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Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: “Never forget to lift others up as you climb”

UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka UN Women - Elma Okic
08 Mar 2021
Women in Sport, Olympic News, IOC News
On International Women’s Day, the IOC speaks to Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, who became the first female Deputy President of South Africa and is now the Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and the Executive Director of UN Women.

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka has spent her life fighting inequality. She grew up in Durban, South Africa, during apartheid. Dissatisfaction with the status quo spurred her activism. As a student, she wanted a higher-quality education. At home, she noticed the unequal distribution of labour – the girls had more chores than the boys. This early example of her instinct to strive for equality resulted in Phumzile developing a timetable for the children in the house so that they could all do equal work.

The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly set back global progress on gender equality. It is more important than ever to engage both women and men in breaking down the barriers to gender equality. The increasingly unequal distribution of household tasks is the tip of the iceberg, with school closures adding to women’s higher burden of unpaid care.

Phumzile speaks about the women who inspire her activism, UN Women’s work to build back better, and the role of the IOC and the Olympic Movement in advancing gender equality.

Can you tell us about your journey?

“I became part of the student movement in the pursuit of better education. At the same time, I was working in the community with young women. We soon began to discuss issues of equality and recognised that not only were we dealing with racial discrimination, but we were also facing gender inequality. From there onwards, I became active in a number of organisations.”

UN Women - Gustavo Stephan
What led you to devote your career to issues of equality and social justice?

“It was not a straightforward journey. I went to university, continued to be active in the student movement and eventually became a teacher. As a teacher, I was concerned about my students and stood up for their rights. That led me to have difficulties with the authorities in education.

“I ended up in Geneva working for the World Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA). We supported the youth movement and worked to ensure that the youth movement did not translate into the young men’s movement.

“When I came back to South Africa, I became engaged in preparing for the first democratic elections in South Africa. I was an organiser for the African National Congress and I soon ended up as a Member of Parliament. Under the Mandela presidency, I was actively involved in changing the laws that we had inherited from the apartheid regime. I truly came full circle, from having fought apartheid in the streets as a student to becoming a Member of Parliament and having the opportunity to change the laws. I became a minister, then I became the Deputy President. I continued fighting for equality along the way.

“When I left government, I decided to take a break from politics. I went back to do my PhD, and towards the end of my studies [former UN] Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called me and asked me if I would apply for the Under-Secretary-General job.”

Who are the women who inspired you along this journey?

“Firstly, my mother. She was an activist in her own right, a health worker who worked very hard for women's reproductive and health rights as a community nurse. The daily struggles that were part of her life taught me a lot.

“Besides my mother, I would highlight Albertina Sisulu, a leader of the women's movement as well as a leader in South African politics. She defied the police and apartheid restrictions and all the very difficult laws that made life hard for people fighting for justice.

“Through her, I learnt about courage and determination. More than anything else, I learnt about the importance of working in a team and never forgetting to lift others up as you climb, wherever you are working. That approach has served me well because I've always worked in situations where you can never succeed if you work alone. You can only succeed if you lead by working alongside those you are working with, not always working in front.”

UN Women - Gustavo Stephan
Who are the women and men who supported you in your career? How important is it to have men advocating for gender equality?

“So many men and women have supported me. President Mbeki, the President when I was Deputy President, was a fantastic boss. In the work that we do, sometimes there are really difficult decisions to be made, and the line between the right decision and the decision that will land you in trouble is very fine. If you know your boss is behind you, that encourages you to be brave.

“Fighting for gender equality is not just the responsibility of women. It is a responsibility for the whole of society. At this point, most of the positions and places where decisions are being made are occupied by men. If men support and believe in gender equality, they make decisions that support women.

“When men support women, they must not expect to be thanked or praised, because they're not doing women a favour. We don't need to thank fish for swimming – they are just doing what is right.”

How has the COVID-19 pandemic amplified the gender gap across all aspects of life for women?

“There are specific areas where the advances that we've made in gender equality are being threatened and women are feeling the pinch. One is gender-based violence, which has been exacerbated by lockdown.

“Secondly, the increase of the burden of unpaid care has increased as women have had to look after children while working from home. Then there's the issue of access to technology. Two-thirds of the jobs that have been lost are jobs that were occupied by women. If women are not equipped for the digital-based jobs of the future, this will further erode their presence in the labour force.

“We've also seen that women are under-represented in the spaces where decisions are made during the pandemic. Yet women make up the majority of those on the front line who are fighting the pandemic – more than 80 per cent of the nurses on the front line are women.

“We need governments, policymakers and organisations with platforms, like the IOC, to talk about these topics.”

