Gender Equality Gap Growing, Not Narrowing, Says Deputy Secretary-General in Nelson Mandela Lecture on Reducing Inequality through Inclusion
Following is the fifteenth Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture, “Centring Gender: Reducing Inequality through Inclusion and Sustainability”, as prepared for delivery by Deputy Secretary‑General Amina Mohammed in Cape Town today:
I am deeply grateful to the Nelson Mandela Foundation’s Board of Trustees for this tremendous honour. As Deputy Secretary‑General of the United Nations and a former Minister in my country, I have been fortunate to experience many remarkable moments in my life, but few have been more humbling than standing before you today. The speakers who have come before me have all walked a path of courage, compassion and conviction, they are truly a hard act to follow.
I am particularly honoured to be here this year, as we approach the centenary commemoration of Nelson Mandela’s birth in 2018. My feelings about Nelson Mandela —Madiba — are deep. They are shared across this country, this continent and our world. Twenty‑seven years ago, Mandela was freed after 27 years of unjust imprisonment. At 71, he finally walked his long road to freedom. We all stand today on his shoulders, with a shared sense of the respect, admiration and pride for the feat that he accomplished.
As a young girl growing up in Nigeria, I was proud of our country’s contribution to the liberation struggle in South Africa. For the first time, paying taxes had a profound meaning for many of us. History has moved on since then — but we should never forget this solidarity. To reach across borders is to transcend differences, protect our core values and combat all that threatens our humanity. Today, our world needs this more than ever. The fabric of our society is fast losing its vibrancy and strength.
Multilateralism, peace, development and human rights are all threatened by a leadership vacuum across the globe. Yet we see sparks of hope in our continent where the African spirit of solidarity is expressed even in the most challenging of times. For example, Uganda with its myriad challenges still manages to host hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese refugees, giving them hope and a chance to survive and thrive.
As a young girl, my earliest memory of the liberation struggle was when I was 11 years old and I asked my father if we could visit South Africa. He sighed and said no, that was impossible for a family like ours of mixed heritage.
Why not? I wanted to know. He tried to explain the unexplainable; that as constituted — black father, white mother — we would be breaking the law. In apartheid South Africa, we would be segregated — mother, father and child — by race. The horrifying reality saddened me — that human beings could do that to one another. Later in life, like millions of other people, I instinctively understood that this racist system was a truly frightening abomination — a violation of all that makes us human and a threat to the fabric of society.
Yet the unbending courage and conviction of Nelson Mandela, his leadership and his comrades kept the world full of hope. President Mandela once observed that the depth of oppression in South Africa at that time created the height of character demonstrated by the leaders of the African National Congress (ANC). I believe solidarity and the deep sense of one’s right to justice kept the flame alight.
In the course of history, among great leaders, Mandela towered — but he was the first to say he was not a perfect human. In fact, yesterday I had the privilege of being given a tour of the office and archives at the Nelson Mandela foundation, and read in his own writing how Madiba reflected on this, when writing a book on his years as President. He noted that he was concerned that he not be regarded as a saint. He would have preferred to live as a man — to remind us that the possibility of such humanity exists in each of us — than to be turned into a myth.
Mandela confessed some qualities that could be considered flaws. But he manifested them as virtues. For example, we learned he was stubborn — but his stubbornness was attached to a profound sense of fairness. Nelson Mandela was unrelentingly stubborn where it counted: in fighting for justice and equality. These are core values that I believe are reflected in the issue that I am pleased to have been asked to speak to today — centring gender and reducing inequality through inclusion and sustainability.
This struck me as an ideal subject for a lecture in the name of Nelson Mandela, as it provides an opportunity for me to address what remains perhaps the most pervasive inequality globally, in every country and every society — that of gender inequality. And to reflect on it at an opportune moment — as we launch today the 16 days of activism and mark the International Day on the Elimination of Violence against Women — but also as we witness a now a global movement, building momentum to say no more will this violence against half our populations (our mothers, sisters, daughters) be invisible or, worse still, treated with indifference.
