Mlambo-Ngcuka, UN Women

UNITED NATIONS — The outgoing Executive Director of the U.N. Women’s agency is hoping that in five years the $40 billion recently pledged to promote gender equality will lead to many more women in leadership positions, a reduction of violence against women, and the more than 40 million women who fell into extreme poverty because of the COVID-19 pandemic — and more — escape the poverty trap.

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka said in an interview with the Associated Press before stepping down this week as executive director of UN Women after eight years that the pledges by world leaders, the private sector, philanthropists, and organizations at the Generation Equality Forum in Paris that ended July 2 represent a historic and positive shift to broad-based investment in a wide range of women’s issues.

She said one of the major challenges she faced was “not having adequate resources equal to the size of the problem,” and realizing that governments alone could not solve the problem. So bringing together a much broader representation of society, those “who can put money on the table,” and getting them to invest in gender equality was significant progress, she said.

At the Paris forum, UN Women said governments and public sector institutions made $21 billion in commitments to gender equality programs, the private sector made $13 billion, philanthropies $4.5 billion, and organizations $1.3 billion. In addition, 440 civil society organizations and 94 youth-led organizations made policy and program commitments, the U.N. agency said.

Money doesn’t go to UN Women

“It goes to the women and girls of the world, but it goes to the issues that we have pointed out to governments and other stakeholders as the critical issues that are impacting on women,” she said.

All the governments, companies, organizations and others who pledged money have to now work themselves and implement the women’s agenda, wherever they are.

Mlambo-Ngcuka said the three issues that got the most money were combating gender-based violence, promoting women’s leadership and supporting the feminist movement. Ensuring women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights got support though “not as much as we wanted,” she said, and funders also gave money to grassroots organizations.

But she said much more funding is needed to tackle the impact of climate change on women, which the U.N. agency will be calling for at the November climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland.

Looking back at her eight years at UN Women, Mlambo-Ngcuka said there have been difficult, exciting and challenging times.

In addition to constantly having to do fundraising, she said “we have also had pushback against the women’s agenda” including under former U.S. President Donald Trump and other conservative governments in Poland and elsewhere “which destabilized rights.” She also pointed to “difficult situations” in countries like Congo which remain unstable.

Mlambo-Ngcuka said she has been heartened and encouraged by the rise of girls and youth who are standing up on climate issues, fighting for girls’ education and fighting to end child marriage in Kenya and elsewhere.

In five years, she hopes to see the global average of 25% women’s representation in many forums rise toward gender parity which is 50%, to see much greater implementation of laws on violence against women, and to significantly reduce extreme poverty which hit women under age 30 hardest during the pandemic.

“I’m happier as I leave about how far we have come,” she said, but it’s also a difficult time because the COVID-19 pandemic is ongoing, “lies and disinformation” abound, and “the vaccination situation is so messed up that we’ve got countries that have not even reached 1% of vaccinated people.”

“I just hope that we have changed the debate,” Mlambo-Ngcuka said. “This is not a struggle for women by women. This is a struggle for everybody.”