In the collective mission toward achieving gender equality, Stony Brook University invited Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of UN Women and Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations, for a Presidential Lecture on Monday, September 12, at the Staller Center for the Arts. Ms. Mlambo-Ngcuka has enlightened audiences all over the world representing the United Nations. A longtime champion of women’s rights, she is affiliated with several organizations devoted to education, women’s empowerment and gender equality.
Ms. Mlambo-Ngcuka has devoted her career to issues of human rights, equality and social justice. She has worked across the board in government and civil society, with the private sector, and was actively involved in the struggle to end apartheid in her home country of South Africa. Ms. Mlambo-Ngcuka began her career as a teacher and gained international experience as a coordinator at the World YWCA in Geneva, where she established a global program for young women. She is also the founder of the Umlambo Foundation, which supports leadership and education.
Politically, she served as Minister of Minerals and Energy from 1999 to 2005 and Deputy Minister in the Department of Trade and Industry from 1996 to 1999. She was a member of Parliament from 1994 to 1996 as part of South Africa’s first democratic government. From 2005 to 2008, she served as the first woman Deputy President of South Africa, overseeing programs to combat poverty and bring the advantages of a growing economy to the poor, and making sure that included women.
President Samuel Stanley, Jr. began the lecture by speaking about his experience as a medical researcher studying infectious diseases in his collaboration with the UN’s HeforShe initiative. He mentioned the negative effects gender bias has on nations, describing gender bias as a “global scourge” that requires interdisciplinary cooperation. Stony Brook is one of ten IMPACT 10x10x10 universities. The Presidential Lecture came on the heels of the second year anniversary of Stony Brook’s involvement with HeforShe.
Ms. Mlambo-Ngcuka spoke on how she became a champion for gender equality. She said, “I was born in a country that has issues, and as a young person, if you did not take part in the fight to end apartheid, something was wrong with you. The issues chose me. We learned about the impact of solidarity. You fight not just for yourself, but for your community.”
In terms of the biggest challenges in overcoming gender inequality, Mlambo-Ngcuka believes that committed leadership should be the highest priority, because leaders set the tone in a country. Another obstacle is challenging lack of tolerance policies. “Tolerance would enable people who do not believe in gender equality to do it because it’s the right thing to do. The policies must be right, and the leaders must enforce the policies.”
Ms. Mlambo-Ngcuka’s speech was followed by a lively discussion between her and Dr. Charles Robbins, Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education and Dean of the Undergraduate Colleges. about achieving gender equality and defeating gender-based discrimination and violence on college campuses and across the globe.
Ms. Mlambo-Ngcuka took several questions from students at once, including “Do you believe young people are more receptive to change?” and “How do you get men to understand that they benefit from gender equality?” She answered, “We are really trying to nurture young people, who are much more open to the concept of change and different sexual identities. The kind of expectations young people hold themselves and authority to is much different now than ever before.” In regards to men, she answered, “It is important to continue to talk about human rights. Respecting the rights of people is the right thing to do. We would hope that they would see the advantage in making women more represented. In countries where women have more rights, the families have a better quality of life.”
Ms. Mlambo-Ngcuka ended the lecture by giving the audience a glimmer of hope: “There must be a way that we can reach across borders to achieve gender equality for everybody.”