Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: It’s time to orange your hood

2014-11-30 15:00

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Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka has settled into her plush job in New York just fine and says she would be the first to vote for a female president in SA

Flipping the switch that turns New York’s Empire State Building orange is a thrill that is not afforded to many.

But for Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, who was tasked with turning the iconic 103-storey skyscraper’s lights on earlier this week, it’s a small one compared with the year she’s had as the executive director of UN Women.

It was the first of a four-year tenure and, says Mlambo-Ngcuka: “I found the train already running. I just jumped on.”

She’s wearing an orange shawl and sipping a cup of tea in her 19th-floor Midtown Manhattan office.

Orange will be a recurring colour in the coming weeks as she and her colleagues mark the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence campaign.

“It’s sort of slang to say ‘orange your hood’. We’re telling people to use the colour to engage with people in their neighbourhood, wherever that may be, and talk about violence against women. We’re emphasising an inclusive approach and participation by everybody.”

Inclusion has been a crucial part of Mlambo-Ngcuka’s first year at the helm. In September, the HeForShe campaign was launched by UN Women ambassador, actress Emma Watson, galvanising men to play an active part in advocacy and counting Hollywood actors Benedict Cumberbatch and Russell Crowe among its supporters.

The #OrangeUrHood campaign seeks to enlist men, too. Desperate Housewives star Teri Hatcher helped Mlambo-Ngcuka flip the Empire State Building switch and shared her story of being sexually abused by an uncle when she was seven.

“If there is a woman thinking ‘no one would believe me if I stand up and speak’, she can see someone like Teri, who is famous, talking about it and that can help encourage her to talk about it too,” says Mlambo-Ngcuka.

“Can you believe that among the EU countries, the level of reporting intimate partner violence is only 14%?

“That’s in a part of the world where legislation is strong, where there is hand-holding for women through the process. If it is that low in those countries, can you imagine what it’s like in other countries?”

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka is fond of using Twitter to keep up to date, and is a prolific retweeter. Picture: Alet

A statistic most heard around this time is that, globally, one in three women will experience physical or sexual violence at some point in her life – mostly by an intimate partner.

“You should say 70% – 70% of women live with physical or sexual violence. It hits us harder.”

Indeed, according to a 2013 global review of available data, while 35% of women worldwide have experienced either physical or sexual violence, some national violence studies show that number to be up to 70%.

While we talk, sexual abuse is in the headlines here in New York: at least 20 women have claimed that America’s most lovable TV dad, Dr Cliff Huxtable aka actor Bill Cosby, sexually assaulted them.

She shakes her head when I mention the story. “The tendency is to take women with a pinch of salt. The more powerful the man, the more likely he is to be proven innocent even before investigation, and for the woman to be seen as exaggerating or lying. We’re urging, in a case like this, to believe the woman first.

“There is overwhelming evidence that in many cases, we come around years later to discover we could have stopped a man who goes on to abuse 30 women after he has done it to five – if only we had believed the five women,” she says, bringing her hand down on the table emphatically. “If we’re talking about erring on the side of caution, let’s err on the side of women.”

For all that she has seen in her role as executive director, does she feel the tide is turning?

“I think that in some way, having lived in South Africa under apartheid has helped me to believe in the possibilities of overcoming huge obstacles.

“I come from the generation that was engaged in the struggle when our goal of freedom looked so far away – even as it came closer.”

She praises her team for getting UN states to sign on to targets with indicators that are measurable so that tangible results can be charted and assessed.

With the Millennium Development Goals about to expire, Mlambo-Ngcuka feels now is the time to

step up.

“We’re in a struggle that has taken more than 100 years. Right now, we cannot say we don’t know how to overcome. We know what we need to do to bend the curve decisively,” she says.

“We know that girls’ education, reproductive rights, access to related services and economic empowerment are critical to growing countries’ economies and ending violence and ensuring poverty is reduced for men and women.

“It’s a combination of many things, but we need leadership. The fact that there’s such a high tolerance for violence against women comes from the failure of leadership over generations.”

When it comes to leadership in South Africa, Mlambo-Ngcuka keeps a close eye on what’s happening back home by listening to the radio first thing in the morning on an iPhone app.

“Before I come into the office, I’ve listened to 702, SAfm, Ukhozi and Motsweding FM.”

She is also fond of using Twitter to keep up to date, and is a prolific retweeter.

Her husband, the former national director of public prosecutions Bulelani Ngcuka, does not use social media, but she jokes that he’s always asking her what has happened on it.

As someone who once held the highest office a woman in South Africa has ever occupied, I ask her if she thinks South Africa is ready for a female president.

“Well, I am hoping,” she says. “Because we do have dynamic women. It’s not that we don’t have a choice. If we put our minds and hearts into it. I would be the first to vote for a female president.”

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