say these goals are universal. It doesn’t matter what country you’re in. There’s something you need to fix.

00:23:36.2 Michele Goodwin:

Well, one of the things that I appreciate what you’re saying is that there are the things that are glaring, and then there are the implicit biases, and these implicit biases that are normalized in the culture, and they normalize the microaggressions and the macroaggressions, and they have real effect. Even though a country might say, well, it’s just part of our culture, but it has a real effect. You know, in my research in India on underage marriage, it’s actually been judges who’ve taken me to areas where they are performing underage marriages.

And I say this is against the law when I’ve been in Bihar and other regions, and they say, well, that’s the law in Delhi. It is actually the federal law, and it should be implemented everywhere, but they say, but this is culture. They say, well, this is what these people want, and I’ve interviewed girls who are on their second marriage, and they’re not yet 18. I recall one girl, 15 years old, on her second marriage because the first husband died. These are the circumstances that you’re talking about and the others. They’re real.

00:24:44.9 Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka:

Yeah. Yeah, and can you imagine if you have that situation in the same country where, from one state to another, you can have different interpretation by judges, and judges do not even feel that they have moral responsibility. That’s the logic that oppresses the girls. Fifteen and second husband, I mean, really?

00:25:15.4 Michele Goodwin:

Exactly. It’s just stunning, and the mother in that instance said to me, almost in tears, that she wished that she had allowed her daughter to go to school like her sons, but she hadn’t. So her daughter was illiterate. Did not know how to read or write, and the mother thought that the best option for her was that she be married off, and she regretted that she didn’t allow her daughter to go to school, but another issue was that she thought if she did allow her daughter to go to school, she feared her daughter being raped while walking to school, because that’s another issue and concern, the sexual violence.

00:25:57.6 Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka:

Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, and of course, girls’ education is so important, but it has to be safe. Going to school must not be a heroic act. You know, a girl must not get up every day, go to school, and think about the best way to navigate the many adversaries that she may face on her way to school, which is why engaging men and boys is also really critical, because they, too, have to understand what is acceptable and not acceptable.

Girls walking together outside Yomelela Primary School, South Africa, 2015. (UN Women)

And that is one area we have been pushing forward as women, ensuring that men and boys are part of the solution, and it has been very encouraging to see traditional leaders in areas where they have jurisdiction passing bylaws that are fighting against child marriage or violence against women, fining families or individuals who have violated girls, fining families for children not being at school and marrying girls and giving the girls a wedding present, which is an admission to a school.

It’s been wonderful to watch that in Malawi, in Zambia, in Nigeria where the traditional system is still very strong, but I must also say, where we are having the biggest difficulties and slow change to affect legislation that stop these harmful predators, it is in those countries with a strong traditional authority and strong religious laws. So, you have to find a way of working with these institutions, because, in some countries, they hold the key to women’s emancipation.

00:27:57.7 Michele Goodwin:

You are so right about that. I want to turn from the fifth goal, which is fabulous, achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls, to the third goal, which is to ensure healthy lives and to promote wellbeing at all ages, and part of this goal includes ensuring universal access to sexual and reproductive healthcare services, including family planning, information, and education. Can you tell us about that goal, which is such an ambitious goal, and it is to extend this into national strategies and programs? That’s profound. Clearly, being able to control your own reproductive healthcare allows you to, you know, control your destiny beyond reproduction, but can you share a bit about that goal?

00:28:49.4 Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka:

Absolutely. I mean, health is everything. Health is everything at every age. You have to have access and maintain a healthy lifestyle, whatever age you are, and it’s been important to make sure that we localize this particular goal, because access to services happen at your local clinic, at your local service providers. So, you have to make sure that you get buy-in at that level, and there has been a lot of work that has been going there.

As also a way of reducing maternal death, which is also occasioned by young girls having children when their bodies are not ready to perform childbirth, and girls get sick, and they die out of something that is otherwise preventable. So, the access to education, as far as reproductive health is concerned, is important because girls need to have information so that they can make choices, difficult as it could be in some situations. It’s even worse when they don’t know what is…what is possible, what choices they have.