What is UN Women doing to fight these new inequalities?

“Our biggest intervention is at the level of policy and engaging with governments to make sure that services for women affected by violence are made available as essential services. We should not be in a situation where these services are sacrificed because of other work that is important in fighting the virus – both are essential. Violence against women is a shadow pandemic.

“We are supporting governments to shape the programmes that women need. We are also supporting the governments on economic interventions, making sure that the economic interventions that they are putting in place are addressing women.

“When we talk about building back better, we are talking about making sure that governments take the relevant measures to provide affordable and accessible childcare in communities, that governments make interventions to make sure that care for the elderly is not just left to families alone – because when we do that, we are just leaving it for women.”

Why is it so important to ensure that vulnerable girls and women continue to have access to sport in these difficult times? How can sport be used as a tool to combat gender-based violence?

“One of our Goodwill Ambassadors is Marta Vieira de Silva. Looking up to her, young women see a hero. She was not born with a silver spoon in her mouth, but look at where she is now.

“Sportspeople like Marta can support girls in communities where there are no resources and encourage the girls to do their best. By lifting up young people in poor communities, we can help the one light in that community shine brightly enough to provide hope.

“Men in sport have a significant role to play. Some people believe that a strong man disrespects women and is violent. But when strong, successful sportsmen show respect and gentility towards women and reject toxic masculinity, it is a masterclass in what masculinity should be. It provides a vital lesson – one that I cannot teach myself, but one that must be taught.”

What is the contribution of the IOC and the Olympic Movement in advancing gender equality and building an inclusive post-COVID-19 world?

“We are all going to be very focused on fighting for gender equality and protecting the gains that we have made. The presence of a significant number of women in the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 is already a good step forward because the world will watch the Games.

“Post-pandemic, it is even more important that we continue promoting the representation of women in sport and that the IOC continues to work with its representatives in different countries to push them to practise the same values of equality at home.”

The IOC has endeavoured to rally its stakeholders to implement gender equality initiatives, including ensuring that more women have access to decision-making and leadership positions. What are your thoughts on that?

“If you leave equality as something for people to implement if they so choose, there's a good chance that it will not happen. There must be accountability and mechanisms to make sure that there is implementation of those quotas and targets. Leaders in the sporting world have a responsibility to demand accountability from those who are implementing at every level of sport.”

UN Women - Elma Okic 
The Olympic Games are an incredible platform to promote gender equality. Tokyo 2020 will be the most gender-balanced Olympic Games ever with 49 per cent of athletes being female. How important do you think equal representation is for young women and girls today?

“Equal representation and gender parity make fairness real. We are still struggling in politics, where only 25 per cent of members of parliament globally are women. There are only 14 countries in the world that have gender-equal cabinets, so when the Olympics have already reached 49 per cent, that sets the bar high.

“Through the success of the Olympics, we can challenge other sectors. If this can be achieved in the field of sport, any other sector should be able to achieve it too. The IOC is leading from the front and setting the bar high.”

Hashimoto Seiko was recently elected President of the Tokyo 2020 Organising Committee, while Tamayo Marukawa succeeded her as Japan’s Olympics Minister. With Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike, there are now three women holding key leadership positions in the organisation of the Games. What are your views on this?

“I actually already wrote them a letter to congratulate them. It is fantastic. This shows that the Olympic Movement is making strides and making waves. I think that this will send a very good message to young athletes, who will see that the organisation is taking this issue seriously.”

UN Women has launched the Sports for Generation Equality Initiative: what has been achieved so far and what do you see as being the next steps? 

“It's important that we celebrate our sportspeople and recognise that they provide both entertainment and leadership. Sports for Generation Equality is about ensuring that we support sportspeople to communicate and call for the rights of women. Firstly, they have to call for the respect of their own rights in the field of sport – be it equal pay, equal facilities or equal opportunities.

“For young girls, in particular, sportspeople are important role models – showing them how to win and lose gracefully, how to be part of a team and dedicate yourself to your team members, and how to have empathy. But we also want them to support women and girls in general by using their own platform to point out what is wrong in society, but also what is right.”

It seems like the new generation of athletes is more prepared to take the lead and call out sexism and social inequalities to break down barriers and influence change. How do you see this evolution?

“I am so impressed by young sportspeople. They see beyond themselves and beyond the world of sport; they recognise that racism and sexism should never stand in the way of anyone achieving their goal. They have a unique platform and make sure that it is not only used for their own glory. They are lifting as they climb and using their influence to make the world a better place.”

Learn more about the IOC’s continuous action to advance gender equality both on and off the field of play

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