Talking Points of the UN Resident Coordinator at the Panel Discussion on International Women’s Day with the Regional Service Centre Entebbe (RSCE)

The UNRC participated in RSCE's panel discussion on, "Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world," in celebration of Women's Day.

  1. Do you feel the COVID-19 pandemic has set women back in the achievement of a more equal future?

Yes, absolutely. The COVID-19 pandemic has been detrimental in the progress made towards a more equal future.

It is during times of conflict and crises that women are most vulnerable. The COVID-19 pandemic has fuelled the vulnerability of women and girls, as lockdowns are implemented and schools are closed.

Globally, one (1) in three (3) women experience gender-based violence in their lifetime. However, this figure does not include sexual harassment which is estimated at a significant 70 percent of women experiencing sexual harassment in their lifetime.

During the pandemic, calls to helplines increased five-fold, reporting cases of intimate partner violence.

As lockdowns were implemented as preventative measures by governments; one million girls are expected never to return to school due to early teenage pregnancy. In the Kingdom of Eswatini, 87 of every 1,000 girls are falling pregnant and losing their education; as are many losing their lives to pregnancy and birth complications. One girl losing her life to early teenage pregnancy is one too many.

Our sisters living in poverty are more vulnerable to early teenage pregnancy, with 127 out of 1,000 girls giving birth before the age of 18, as opposed to 41 per 1,000 girls in urban areas in Eswatini.

The physical and psychological consequences of violence against women are  devastating: not only does violence undermine the health, dignity, security and autonomy of its victims, but it happens in a culture of silence. Less than 10 percent of women report incidences of violence to the police. We cannot afford to remain silent a moment longer.

Gender-based violence knows no boundaries and can affect anyone, anywhere and at any time. However, particular groups of women and girls are extremely vulnerable to violence; including young girls and older women, women who identify as lesbian, bisexual, transgender or intersex, migrants and refugees, indigenous women and ethnic minorities, as well as women living with HIV or disabilities, and those living through humanitarian crises.

Our girls and women account for 72 percent of trafficking victims; of whom most are trafficked for the purpose of sexual exploitation. More than 200 million girls and women alive today have experienced female genital mutilation (FGM) in 30 countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

Here, in Africa, rural women, in particular, are bearing the brunt of COVID-19. In fact, it is estimated that the pandemic will likely push 47 million more women into poverty, reversing decades of progress. Nearly 60 percent of women work in the informal economy, an insecure labour market, and are therefore at greater risk of falling into poverty.

However, despite the many obstacles women face, we gather today to celebrate the strength of girls and women, who are on the frontline in so many ways; not only as mothers, caretakers and bread-winners at home; community leaders; peacekeepers in war zones, fighter-pilots and soldiers, but also as nurses, doctors, healthcare and essential workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to preliminary global studies, women account for over 70 percent of COVID-19 infections among healthcare workers; representative of their share in the total healthcare workforce. Yet, they account for less than a third of all deaths among healthcare workers.

Our sisters living with HIV, disabilities and who are on the move, prove to be of incredible strength as they endeavour to overcome increased challenges throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

These statistics are some of many which demonstrate the courage and resilience of women. All of you, present today, and those joining us online, are pictures of this bravery, resilience and determination. In fact, personally, it has been humbling to be a woman during this historical time. I am so proud of the girls and women who have stepped up, with such courage and determination to fight for their loved ones and loved ones of others.

Although progress towards an equal future has, in some respects, been reversed; I have no doubt that the girls and women of today and tomorrow will emerge from the pandemic stronger than ever before.

 

  1. What would you say to the women who are currently carrying the disproportionate burden during this pandemic?

It would be incredibly humbling to share a message with the women who are currently carrying a disproportionate burden during this pandemic, as indeed, I would be standing amongst heroes.

I would let them know that their sacrifices are not in vain, their fight and plight are seen and heard, and their daily courage, bravery and incredible strength are glowing lights in what feels like a dark storm.

I would thank them for not giving up, and for inspiring and building the next generation of smart and courageous women and men. I would thank them for helping to make the world a better place for my children and grandchildren-to-come, and I would remind them that they are seen and heard: although they might not feel it, they have touched more lives than they know.

Women have served as equal partners in the recovery and dividend of COVID-19. Their bravery, leadership and resilience have been unquestionable, and there is no doubt that we need more women taking positions of leadership in all areas of our world.

I would give them a COVID-safe hug and wish them every blessing, for how can you possibly thank a person who has contributed to saving the lives of your loved ones, and indeed, yourself?

 

  1. Why is it important for women to be represented in senior leadership?  

It is critical that women are represented in senior leadership, for I believe that women, with their nurturing, caring nature, work to empower not only themselves, but their families, communities and future generations of women.

