New chief of UN Women highlights girls’ education as priority to combat poverty, boost development

UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka and Nanette Braun, Chief of Communications and Advocacy, address press. Photo: UN WomenEducation, economic empowerment, and reproductive rights were three key building blocks for eliminating poverty and achieving women’s emancipation, the new head of the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN-Women) told reporters in New York. In her first press conference at United Nations Headquarters since her appointment as Executive Director of UN-Women in July, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka of South Africa said she would collaborate closely with organizations and institutions outside the United Nations system, which could bring their own expertise and resources to bear in making the aspiration to equality a reality.

She underlined the importance of a collaborative approach, stressing that UN-Women would be unable to achieve its goals alone, with limited resources and a global population of 3.6 billion women to serve.  Indeed, her work as Executive Director would be tied closely with Member States, the United Nations system and civil society, the latter of which would be particularly crucial to the Entity’s grassroots success. 

Paying tribute to the work of her predecessor, Michelle Bachelet, for the foundations she had laid, Ms. Mlambo-Ngcuka outlined her priorities, which included expanding women’s leadership and participation, particularly in peace and security, bringing an end to violence against women and working to establish a broad United Nations-based system for women’s empowerment and equality.

With the Millennium Development Goals deadline in 2015, she said she would work intensely to ensure that whatever else could be achieved in the remaining time would be achieved.  She stressed the importance of improving access to education and of reducing the number of children, especially girls, dropping out of schools.  There was also an opportunity to prioritize the issue of women and girls to a higher level in the post-2015 development agenda, for which she called for a specific international goal that harnessed all issues central to the women’s agenda, and for mainstreaming all other relevant issues of importance to them.

She stressed the potential far-reaching impact on humanity of UN-Women’s work to empower women and girls, as she addressed the “elephant in the room” of funding.  That would be another major focus, especially during her first six months, when she said she would be working to increase the number of donors contributing more than $15 million.  She also underlined the importance of diversifying funding sources, by looking to the private sector, foundations, and philanthropists, while also relying on UN-Women country teams to source funding within their host countries.

Several questions on funding followed, with one focused on why the United States ranked only ninth in the list of donors.  She said she did not know why, but she intended to hold discussions with the Government about it.  She added that she expected the new Norwegian Government to remain a “lifesaver” to UN-Women, despite the winning party’s apparent scepticism of the United Nations.  She also planned to visit South Africa to discuss boosting their contributions.

On a question about her work to end violence against women, she replied that she did not have a “magic wand” and that many problems would continue to weigh on women.  However, she cited the importance of close collaboration with local law enforcement, of deploying women as peacekeepers and of working to boost representation of women in Governments.  She expressed support for an international convention to tackle violence against women and stressed the importance of the United Nations itself behaving in an exemplary manner, working to address and prevent abuse of women by United Nations staff or peacekeepers, or by any armed forces with which the Organization was cooperating.

Asked about UN-Women’s work in specific regions, she stressed the importance of improving education and tackling violence in Africa, including by working closely with regional bodies.  Referring to East Asia, she said Japan had performed well in gender budgeting, having the largest number of Chief Executive Officers signing up to empowerment principles.

Responding to a question about how she intended to end discrimination, she said Governments bore primary responsibility but that UN-Women would provide an enabling environment, collaborating with civil society, Governments and United Nations agencies.  Asked how UN-Women could change the attitudes of men towards women, she said there was a need to engage men and boys in the fight.