Nelson Mandela’s profound legacy contains the inspiration we need to address the core of my lecture: putting people at the centre to reduce inequality through inclusion and sustainability. Contemplating the driving force behind Mandela’s spirit — its depth, its compassion, and source of energy — I would have to sum it up simply by saying: the courage of one’s convictions. Madiba was courage even when in his darkest moments he thought he may not have any to give. His moral courage was defined in his DNA. He would never compromise his convictions even at the cost of his freedom. He stared life‑threatening danger in the face and refused to be cowed. He lived through his family’s suffering, for his long walk to freedom was also that of his nearest and dearest.
When he declared that he was prepared to die for the ideal of a democratic and free society, this was not an academic promise even if it started as an ideal. Mandela made his declaration in an entirely undemocratic, racist society before a judge who was weighing whether to impose the death penalty. The judge stopped short of capital punishment — but his sentence to imprisonment on Robben Island put Mandela at grave risk and tantamount to being the living dead.
Today, I had the immense honour of seeing Robben Island for the second time. I thank Tokyo Sexwale for granting me a personal tour. As I walked across the landscape, I thought about Nelson Mandela’s arrival, along with his fellow political prisoners. The prison warders spoke to them like animals, urging them to move faster. But Mandela led his fellow political prisoners to slow their pace.
The State could rob Mandela of his freedom but never his dignity. As Mandela himself said often, the struggle succeeded thanks to the bravery and sacrifice of thousands of nameless individuals who stood up to the violent, racist ideology of apartheid and gave their lives to the cause. We must honour this legacy by realizing their vision of true equality.
The Constitution of South Africa is a shining example of turning the most brutal lessons of a bloody history into the most humane protections of a rights‑based ideal. In so many ways, South Africa has been a leader internationally. The United Nations is proud to have benefited from the wise counsel and active contributions of a number of sons and daughters of this great nation. This includes my colleague, the outstanding head of UN‑Women, Phumzile Mlambo‑Ngcuka, who I am proud to call a sister, friend and mentor. I know that she is saddened to not be here with you today, however today marks the International Day on the Elimination of Violence against Women, and her leadership in raising awareness on this global pandemic is needed elsewhere.
She follows in the footsteps of other South Africans, including Navi Pillay, our former High Commissioner for Human Rights. There are many others — Charlotte Maxeke, Lilian Ngoyi, Albertina Sisulu, Gertrude Shope, Ruth First, Fatima Meer, Adelaide Tambo, Emma Mashinini, Winnie Madikizela‑Mandela, Sophia [Williams]‑De Bruyn, Helen Suzman, Mamphela Ramphele. I highlight these few only to show how South African women have been at the vanguard of change globally. They are the product of an incredible women’s movement in this country.
In the mid‑1950s, some 20,000 women of this country marched to protest the pass laws. Their slogan was powerful: “You Strike a Woman, You Strike a Rock”. Many have cited this moment as a turning point in the struggle against apartheid. From that moment in the 1950s, through the struggle, the negotiations for a democratic country, and the constitutional assembly that provided this country with one of the most progressive constitutions globally, South Africa women have been leaders for change. They are proof of one simple fact: given the opportunity to participate fully, we have in half our population the capacity, resources, and potential to address the most pressing challenges we currently face. What is needed is to break down institutional and attitudinal barriers and invest in the full contribution of women and girls to their societies and countries.
Gender equality was central to Madiba’s vision of equality, and central to the struggle for freedom. This was the result of women’s tireless mobilization. But it was also a reflection of leadership that understood that equality cannot be selectively applied. Leadership who held a vision of a society where there was no discrimination on the basis of race, class, gender or any other category. Nelson Mandela taught that freedom is indivisible, noting that “the chains on any one of my people were the chains on all of them; the chains on all of my people were the chains on me”.
