First 100 Days of Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the former deputy president of South Africa, was sworn in late last month as the new Executive Director of UN Women. She replaces Michele Bachelet, who stepped down to run for the presidency in her native Chile.

As Ms. Mlambo-Ngcuka settles into her new office in New York, her agenda for the first 100 days is taking shape. Will she succeed?

As the leader of UN Women, Ms. Mlambo-Ngcuka is responsible for ensuring women and girls’ access to basic education, basic healthcare, and decent work opportunities. She is responsible for reducing (and hopefully ending) violence against women that currently comes in the forms of rape, domestic abuse, sex slavery, child marriages, genital mutilation, and honor killings. She is responsible for increasing women’s political and economic leadership and participation through leadership trainings and empowerment programs. She is responsible for ensuring the reproductive rights of women and ensuring equal pay for women. And this is only the beginning. Let’s just say this is a healthy list for one agency to manage.

The catch?

UN Women is under-funded.

Last year, only about $218 million of the set annual operating budget of $300 million was received from donor governments. This year, in order to carry out their initiative, UN Women’s goal is to reach $400 million. But unfortunately member states are not contributing at a level that is sustainable for UN Women.  Despite all the statistics that point to empowering women and girls as the surest solution to ending poverty, many member states are putting their priorities elsewhere.

Is UN Women being set up to fail?

UN Women is being undervalued, under appreciated.

UN Women was born just three years ago. Will the script that has been written for women and girls everywhere for the last two thousand years of patriarchal religious and societal leadership be the same for UN Women, or can UN Women create a new destiny for itself and therefore, women and girls everywhere?

This year’s session on the Commission on the Status of Women did not augur well for the emerging role of UN Women in pushing the UN system to be more attentive to the needs of women and girls.  The focus of this 57th session was on coming up with strategies and an agreement to end violence against women and girls. Instead of supporting this effort, five member countries (Syria, Iran, Pakistan, Russia, and the Vatican) and a faction of another (the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt) led a fight to perpetuate language that denies women’s rights and allows for violence against women and girls to continue. The Muslim Brotherhood claimed that the agreement, which would allow for women to have bodily autonomy, gave women the right to report marital rape, and replaced “guardianship” with the word “partnership” in relation to marriage, would lead to the “complete disintegration of society.”

From this view, the persistence of male-oriented religious and cultural thought, combined with the absence of female-oriented religious and cultural thought is a major roadblock to financial support for women’s rights and the empowerment of women and girls.

“All across the board, I think we have a degree of crisis of leadership in our world,” Ms. Mlambo-Ngcuka said to the emerging youth leaders at the Winchester International Symposium audience. “When you leave a little bit more than half the citizens in any country in a level of subjugation, you actually create inequalities and you rob that nation of the energy and the contribution of those people just because of their gender.”

While the challenges are many, Ms. Mlambo-Ngcuka is standing strong in her leadership and doing everything possible to rewrite the script for women and girls. One week after being sworn into office, Ms. Mlambo-Ngcuka met with some 50 representatives of civil society and women’s organizations to appeal for solidarity, partnership and joint fundraising. Ms. Mlambo-Ngcuka pledged to maintain an activist approach. “My vision is for close and non-bureaucratic partnership in which the focus is on unity and solidarity for action,” said Ms. Mlambo-Ngcuka.

With her deep background in education, including the establishment of the Umlambo Foundation, which she set up in 2008 to supports schools in rural and underprivileged areas of South Africa, Ms. Mlambo-Ngcuka will likely be focusing a lot of energy on the education initiatives of UN Women. “Women have the highest impact in decreasing poverty, especially if they are educated … immediately you change the game for that community and that country,” she says.

Everyone will be watching to see how effective Ms. Mlambo-Ngcuka is in her first 100 days, but I would like to change that vantage point. Let’s instead watch how effective member states of the UN are in their leadership by financially and morally supporting UN Women. We know that the empowerment of women and girls is the answer to eradicating poverty and quickening global development, so why wait?