Phumzile Mlambo Ngcuka
Photo credit: Wikimedia

This month Women for Peace through Democracy (WPD) celebrates the work and achievements of Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka after her 8 years leading UN Women and fighting for equality, justice and an end to oppression for women in all their diversity as well as the most marginalized women and girls, including widows of all ages.

I remember so well when Phumzile was appointed in 2013. There was a frisson of excitement at UN Women when she took over that here was a woman with a passionate desire for change and at speed! Her involvement in South Africa’s struggle to end apartheid and later as Deputy President of South Africa empowered her drive, energy and political savviness to demand human rights, equality and social justice for women and girls globally.
She led UN Women as a revolutionary and as a visionary with young people as the fire that lit her passion. We often saw her at her best when championing and connecting with civil society. Both Lopa Banajee and Houry Geudelekian at Phumzile’s farewell event gave powerful testimony to her leadership and the importance she placed on giving civil society wider space to engage and advocate.

As a teacher, I share Phumzile’s devotion to equal access to education – for girls and boys. She completed her PhD on education and technology at the University of Warwick in the UK. In my school visits promoting the work of UN Women my students immediately connected to her. They saw a face of great understanding, great kindness and huge determination. And they love Phumzile’s quotes like this one:

“Young people bring fresh legs to the race, fresh eyes to see things from new perspectives, new energy for the long road ahead and sure-footed adaptability to change, despite themselves facing complex challenges and vulnerabilities brought on by the pandemic…

“In developing countries, and around the world, there are millions of girls who could right now be learning from home – if only they were connected. On International Girls in ICT Day, we urge governments not to leave these girls behind.”

Phumzile has been responsible for keeping girl’s education high on the world’s agenda throughout her 8 years and even in her farewell speech she urged the prioritisation of education for girls.
In April this year she said, “Almost half the world’s population is still offline; with girls, women and other marginalized groups least likely to have access to technology. Now, as the COVID-19 pandemic has moved so many aspects of daily life online, this lack of connectivity has become far more significant. 91 per cent of the world’s student population is currently impacted by nationwide school closures in 191 countries. Without access to online and mobile learning, girls face damaging exclusion.”

At the UN Women celebration event, amazingly, my farewell note to Phumzile was read out and I said this:

“Wonderful Phumzile, You have been such an inspiration to the school children and students I visit here in the UK, girls and boys, on behalf of UN Women UK. Your fabulous personality shines through! Your stern commitment to achieving and maintaining the human rights of all women and girls is unequivocal! The next generation feel inspired and empowered by you to carry the UN Women torch to end all forms of violence against women and girls especially those impacted by COVID-19.
You have challenged the next generation to speak up for disabled women and girls, for widows of all ages, for refugees and those women and girls in conflict zones. Phumzile, they have accepted your challenge to be the voices of all who are outcast, marginalized or made ‘invisible’ by communities or governments globally and lift them up to find their own voices.
Thank you, thank you on behalf of so many young ones and also teachers like myself.”

WPD and the UK CSW have always promoted the human rights of ‘invisible women’ such as disabled women and widows. It was such a significant moment when Phumzile put out a statement on International Widows Day this year and in it she said: “The doubled risk of death for men from COVID-19 has not only created more widows; the pandemic has in many cases magnified the impact of the challenges they face, for example when confronted by extreme poverty from being disinherited from land and property with no alternative source of support.”

Widows are scarcely ever mentioned at the United Nations and I am delighted to see Phumzile has changed that and set a new standard by speaking out on behalf of the most marginalised women, often kept in the shadows of life and made ‘invisible’ by their communities and governments.
On International Widows Day this year, UN Women put out a Widows’ Explainer which is well worth checking out on this link: ‘Explainer: What you should know about widowhood’.

Phumzile’s farewell speech, on the 19th August, had a typically inspiring tone:
“On my last day as Executive Director, I encourage you all to keep going. Keep persisting despite adversity. Gender equality is possible.”
Asked for one hope for the immediate future, Phumzile replied:
“If we can all make sure at CSW we raise the status of women – it’s not about maintaining the status quo, do not allow anyone to set us back”.

New Executive Director of UN Women

Sima Sami Bahous
Photo source: UN Women

As well as celebrating Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, we also welcome new Executive Director – Sima Sami Bahous of Jordan.

The online UN Women celebration for Phumzile’s farewell was a fabulous event attended by huge numbers including myself.
I have tried to give you some idea of what she has done on behalf of so many organisations, partnerships and individuals: it’s impossible to include in this article the host of other extraordinary, important objectives achieved by such a great leader.

Phumzile will be extremely hard to replace, yet we are also sure Sima Sami Bahous will carry the UN Women torch as passionately as Phumzile has done as she takes on her new responsibilities at UN Women.

Alice Fookes, WPD Trustee, October 2021.

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