Speaking before the first Parliament in 1994, he declared that “freedom cannot be achieved unless the women have been emancipated from all forms of oppression”. He practised what he preached. A number of women here today were present in 1992 at an historic ANC conference in Durban, where Mandela stood up to men who opposed his firm pledge of a 30 per cent quota for women MPs. It is this kind of leadership that we need globally at the moment to achieve transformative and sustainable change within a short period of time.
This is important. As when it comes to gender equality we are often told that change takes time — perhaps even generational change. This country is evidence that wholesale change is possible. During the democratic transition, women’s representation in Parliament increased ten‑fold, from 2.7 per cent to 27 per cent. African women went in a few short years from the indignity of being a minor from the cradle to the grave, to holding some of the most powerful positions politically and economically.
Yet sadly, the long walk to freedom for women and adolescent girls globally remains unfinished. The continuous battle of overcoming structural barriers as well as cultural and social challenges must be fought with a new narrative that addresses the current context and constituency of young people left behind. Around the world, women still hold less than one third of senior management positions in the private sector. Fewer than one quarter of all parliamentarians are women. Violence against women — in homes and war zones — remains a global pandemic. Up to one in three women has experienced violence in her lifetime. There are nearly 50 countries that do not even have laws against domestic violence. In 37 countries, marriage excuses rape.
This country knows these statistics all too well. Reading the front page of a Johannesburg daily newspaper yesterday, I saw similar facts — one in four women are the victims of violent abuse, an estimated 100 rapes occur per day, and half of children are abused before they turn 18. Marginalized and younger women are particularly at risk and often suffer greater consequences. Young women who experience intimate partner violence are 50 per cent more likely to have acquired HIV than women who have not experienced violence. And while we have seen positive progress to address violence against women in some countries, in others we have, in fact, witnessed a push back on women’s rights and the dismantling of legal protections from violence weakening our struggling democracies.
On the economic front, if we look at the labour force, we find women doing some of the most important work in society for the least compensation. Unpaid domestic work — which often involves taking care of loved ones — falls on three times more women than men. In the formal workplace, women’s equal contribution is not valued equally. And women earn on average 70 cents to every dollar earned by a man. This ratio is far greater among marginalized groups.
A report issued by the World Economic Forum last month noted that it would take 217 years to equalize the pay and employment opportunities of men and women. Perhaps most disturbing is that this number has increased from the 170 years researchers calculated a year ago — meaning that we are in fact seeing the gender equality gap increasing rather than decreasing. Reproductive health services and reproductive rights have been hard‑won in many places — but now they face new threats. This despite the fact that we know that access to family planning measures are some of the most impactful tools we have to address poverty among women. These stark statistics and facts are only one side of the picture, however. The empowerment of women is more than a social imperative or a matter of justice. It is essential to achieving sustainable development, protecting our environment and securing peace.
According to the World Bank, girls who finish school earn nearly 70 per cent more than girls who have to drop out — and that boosts GDP annual growth rates by 1.5 per cent. When women are kept out of the labour force, everyone pays the price. Put another way, we know that women’s equal participation in the labour force would unlock $12 trillion in global growth. Money that could be used to further access to education, health and services for all.
We have evidence that one of the greatest predictors of stability and resilience to conflict is levels of gender equality in a society, and that women’s meaningful participation in peace processes increases the sustainability of peace by 30 per cent over the long term. There could not be a more important moment to realize the importance of gender equality to the challenges that we face. Our current global context includes sustained and horrifying levels of violence across a number of new and protracted conflicts, taking development gains backwards and leading to the highest levels of individuals uprooted from their homes at any time since the end of [the Second World War].
One of the greatest threats to global security is violent extremism. I have seen its effects in my own country and around the world, and I have met with the survivors. Extremists of all types seek to curtail women’s rights — the rights to education, health, political life; freedom of association and movement, and freedom to make choices. Violent extremists are using gender norms to radicalize and recruit, redefining the roles and identity of men and women. It is for this reason that gender equality is anathema — and a big part of the solution — to ending violent extremism. Coming from north‑eastern Nigeria, I know terrorists are not born but shaped from an environment that excludes young people, decimates religious teaching and cultural beliefs, converting communities to an ideology of subjugation.