We have witnessed the incredible leadership of female leaders such as Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, and Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany. Their responses to the COVID-19 pandemic have proved effective, inclusive and people-oriented; making significant strides to ensuring that nobody is left behind in their recoveries from COVID-19.

However, it is shocking that only 22 countries today have an elected female head of state or government, while 119 countries have never had a female leader. Africa, in particular, remains exceptionally far behind in women leadership, as only four women have ever held positions as head of state or government. In 2018, only 23 percent of judges worldwide were women and in 2013, 12.7 percent of parliament seats were held by women.

It is estimated that gender parity, at the current rate in which it is moving, will not be reached in national parliaments before 2063, and in ministerial positions, before 2077.

Who will be the voice of girls and women who have experienced physical and sexual violence, as well as that of vulnerable communities who endeavour day-to-day discrimination? Who will advocate for equal opportunities for both girls and boys in employment and leadership?

In 2018, the UN Human Development Report ranked Eswatini 137 out of 159 countries for gender inequality, for unemployment remains higher for young women than men, at 50 percent and 44 percent respectively. Along with high levels of gender-based violence, income inequality affects more women and girls and, in turn, their standard of living.

We need women in senior leadership to bring to the attention of decision-makers that indeed, women’s prospects for prosperity are much less than those of men. Women’s nurturing, caring natures, are critical in ensuring that nobody is left behind.

 

  1. What advice would you give to the younger generation regarding work-life balance?

I’d like to quote the legendary Maya Angelou; “I’ve learned that making a living is not the same thing as making a life.”

I encourage all girls to look deep within their hearts and find the things that set their souls on fire; whether it is family, friends, writing, dancing or chasing a dream.

Girls, follow your passions with all your might and do not waiver in your values as you do; for our hearts and minds are only at peace when we are true to ourselves.

Do not choose the easy way, through finding a ‘sugar-daddy’ or relying on your youthful beauty, but remain focused on what it is that matters most. In the words of the great Nelson Mandela; “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” You were born to be a change-maker and do not under-estimate your abilities, strengths and unique gifts.

Seek inspiration in the words of leaders-past and whatever you do; take courage.                                                 

Be kind to yourself on your journey, and do not fall into the trap of comparison, for you are phenomenal in your own right and your story will never be the same as another’s: how wonderful is that? Reject the spirit of shame when you fall, but remember that you are not alone, for the greatest success stories are often made from the greatest falls.

You will learn hard lessons along the way, but learning is not failure; it is only the water that grows the flower that is you. At the end of the day, your loved ones will welcome you home: and that is something to be cherished.

 

  1. What leadership lessons have you learned during the pandemic?

I have learned an incredible number of leadership lessons during the pandemic, largely; the significance of the values of the United Nations, for they have served as a rock-solid guide in this tumultuous year. Humanity, solidarity, unity and supporting the needy, remain unchanged and powerful tools to ensure that nobody is left behind.

I have learned that we need courage, flexibility and resilience to fight the battles that have and will come our way. I have been blown away by the strength of women in Eswatini who have shown exactly these characteristics. For example, the United Nations Development System in Eswatini was humbled to donate a container to rural women working in the textile industry: using this container, they created a factory of their own to produce reusable grocery bags as Eswatini phases out the use of plastic bags.

Their bravery to start something new in a time of great disruption, and their strength to not give up, has been inspirational. These ‘small steps’ cannot be underestimated in the path to recovery; for everything great begins small.

I have learnt the meaning of human mortality; that time is short and not promised to us all. As we lose colleagues, family members and friends, the moments of desperation have been numerous. ‘What can we do better as the United Nations?’ ‘How can I better protect the UN Family?’;  are some of the many questions which have kept me up at night.

However, it is God who ultimately shows me the way. He has taught me that servant leadership and maintaining empathy towards colleagues, who are ultimately my brothers and sisters, are so important.

We are one family and each have our own strengths, weaknesses and limits: understanding, patience and kindness are therefore the biggest gifts that we can give one another.

More than anything, I have learnt what it means to lead myself, for if I cannot lead myself, I cannot lead others.

My family have become my rock, and they give me the strength daily to return to my mission and serve wholeheartedly the wonderful people of Eswatini.

I must admit that I found the adjustment to working-from-home difficult at first, but have grown into enjoying the time it gives me with my son at home. However, work and home often blend and this is something that I hope to remain aware of, for nothing is more precious than time with my family.

I have learnt that courage, kindness and perseverance are some of the greatest attributes that a person can have: and I can honestly say that each and every one of us holds those traits for look how far we have come?

Speech by
Author
Nathalie Ndongo-Seh
Resident Coordinator
RCO
Nathalie Ndongo-Seh
UN entities involved in this initiative
RCO
United Nations Resident Coordinator Office