Physical and sexual violence against women continues to be one of the most pervasive human rights violations in the world, with one in three women experiencing it in some form in her lifetime. Aided by cultures of silence and impunity, this widespread cycle of violence robs countless women of their right to a sense of personal security and the opportunity to fulfil their potential.
So what can we do to end this pattern of abuse?
Well, Executive Director of United Nations Women Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka wants everyone to know that responding with silent anger is not enough — we have to get loud. We had the opportunity to sit down with Mlambo-Ngcuka on Nov. 20, just a few days ahead of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women on Nov. 25, for an in-depth conversation about how we can all work together to make the world a safer place for women and why we so badly need men to step up and speak out against harassment and assault.
POPSUGAR: I read that you started out as a teacher. What conversations do you think we should be having with young students early on in classrooms to help reduce the rate of violence against women?
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Well, we should discuss gender equality and model behaviour in class. That makes equality normal, acceptable, and [gives] zero tolerance to behaviour that models patriarchy so that at a very early age children see this as a way of life, as the way to be.
We have learned that from the age of 7, children begin to [internalise] gender roles. Girls begin to think boys must lead; they shouldn't be speaking loud; they should be behaving in a particular way, which tends to be submissive. But if in class, a gender-aware teacher nips that in the bud, reverses the roles, [and] gives the girls the responsibility to be leaders in class, it normalises these gender roles and creates a model of a society that we are aiming for.
One of my favourite stories about modelling and how society conditions us is about a boy in Germany who was asked if he would like to be a chancellor. He says, "Well, no, because in Germany you have to be a girl to be a chancellor," because in his early years, he's never seen a man. We actually create a world for children that they sort of grow into.
So there are a lot of things that make the patriarchy, but we do not talk about them at an early age so that girls can actually know that it is not Mummy's responsibility to cook for them; that Daddy too can actually cook and must cook. [It's] even better, if, at home these roles are reversed. Education is one place where children spend a lot of hours in the care of the teacher, so it puts a lot of pressure on teachers to do the right thing.
"It's a conspiracy against women when good men do nothing; when good men look the other way; when good men joke about these issues."
PS: You've written about the "casual indifference" of some men in their attitudes toward sexual harassment and violence against women. How do you think we can shift that mentality?
PMN: It's a conspiracy against women when good men do nothing; when good men look the other way; when good men joke about these issues. That actually gives the perpetrators permission to carry on because it's not such a big deal. So we actually need to snap out of this casual discussion about the issue and looking the other way and be active and be loud about what you regard as unacceptable.
I do not believe that the majority of men in the world would like to hurt women, but they can be very complacent, and that is just as bad.
PS: The conversation around that hashtag #MeToo and sexual harassment came to the forefront this year. What role do you think social media can play in changing people's attitudes?
PMN: I think we have to continue to protect women on social media, who are coming out in a world that can still be very harsh towards them, so that they do not feel that they are alone. And of course, some of these attacks happen on social media, so we do need to provide a counter narrative — a supportive narrative — so that the voices of those that are punitive towards women does not become the dominant voice.
Social media is also very important for the sharing of correct information. For instance, what are the laws, and what are the steps you need to follow? Where do you go to get services? The kind of information that in a time of need can be terribly empowering and the type of information that if it is not available when you need it, can mean that you are left exposed and you are unable to have the kind of support that may stand up to scrutiny in the court of law.
PS: What signs of progress do you see happening today that make you feel optimistic about where we're headed in terms of the fight against violence against women?
PMN: The millennials are much more outspoken on this issue, but you still have a lot of young people, also, who have problematic views on issues of equality. I also think that some of the positive signs have created #MeToo, because women are feeling more empowered to speak and finally to get [off] of their chest this terrible burden that they carry with them, which impacts on their quality of life, on their state of happiness and outlook towards life. And once they've been able to speak about it, then that means that they can finally have comfort.
The fact that we're moving towards that direction, but also the fact that the others who have had that experience are willing to say, "You are not alone, let's do this together." That sisterhood and solidarity is important.
But much more, we need more men to say, "I am willing to change," or "I did it, and I will never do it again," or "I will not look the other way." That kind of noise is a bit silent, so we need to see more men taking responsibility to be in the forefront of seeking solutions and confirming that this behaviour is not OK. We're not having enough voices in that direction. And that's also part of role modelling — older men behaving like that, they influence the younger men.
"The future depends on those who walk an extra mile in order to make sure that the world will be better because they have lived in it."
PS: How can young women who don't necessarily see themselves as activists yet get involved in the UN's platform for fighting violence against women?
PMN: You know, it's actually important that we remind everybody that this can happen to anyone. You don't have to be an activist. Out of just self-interest and self-preservation, it is important that we create a climate and a world that does not allow or make the violation of women an everyday occurrence. So these days, because women are so active on social media, it is important to be active on the sites of social media that represent the right value system.
If you are a student on campus, be part of action groups that exist on campus. The worst thing that can happen to a young person is to be young and not be part of anything that is bigger than you. I think that it's such a missed opportunity, because the future depends on those who walk an extra mile in order to make sure that the world will be better because they have lived in it. So any young person, wherever you are, if you're not active in anything — in your university, in your church, in your workplace, in your trade union, in your community, even with your friends on social media — get up, get on with it, and be the change that you want to see in the world, because there is room for each and every one of us. The space is not full, there's room for you. In fact, you're missing. You're missing in action.
"The fact that women begin to avoid [running] for public office because of the harassment and sometimes even violence that they face as a hazard, it means that the world is being robbed of extraordinary leadership that women can bring to bear."
PS: Violence against women is obviously a huge human rights issue, but you've also talked about how it affects our economy. So why is this an important issue to all people who care about the global economy?
PMN: First, it's a major violation of rights. So because of that, it is important that we fight against any form of violence against women and that our intention must be to end it. Because one woman hurt is one woman too many.
The cost in women's lives that women have to bear because they lose working time; they lose income because they're sick; they end up stopping to work because they're terrified. They suffer mental hurt and physical hurt. They break bones; they break jaws; they have [black] eyes; they break teeth. All of that means medical cost, pain, and injury.
The economies of the countries also mean that women begin to be self-effacing in order to avoid the hurt that they suspect will come their way if they're in certain places. And they begin to restrict their own freedom of movement and they begin to restrict their own success. The fact that women begin to avoid [running] for public office because of the harassment and sometimes even violence that they face as a hazard, it means that the world is being robbed of extraordinary leadership that women can bring to bear. And of course, if women as professionals begin to look at making career choices because they're looking at whether Am I going to be safe or not? You can imagine the missed opportunities that are out there for women.
Cyberbullying, for instance: it's perpetrated in part because we do not have enough women in the tech industry who can see this as an important problem and force their companies to have policies and actions that protect women in cyberspace.
So violence against women is quite complex. It occurs in every walk of life. Our responses also have to be just as extensive and comprehensive.
Note: this interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.