Two weeks ago, I had an extraordinary set of meetings in my office. As Deputy Secretary‑General, it is common for me to speak to high‑level officials, but that day I met with teenagers. First, I had a dialogue with a young girl named Ekhlas Bajoo. She is a Yazidi woman who was captured and held by Da’esh, suffering horrific atrocities. I was deeply moved by her plight. But what struck me even more than her incredible story of endurance was her powerful voice for justice.
This young girl had been through worse crimes than most of us could imagine. And yet she was an outspoken, strong and unstoppable advocate for the cause of peace and an end to violence against women and girls. As we walked out of my office, there were two young women ready for my next appointment, one of whom was Hauwa Mohammed, victimized by Boko Haram. A lone face out of the thousands of girls, like the Chibok girls, who have suffered as a result of the terrorism in my own country, Nigeria. The young woman from Nigeria and this young woman from Iraq instantly embraced each other. Although they spoke different languages they easily communicated messages to each other. They said, “Don’t give up hope. Let us win over the terrorists. Let us reach across divisions. Let us build a better world.”
I left that day knowing that there is nothing more important than giving girls like these a platform to reach the world for those left behind without an authentic voice. Sadly, the context we face in our world today poses new threats beyond terrorism; we also face the major threat to security and development posed by climate change, exacerbating poverty and vulnerability of the poorest in our societies. No one can deny that climate change is real, man‑made and has a role in pushing up global temperatures — and therefore we know humankind is responsible for and can address the problem before it is too late. The signs are with us everywhere across the globe.
We know that women — especially in poor countries — are more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. In the 1991 Bangladesh cyclone, five times as many women as men died. In the Indian Ocean tsunami, women accounted for more than two thirds of all deaths. In recent months, the Caribbean witnessed hurricanes that wiped out the GDP of a country overnight. These storms will become more intense and frequent in the coming months and years
These crises as a result of climate change can be turned into opportunities to build back better for all, addressing the investment gap for women that reduces the potential and value of a country by 50 per cent. Socially, environmentally and politically, women have proven that when you invest in them, you get results for all. The question is how to build on these gains and achieve true gender equality. The answer is investment in women’s empowerment in all its ramifications, along with a cultural shift in mindsets so that women’s equality is a given in all societies.
I have skirted the surface of the huge challenges we face today and I believe, from Cape Town and its drought to the lost opportunity of South Sudan and its hard‑won independence, to the Sahel and its battle with terrorism, human slavery and drug trafficking, to Myanmar and the ethnic cleansing we are witnessing, to femicide in Latin Amercia, opiod wars in middle [United States], to migration and refugee crises in Europe, our global village is truly in a mess. But all is not lost. In 2015, the world came together and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development was born. It was a four‑year journey that was the most inclusive process ever held by the United Nations for development.
We owe a great debt of gratitude to Graça Machel, who served as one of the eminent Sustainable Development Goal advocates — and a member of the High‑level Panel on the post‑2015 agenda. The 2030 Agenda constitutes a universal plan of action for ending poverty and ensuring a life of dignity for all. It has been called a “declaration of interdependence” composed of 17 Goals and 169 targets. The Goals represent unprecedented ambition to free humankind from the tyranny of want. They envisage transforming the way Governments interact with people, businesses interact with communities, and all of us interact with our environment. The Goals have already achieved a seismic shift in our approach to development.
The framework builds on the many successes since the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. About two thirds of countries in developing regions have gender parity in primary education, fewer women die in childbirth, and more girls survive past childhood. We could literally fill this entire hall with documents proving that well‑educated women who have equality in political participation and the jobs market raise income for everyone — and improve living standards for generations to come.