00:30:15.0 Michele Goodwin:

Well, when they don’t even know about their own bodies, how a reproductive health system works…

00:30:20.6 Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka:

Yeah, and just to say, you know, one of the biggest and most important interventions for women is access to contraceptives. It’s probably the single most important interventions women need in order for them to have a fulfilling life. Can you imagine if there was no childbirth control mechanisms in the world? If all of us were living in a situation where we did not have control over when and how many children we were going to have?

The only time we had a breakthrough in terms of participation of women in the labor market was when we were able to have access to birth control to the largest number of women, and women were therefore able to make choices about when to go to work and when not to go to work. Employers could not now have excuses not to give women permanent contract, not to recruit women.

And women were not forced to be at home and be a full-time mother when they knew that they could not have more children. That they actually needed to go and fend for the children they already have. So, it is an important enabler of women’s emancipation, and there should not be a single woman in the world who does not have access to this.

00:32:00.6 Michele Goodwin:

You know, when you say this, and it’s so inspiring, and I think about a speech that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave that he wrote…his wife actually gave it in 1966, and he said that women’s rights were connected to civil rights and the liberation of Black people in the United States, and he said this because he said it was cruel for women to be forced to have children that they could not afford and that they did not want.

And he said it was cruel for a woman to come from an agrarian economy at a certain point where having 10 kids was normal, and then she goes into an urban area and it’s 10 kids and this woman having to live in a one-bedroom apartment or two-bedroom apartment, and it was such a profound speech, and I think about that when you say this and about how people don’t think about that or how they don’t think about how there were employers that denied women, put into the missions and policies of their companies that they would not hire women because they feared women would get pregnant, and it was used as a proxy for discriminating against women. These are parts of the reason why birth control access is really important, and because you raised another issue, which was about sexual assault and rape, domestic violence. Those are real things that lead to unwanted pregnancy.

00:33:29.8 Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka:

No, absolutely. The number of women who have had children that they did not plan and because they have had sex, they did not consent to, and they do not have any recourse, and sometimes they’re forced to marry the perpetrator of the sexual violence because, for the family, this is seen as the best way to settle the matter. So, someone you did not want has violated you, and the matter is settled by sending you to be with that person now for the rest of your life, and this person does not even want you themselves. So, you are forced into them, as well, and abuse that then comes out of that relationship is something that the woman has to live with for the rest of her life.

00:34:27.7 Michele Goodwin:

What cruelty. Well, I have just a couple of additional questions for you, though. In honesty, I could spend a whole weekend with you by a fireplace just having wonderful conversation with a large audience, but one of the things that connects to this conversation, as well, happens to be environmental security or sanitation security, which I think is a really important piece of this, and I’ve seen this in parts of Africa, India, et cetera, where sanitation security is just simply not there, but it seems a critical issue that’s connected to the health and safety of women, and I want to know, you know, within the UN, how do you all see the importance of things like sanitation and running water as being part of an important narrative for women and girls?

00:35:22.8 Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka:

You know, access to water and sanitation, clean water and sanitation, is one of the incomplete mission of the Millennium Development Goals that came before the Sustainable Development Goals. It was work that was passed on to the Sustainable Development Goals because it was not completed in the Millennium Development Goals. It is so critical for women.

If we start from where we are today, the importance of having clean water and ensuring that you can maintain the highest level of hygiene is obvious to everybody. The washing of hands is important not just to fight the coronavirus, but also for other viruses and for cleanliness that is required. In a home situation where there isn’t water, it is the woman who has to take the responsibility to make a plan to make sure that there is water.

Women and girls are the ones who take the responsibility for the absent infrastructure that governments should provide. So, when government fails to provide water infrastructure, women and girls are the ones who have to go and fetch water, risk sometimes going to fetch water where they, as you pointed out earlier on, risk being attacked and sexually assaulted while they are hauling water. Girls can drop out of school in some situation because they have to fetch water.

Women and children gather water in Balukhali camp, Bangladesh, March 2018. (UN Women / Flickr)

And a young girl with her short, little, wobbly legs has to carry a big container to go and fetch water for old men with beards and muscles who are sitting at home waiting to have their thirst quenched by a little girl. This is so unfair. This is so unfair, and in the process of that, that girl has lost the time she needs to do things that children do while she is performing that job.

