Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka is a United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women. A teacher by training, Phumzile has a long history of empowering women and ensuring their voices are heard. In 1983, she became the first president of the newly formed Natal Organization of Women (NOW), an affiliate of the leading anti-apartheid political movement in South Africa, the United Democratic Front (UDF). She also had leadership roles in the YWCA and TEAM, a development organization based in Cape Town. She served as the first female deputy president of South Africa in 2005 until 2008.
I was born in Clermont, Durban, in Natal (now KwaZulu- Natal), in South Africa. My mother was a community health nurse, specializing in family planning, and my father was a schoolteacher. Our family was Catholic, and there was always much discussion about the way that the church looked at the issues my mother was facing in her work, issues of reproductive rights and family planning. My mother was determined to make a difference and express her opinion, and she was my first exposure to activism.
|Women’s rights are human rights. We have not done much to empower women who are on the margins of society. I saw this when I started out in politics. I recognized the importance of focusing on rural development in empowering women. I saw how even a small act – like teaching a group of women how to sew clothes and to sell them, forming a crafts association, as we did in Gugulethu – made a huge impact on their lives.|
She has also been an inspiration to me my whole life. She is in her eighties now, and she still works running the St. Clement’s home- based Care Project, helping families of people with HIV/AIDS. Every day she is an angel of mercy to hundreds of indigent and sick people. Each day, she and her small staff cook and distribute food parcels and meals to hundreds of needy victims of poverty and diseases.
From an early age, I was aware of the world far beyond the walls of our house – from the apartheid under which we struggled to the hunger and poverty I witnessed in my neighborhood. We were living in a country that had so much, yet when I went to school, as one of the children fortunate to be able to bring my lunch with me, I saw my schoolmates who did not have enough to eat, who were hungry. I remember thinking to myself that this sort of thing shouldn’t happen in South Africa. I did not have the vocabulary to express the inequality that I saw, but I knew it was there. I recognized that I must share the food that I was lucky to have with my classmates – who had nothing. And the deprivation that I saw – in the context of the rich country that we lived in – angered me. It angered – and it inspired.
When I was a teenager, in the 1970s, I worked as a Youth Leader with the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA). It was there that I became a student activist. I quickly learned how to articulate my opinions about issues and to take a stand.
It was there, surrounded by young women like myself, and most importantly, by older women from whom I learned so much, that I became socialized into politics and public discourse, involved in anti-apartheid marches and rallies. We were driven to bring down the state in its totality – to end apartheid. And it was within this context that I began to see women’s issues and to see how they fit into the greater picture of injustice. And I saw how South Africa was just one country – but that the upheaval we were going through was hugely relevant in the world.
And I have never looked back. As the years went by, I was fortunate to meet many women – in South Africa and beyond – through the work I was doing. I worked as a teacher, as my father had done, and I continued my work with the YWCA; in 1984 I worked as a youth director for the organization in Geneva. It was here that I began promoting the development of education in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. I began to see the clear connection between the education of young people – especially young women – and the ability to create change.
The advances we have seen at the political, social, and economic level in South Africa have been gained through struggle and will also be defended through struggle – and a part of this is the continued struggle for women’s rights. Women’s rights are human rights. We have not done much to empower women who are on the margins of society. I saw this when I started out in politics. I recognized the importance of focusing on rural development in empowering women. I saw how even a small act – like teaching a group of women how to sew clothes and to sell them, forming a crafts association, as we did in Gugulethu – made a huge impact on their lives.
The concept of home-based care and primary care is due to women. Many poor countries in Africa, including mine, do not have the capacity to cope with chronic illnesses. So home-based care is needed. Therefore women in developing countries have invented a layer in the healthcare system born out of need and care. Such a service is based on caring leadership and resourcefulness and needs to be recognized as a critical extension of the healthcare system without over-formalizing it.
In my work today, my driving passion is ensuring access to information for young people. Many young people – especially young women – don’t get accurate information about reproductive health. They don’t always know where to go, where they can speak openly without fear because a particular issue is politicized and it’s a taboo. I’m amazed at the hunger for information – a hunger that we must satisfy. If we don’t fill this need – by opening channels of communication, by establishing ways that young people can learn and grow – then we lose a tremendous opportunity to effect real change.
The young people of today should be made to feel proud – and above all inspired to acquire education and use it for growth and development of themselves and their country. How can we empower young people to take control of their own lives and their own futures, and in so doing, change the course of their own lives and those of future generations? This is my driving question.
Following my passion, I established the Umlambo Foundation in 2008 to provide support to schools in impoverished areas through mentorship and coaching for teachers. The vision is to help people win against poverty through education – to help lead these schools to produce learners who escape poverty.
Poverty and hunger could derail the progress the developing world has made. We face exposing our women and young people to untold hardships. This calls for all of us to do much more. The solutions to our circumstances cannot be imported from elsewhere; the solutions are within ourselves.
As I was by my parents and all the older women who surrounded me and held me up in my early years, particularly at the YWCA, so many of us were nurtured by many other people, our peers and older women. We must create room for younger women and in all walks of life to allow them to lead and contribute.