Human Rights / Women

The South African at the forefront of UN Women.

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka is not a household name for most South Africans. But Mlambo-Ngcuka, the former deputy president of South Africa and current Executive Director of UN Women, is one of South Africa’s most prominent global figures. On the 27th of April her UN department released a major report calling for far-reaching changes to the world economic agenda, rooted in the human rights framework and determined to realize universal economic gender equality.

Before Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka became the Executive Director of UN Woman, she was tipped to be South Africa’s first female president. Her husband Bulelani Ngcuka was the chief prosecutor in Jacob Zuma’s corruption trial. The investigation forced Jacob Zuma to step down as deputy president, and following his return to politics as the president, Ms. Mlambo-Ngcuka resigned as his deputy.

Since then, she has become head of the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, also known as UN Women. She was the architect of the HeforShe campaign that Emma Watson famously represented in her UN address in September 2014.On the 27th of April she and her colleagues delivered the findings of a major study on the progress of the worlds women in a report with the intention of ‘Transforming Economies, Realizing Rights.’

The progress report, according to its summary, proposes a ‘comprehensive agenda for key policy actors to make human rights a lived reality for all women and girls.’ It coincides with the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, where a comprehensive agenda to advance gender equality was set out by the international community. The progress report analyses the success of this commitment in 2015, and proposes strategies to further the agenda of realizing human rights and economic equality for women throughout the world.

“The ambitions of the post-2015 development agenda will only be met if we can achieve transformative financing, both in scale and scope, from all sources and at all levels,” Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka stated in her opening address at an event hosted in New York on April 16th. “This must be reflected in a strong call to action that will galvanize support to finance new and existing gender equality commitments in all countries, at all levels of development and in all situations.”

The report found that globally, women are paid 24 percent less than men on average. Lower rates of participation in the labour force and lower access to pensions are still consistent obstacles for woman in all countries, as is their clustering into a limited set of under-valued occupations such as domestic workers. Another focus was the burden of unpaid care work, which is intensified by cutbacks and service delivery issues in developing countries.

“This is a care penalty that unfairly punishes women for stepping in when the State does not provide resources and it affects billions of women the world over,’ explains Mlambo-Ngcuka. “We need policies that make it possible for both women and men to care for their loved ones without having to forego their own economic security and independence.”

The Progress Report considered case studies and examples of change from many countries and interrogates the way key policy actors approach their economic policies and how countries enforce human rights. By proposing an alternative economic agenda, one which considers woman and their rights to be paramount concerns, the report asserts that decent jobs can be generated for women and unpaid care work can be recognized and supported. Other important recommendations include well-designed social services and social protection measures, which would enhance women’s income security and their potential for greater economic opportunities.

“Our public resources are not flowing in the directions where they are most needed: for example, to provide safe water and sanitation, quality health care, and decent child- and elderly-care services. Where there are no public services, the deficit is borne by women and girls,” Mlambo-Ngcuka said.

Alongside other similar gender equity programs, the Progress Report is placing macroeconomics at the centre of the agenda to realize women’s rights. Furthermore, it recommends a re-examination of the definition of a country’s success. Instead of looking at GDP growth and inflation rates, governments ought to consider the realization of human rights a realistic reflection of their success.

“All countries worry me because of the universality of violence against women,’ says Mlambo-Ngcuka. “The fact that 75 percent of violence against women is domestic violence is the issue.”

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka is one of South Africa’s most internationally successful figures, yet her work and her career are little known among most South Africans. Her work as the head of UN Woman is setting up how governments and international agencies will conceive of their human rights responsibilities in the future, as well as proposing real strategies for how these responsibilities can be realized. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka best represents herself in her own words, when asked whether her own gender as ever held her back:

“I’ve been a deputy president of a country, I’m the head of a UN agency and I’ve been able to go to school to doctorate level. I’ve had a past that’s better than others and I was determined. I don’t represent the norm.”

“All that said, I can still be a victim of rape. I have not experienced it, but I could; these advantages do not completely insulate you [from inequality].”

You can read the entire report here at


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