So, this is also the invisible labor, unpaid labor of women and girls in families, and of course, when girls go to school and schools do not have water and sanitation, again, she has sometimes to choose between going to school and staying at home when she is menstruating because there isn’t the conditions of school for her to maintain cleanliness, and she loses a few days in every month. After some time, she just doesn’t go at all.

So, there is a real impact for women and girls when water and sanitation is not provided for. In countries where, sometimes, resources are provided and money is stolen because of corruption and it is not used to provide this infrastructure in schools and communities, those people who steal this money steal the lives of women and girls in the process, and it is so unforgivable.

00:39:07.2 Michele Goodwin:

It’s so unforgivable and unfair, as you say, and you create such a vivid image of the little girls…and I’ve seen this. I’ve seen this in Uganda and other places, the little girls carrying those big orange or yellow containers going down to some river or some place of water and filling it up and carrying it on their shoulders or struggling with it on their head. I’ve seen this. You are so right, and it is unfair, and it is unjust, and we have to see these issues as being connected.

So, I’m wondering…just two last questions. Our last question is going to be about silver linings, but my last question before that is what can you tell our listeners to look forward to in terms of future events that will be taking place? Is there going to be something impactful, like a modern version of Beijing? Are there other things that they should be thinking about on the horizon within the next year that’s coming out of your office?

00:40:05.9 Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka:

Well, the modern version of Beijing is in the making. Not only does it reinforce Beijing, but it creates a program of action for the world to implement, and that program of action has been developed after we evaluated where we had failed to implement or to advance in the implementation of the Beijing Declaration, but also, we looked at emerging issues that maybe were not as prominent in Beijing.

And we have then tried to augment the plan by coming up with those issues, and we’ve divided them into six areas, and forming coalitions that will run with each of the issues, making sure that we also expand the base of fighters for gender equality, making sure that we put a price on what does it cost to advance gender equality? Because one of the things we didn’t do in Beijing was to name the price. You know women sometimes can be shy about money?

00:41:20.4 Michele Goodwin:


00:41:22.7 Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka:

Name the price, because where there isn’t a budget, it just will not happen. So, we have six areas, and we have packaged this under a thing called Generation Equality. Basically saying this is the generation that will deliver equality as envisioned in the Beijing Declaration, and it is an intergenerational generation that looks at those who have been there, who have walked many miles already, and those who are coming, and they must pull their lot together and implement together so that, as the others fade, the others are coming up.

And we are giving birth to the new generation, because, in Beijing, there were many people who had gone to a conference of that nature for the first time in their lives, and they came back. They were never the same. We want to create that effect when we do that, and so, Generation Equality, with the six themes, it’s economic justice. It’s ending violence against women. It’s climate justice. It’s sexual and reproductive rights and health as well as bodily autonomy. It’s climate. It’s women’s leadership and feminist movements.

00:42:41.2 Michele Goodwin:

I love that.

00:42:42.2 Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka:

These are the areas that we’re going to be pushing forward, and we kick start the launch of the plan of action, and we are calling for budgets that will finance what we have identified in each area as a critical action that will catalyze the field. So, in Mexico, on the 28th to the 30th, we kick start that push forward on the six areas that are taking Beijing much further, but we’ve also integrated our response to the pandemic, and we’ll culminate in Paris in June.

Watch the space on internet on Women’s Day. President Macron will announce the dates. They’ve been struggling because of the pandemic giving them nightmares, but they will announce the dates, but it will be at the end of June where we will finalize, and we will announce the blueprint of actions meant to accelerate the implementation of the Beijing Declaration.

And we are going to be committing the participants for five years. Let’s see what we can do in five years. So, we have private sector there. We have young people. We have feminist movements. We have governments. We have traditional leaders. We have academics. We have regular Joes walking down the streets and buying in, and I think we’re going to have you in that.

00:44:12.9 Michele Goodwin:

Yes. Oh, I plan on being there. I plan on seeing you in Paris at the end of June.

