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Remarks by Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Director of UN Women

Remarks by Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Director of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, at the African Women Leaders Network (AWLN) National Chapters: Driving Women’s Leadership in Africa

Date: Wednesday, March 24, 2021

[As delivered]

Thank you, Awa Ndiaye, for representing me and UN Women so well in the work of the AWLN National Chapters and for moderating this session so well. I can see that you feel the constituency very much; thank you for this leadership. I also want to greet President Joyce Banda, thank you for always being with us in the work of AWLN. Thank you, my dear sister Madame Diop who will also be speaking today. Greetings to all the participants, especially to all the ones who have presented very enlightening messages to the panel. And of course, thank you to our partner Germany for the support.

I want to say to the AWLN Chapters: congratulations for the steps that you’ve taken, and for the work that you did during the pandemic. About 14 of the chapters were engaged in activities that deal with COVID-19, including violence against women. The youth have been super active throughout the pandemic. In fact, one of the hallmarks of AWLN is its intergenerational cohesion because of just how active the youth are and how much we at AWLN value the input of young people. Thank you so much for that. I also want to congratulate the women of Mali for standing up for their own rights and making sure that their leadership is felt, especially in a situation that was very difficult. That too was because of the support from AWLN. There have been a few times where Madame Diop and I have constantly followed up on issues as they have developed in different parts of the world of Africa, especially as they relate to women, peace and security (WPS). So, thank you to many of you who are active in the WPS space for continuing to make sure that the voices of women are felt and heard.

I also want to congratulate the first woman President in Tanzania, although it was under sad circumstances after we were bereaved and lost the former President. We will be here to support Madame President and hope that she will be joining us.

We have heard the call for institutionalization between myself, Madame Diop and my representatives and we have had this discussion with the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), who is also a partner in the work with AWLN. We are taking steps to look at the legal implications and at creating the infrastructure to ensure that we have a Secretariat for AWLN. We unfortunately cannot guarantee that we will be able to make that happen for all Chapters but will work with the Chapters in order to make sure that they too find ways to have some capacity to continue to institutionalize AWLN.

We are meeting at the time when many of our countries are starting with their recoveries following the pandemic. This is something that you need to be concerned about and active in. In most countries, these COVID-19 task teams tended to not include women. We have made a review of the Chapters. I want to congratulate DRC because it is one of the countries where women are adequately represented; however in most countries the task teams do not include women. Globally, only 27 per cent of countries worldwide have task teams where women are adequately represented. This is a crisis. It is something that we have to take on and intervene on because otherwise it means that the status quo will remain. This is supposed to be a moment and an opportunity to reset our countries. If we reset our countries based on recommendations that come from committees that exclude women, you can imagine how unrepresentative those recommendations are going to be.

Consider that the pandemic has hit women the hardest. Women have lost the bulk of the jobs – two-thirds of the jobs were lost by women. Women have experienced an increase of violence. Girls are losing their education; they are dropping out of school, something that we as AWLN should be very active in addressing and following. We should track these girls and bring them back to school. This is the work that we’ve done in the last two decades as the women’s movement, sending girls to school and keeping them there. To have to lose girls at this time because of a pandemic – the threat is that 11 million girls may not go back to school ever – is something that should worry us. Girls are also losing education because of pregnancy –teenage pregnancy that is often not from consensual sex. Girls have been forced into sexual activity, ending up with pregnancy, ending up with losing education. Girls are being forced into early marriage at this time and girls are being trafficked.

We need to increase our activity and we need to work with traditional and religious leaders because they too are important in this. We have opened up contact in this regard. If you touch base with UN Women offices in your countries, they will link you to the partnerships that we have forged with religious and traditional leaders because this issue is very urgent. It has to be brought to the attention of governments.

Girls lack the infrastructure for digital education, something that is very needed at this time. We need to engage with the Departments of Education in order to make sure that we protect girls’ education, and that they are not left behind because they do not have the digital infrastructure, budgets and other key tools.

We are currently in the midst of the 65th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). This year’s CSW is focusing on women’s leadership, which is our theme. The text of the CSW Agreed Conclusions is not yet strong enough on leadership. We need you. There are still two days of negotiations. If you could reach out to the representatives of your countries, UN country offices as well as AWLN, to ask your representatives and negotiators to make sure that the Agreed Conclusions are really strong on women’s leadership, so we do not water down the text. If the text is weak there is a risk that we will not, going forward, get the strongest push from our governments on moving forward on women’s leadership. Africa is well represented in negotiations, but it needs your support and engagement so that our negotiators are stronger and represent the priority theme, which is on women’s leadership and participation as well on violence against women. We want to have good language there that takes us forward.

Thank you all and I look forward to our ongoing work.

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