Women and girls are at the heart of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These Goals can change history by ensuring women’s rights and leadership around the world. In the United Nations, I am very proud that our Secretary‑General, António Guterres, speaks out at every opportunity against misogynist mindsets. He is working for gender equality within the United Nations and around the world. His new strategy on gender parity provides a road map to reach parity within the United Nations, and we are working on strengthening our own financing, capacity and expertise on gender equality so that we can better support countries to achieve their own goals. So we are walking the talk. But we will only realize the potential of the SDGs if we take seriously the values of inclusion and leaving no one behind. The sustainable change that we need to see will only be possible if we are including young people — girls and boys.
I have spoken at length about women and equality because it is true that women continue to be less equal then men globally. But gender is not equal to women. Gender inequality, norms, and stereotypes affect men and women, girls and boys. When young boys are taught that it is not manly to cry, they learn to suppress their emotions. When young men are taught that violence is masculine and accepted, we create the next generation of those who seek solutions at the barrel of a gun. When society dictates the role of men as bread winners or aloof and distant fathers, we disempower families and create public policies that don’t match the reality of households.
In the past week I have invited those on social media to send me their thoughts on how we can achieve gender equality. I thank all who participated. Many of the comments were insightful and spoke of concrete actions and the need to ensure financial inclusion, address violence, and increase protections and services. But what also struck me was the number of men who spoke of the need for gender inequality not to dispossess or disempower men. While the dismantling of privilege is never easy, this country has perhaps shown us that it can only be done sustainably when all see the benefits for themselves and feel part of the solution.
Gender inequality affects every one of us. And addressing it is equally our shared responsibility. That change will need to happen with our youth. Over the past two days we have heard the voices of our young girls here in Cape Town. What they have spoken about is the need for girls to have space to convene, to support each other, to be listened to. We are witnessing, as we speak, an unprecedented moment — a global momentum that may have begun in a perhaps unlikely place — but which is carrying reverberations in many corners of the world. The #MeToo movement is opening new conversations, establishing new shared understandings of unacceptable behaviour, and shedding new light on the pervasive nature of gender inequality, as did the He4She campaign. It is an opportunity to shift the tide, and one we should collectively seize for positive change.
Nelson Mandela had a very long walk to freedom. Most of us could not even fathom his journey. At the end, he said he “discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds there are many more hills to climb”. Leadership at all levels is the key. Madiba showed tremendous integrity in stepping off the platform when the applause was loudest. We should be inspired by his necessarily long walk and make a fast run to gender equality. We need to galvanize the international community which includes us all, to invest in women and girls — and to give them space — so they can contribute to progress.
I am perhaps the first person to deliver this lecture who never met Nelson Mandela. In a sense, I represent generations of people to come who will take inspiration from his life without ever having had the privilege of a personal encounter. However, I believe I learned a little of who he was through a great woman of Mozambique and South Africa — his wife, his better half, his best friend, Graça Machel. She embodies the same vast courage as her late husband — the same inspiring commitment and passion to raising a new generation of girls — and the same immense spirit of humanity. A rare woman of substance who tells it like it is.
Collectively, we see the hills before us and we are challenged to climb them. For climb we must. If we feel defeated, we can return to Madiba’s indomitable bravery and humanism. Nelson Mandela possessed a character that none of us could emulate — but we can all be inspired to try.
Just as the world came together to support the end of subjugation on the basis of race in this country, we need today to birth a new movement that calls for true equality, everywhere. We as leaders must stand up and take collective responsibility for our current failings but also for the actions we must take to end the conflict, injustice, inequality, corruption and ensure true inclusive democracy, peace and prosperity for our people.
I leave you all with a call to action: to invest in the missing 50 per cent of our human asset base, the potential of our women and unleash their power for good; and to make good on the new era of the Sustainable Development Goals, starting with Goal 5 as your docking station for the other 16 Goals to create a world of true gender equality.
My promise to you as woman of colour, a Muslim, a proud mother of six and granny of one in a position of privileged responsibility serving alongside António Guterres, to strive to leave the United Nations fit for the purpose of healing our world and ensuring we keep hope alive for those who deserve a life of respect and dignity. In Madiba’s words, it always seems impossible until it’s done.
I thank you all for your kind patience and attention.