00:44:18.1 Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka:

Yeah. Yeah. Absolutely.

00:44:22.6 Michele Goodwin:

So, my final question is one of inspiration for our audience, and I can’t tell you how much we value you. We appreciate you. That I personally value and appreciate you, and the question is about silver linings. So, you have seen so much around the world. You’ve been in the spaces that you describe where there hasn’t been sanitation, where there’ve been girls who didn’t have access to proper healthcare, women who had no access to contraception and reproductive healthcare, but you’ve also been a warrior and gotten much done. So, I’m wondering what the silver lining is that you see? Even though those realities exist in the world, what do you see as the silver lining or silver linings?

00:45:04.0 Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka:

Yeah. Yeah. Well, certainly, there is a silver lining, and let me just start by Generation Equality as a silver line. This is a campaign that we should’ve launched, by the way, in 2020 June, but you know, 2020 happened, and we had to pause and allow countries to deal with the fight against the pandemic and put the work of Generation Equality on hold, but the countries remained committed.

I think the level of commitment that we have seen gives me the hope, the silver lining that the penny…not in all countries, but in many countries, the penny has dropped. We are waiting very soon for the United States to join Generation Equality. I have big hopes that they will join, and that also is a silver lining, that we have gained a big member state in Generation Equality.

Right now, we have 24 countries who have self-selected as leaders who are the ones that are bringing in the other states, who are putting in money on this initiative, who are advancing policies on this initiative, as well as private sector, who are putting their dollars, who are energizing their own workspace as implementers of this. So, this expansion of the participants is a silver lining. Another silver lining is the engagement of young people. I mean, girls rock.

Participants at a walk for gender equality in New Delhi, India, 2016. (UN Women / Flickr)

00:46:44.5 Michele Goodwin:

They do.

00:46:46.0 Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka:

They are in the front line for taking a stance on climate change. They are in the front line when it comes to fighting for ending of child marriage. They are in the front line for fighting for girls’ education, and they are in the front line for fighting for women’s leadership, and they want to co-create the future. That, for me, is really something powerful, because it means that the older women like me, who are to be fading out quite soon, have got these young warriors for change who have radical impatience.

Very clear about what needs to be done, and I also need to give a shout out to the media as a silver lining. The media has evolved in its own rights in the last few years. The extent to which you have been able to call out, for instance, on abusive behavior of powerful men has been defining, has helped to give us both the language and examples of what could happen when people abuse their power and think that this can be swept under the carpet, and you’ve given examples of what it means to make them accountable. So, yes, there are silver linings. Definitely.

00:48:21.6 Michele Goodwin:

It has been my honor and pleasure to have you on our podcast today. Thank you so much.

00:48:27.5 Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka:

Thank you. Thanks. Take care. See you soon.

00:48:32.5 Michele Goodwin:

See you soon. See you in Paris.

Guests and listeners, that’s it for today’s episode of “On the Issues with Michele Goodwin.” I want to thank my guest, Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, for joining us and being part of this critical and insightful conversation, and to our listeners, I thank you for tuning in for the full story. We hope you join us again for our next episode, where we will be reporting, rebelling and telling it like it is. It will be an episode you will not want to miss on the filibuster and the two-senators-per-state model.

For more information about what we discussed today, head to MsMagazine.com. Now, if you believe, as we do, that women’s voices matter, that equality for all persons cannot be delayed, and that rebuilding America being un-bought and un-bossed and reclaiming our time are important, then be sure to rate, review, and subscribe to “On the Issues with Michele Goodwin,” on Apple Podcast, Spotify, iHeartRadio, Google Podcast, and Stitcher. Let us know what you think about our show.

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This has been your host Michele Goodwin reporting, rebelling and telling it like it is. “On the Issues with Michele Goodwin” is a Ms. Magazine joint production. Kathy Spillar and Michele Goodwin are our executive producers. Our producers for this episode are Roxy Szal and Mariah Lindsay. We thank Oliver Haug for research and digital assistance. The creative vision behind our work includes art and design by Brandi Phipps, editing by Will Alvarez and Marsh Allen, and music by Chris J. Lee. Stephanie Wilner provides executive assistance.