UNITED NATIONS — The head of the U.N. agency promoting equality for women says the global spotlight on sexual harassment and abuse and the punishment of some powerful men who had been “untouchable” is an important moment — but it’s just “a tip of an iceberg.”
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka says that’s because the number of women who have “come out” is small and the number of perpetrators who have been “brought to book” is limited compared to the number who haven’t been exposed.
But in an interview with The Associated Press on the eve of International Women’s Day, she said that in the immediate future at the very least there is a possibility of reducing and halting the continuation of abuse because perpetrators now know “there is actually a possibility that your victim might tell.”
“This is a tipping point and a critical time for everyone,” said Mlambo-Ngcuka, the executive director of UN Women. “And what we need to be guarding is that the pendulum must not swing backwards.”
She said the follow-up that is needed is for all institutions to communicate with their employees what their rights are, so they know how to report any violations and can be assured “that they will be believed and that they will not end up being on trial themselves.”
#MeToo is a worldwide problem
Mlambo-Ngcuka stressed that while the spotlight has been on powerful male offenders in Hollywood, business and the high echelons of society, sexual harassment and abuse is prevalent around the world from factories and farms to buses, trains and homes.
And not a single country has achieved gender equality, she said.
Even in Iceland, which comes closest and has the “highest levels of consciousness about gender equality, violence against women is a problem, and unequal pay is a fact, and underrepresentation of women in decision-making is a fact,” Mlambo-Ngcuka said.
“This is the same thing we are fighting in India, in South Africa, in the U.S.,” she said. “So all of these countries do not value women the way they value men.”
And 150 countries have at least one law that discriminates against women, she added.
“When a perpetrator stands in front of you and attacks you, whether you are a celebrity or an ordinary woman in a village, the violation and the humiliation that you feel is the same,” she said. “The one thing we have in common, when a perpetrator attacks me, or attacks someone who is a queen, or a woman who is sitting in a shantytown, in front of the perpetrators we are all equal.”
“And what we need to be fighting for is a society and a generation of men, of all sorts, of all classes, of all countries, not to be violators,” Mlambo-Ngcuka said.
She expressed hope that “the millennials who are rising up in the companies and are destined for the corner office, they will know that the corner office doesn’t come with a ‘girl’ — that you will get it trouble … that the boards of organizations cannot afford these cases and the stigma, and the public will punish you.”
A long way to go
Mlambo-Ngcuka, who is from South Africa, said addressing sexual harassment and abuse and achieving equality for women will take years, and there is a lot of work to do in all countries.
Some women have been encouraged by sexual abusers and harassers losing jobs and facing criminal proceedings, she said, but it takes a long time “for women to actually master the courage to speak for themselves.”
Mlambo-Ngcuka said UN Women is also working with men and boys who are key to changing norms, attitudes and cultural practices — from engaging in child marriage and beating wives to accepting that they can be a partner to a woman.
UN Women also is working with the European Union on changing discriminatory laws, increasing the number of women decision-makers, and getting police to prosecute crimes against women.
This month, the Commission on the Status of Women will be meeting at U.N. headquarters with the theme: “Challenges and opportunities in achieving gender equality and the empowerment of rural women and girls.”
Mlambo-Ngcuka expects sexual harassment and abuse to be a hot topic at side events.
“It is the beginning of a conversation that maybe is going to take us five years or so before maybe we see a critical mass of countries that are actually getting it the right way,” she said, “but we cannot afford to waste this moment, which we’ve all created.”