UN not 'immune' to sexual misconduct, says UN Women's Mlambo-Ngcuka

UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka. Photo by: Jennifer S. Altman / UN Women / CC BY-NC-ND

UNITED NATIONS — The United Nations and UN Women are not “immune” from hosting a work culture that permits sexual harassment and abuse, sometimes without any recourse for its victims, UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka told Devex in an interview.

Sexual harassment and misconduct in the workplace — and in many other settings — is not new, Mlambo-Ngcuka said in a sitdown interview shortly before International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, which is annually observed Nov. 25 and kicks off the secretary-general’s 16-day campaign against gender-based violence.

The recent slew of harassment and abuse reports against Hollywood, media, and political heavyweights across the world has also touched a nerve at the U.N., helping align the whole system with UN Women’s regular programmatic focus on violence against women.

“There's a renaissance, a stronger awareness, raising and making people aware of what exists in the U.N., and where to go to help,” explained Mlambo-Ngcuka, the former deputy president of South Africa.  

“I mean, we don't think that we're immune, as UN Women. In the last few months, we have had webinars, we have been sending letters to staff. So I think we're all on our toes,” she said.

One in three women and girls experience violence in their lifetimes, according to U.N. figures. This violence can take on many, sometimes unexpected, forms, Mlambo-Ngcuka said.

“It's not just domestic violence. We are talking about trafficking; we are talking about child marriage; we're talking about FGM [female genital mutilation]; we are talking about harassment in the workplace; we are talking about cyber-bullying,” she said. “Almost from cradle to grave you could pinpoint a stage where there's a whole lot of women in some parts of the world, or for that matter, in all societies, who are just living with violence. And there is no escape mechanism.”

U.N. chief António Guterres re-appointed Mlambo-Ngcuka to a second term as executive director of UN Women in July, around the same time he unveiled a gender parity strategy that aims for parity across the entire system before 2030.

The full-circle connection between UN Women’s work in strengthening laws worldwide to protect women and children from violence and its engagement across the U.N. system itself appeared on Mlambo-Ngcuka’s mind during the recent conversation at U.N. headquarters.

“If a child is exposed to domestic violence growing up at home, as a boy, he is affected by that and ends up thinking that this is a way of life. He may emerge somewhere as a harasser in the workplace. The harasser in the workplace may join the U.N. and be a peacekeeper,” she said. “We have to think overall about gender equality, inequality, and how it sets the stage for the tormenting of women by different people.”

UN Women is now, ironically, finding itself with a “nice problem,” Mlambo-Ngcuka explained. “[Our] area of work is really an area that everybody is preoccupied with,” she said.

Her message to U.N. staffers who may have experienced harassment, abuse or misconduct is clear: “We believe you.”

In the past few months, in addition to holding webinars, UN Women also invited U.N. victims’ rights advocate Jane Connors to address staff. Harassment and abuse is often perpetrated by those in senior positions, against those who are in more vulnerable roles. Targeting young people with information and resources is key, Mlambo-Ngcuka said.

“So without making them panic, we are just saying, ‘You know, don't allow anyone to do anything that is unacceptable and you have recourse.’”

Guterres announced the creation of Connors’ first-of-its-kind position this August, when his office also rolled out a new, victim-centric approach to address harassment and abuse. Other U.N. agencies, such as the U.N. human rights office, have also taken some visible steps on sexual harassment and abuse in recent months. This includes a pilot project that trains volunteer “first responders” who staff can look to following an incident.  

The U.N., however, has been criticized for its lack of clear, independent recourse for people who have experienced harassment or abuse, as well as a culture of underreporting.

“With the emphasis that the current SG is putting on the issues of sexual exploitation and abuse and gender equality, in general, it has helped to encourage different agencies to make the information available, to talk about this issue a lot, to convene this issue a lot, to convene,” she said, noting also that the U.N.’s policies are a “bit bureaucratic.”  

That focus extends to gender parity, as well. With Guterres’ gender parity targets looming for all U.N. agencies, Mlambo-Ngcuka has found that UN Women staffers are in high demand — both because they disproportionately are women and because they are familiar working with issues such as gender-sensitive disaggregated data. It’s rare, these days, for Mlambo-Ngcuka to attend a meeting with counterparts without “a colleague asking me if we could have somebody from UN Women to come and do a, b, c, d,” she said.

“The demand [to address parity] has just shot up,” she said. “The SG wants results within a specific point of time. So we are the agency that would have more of the people with more of the skills that [U.N. agencies] are looking for.”

UN Women, the smallest U.N. agency, is about 30 percent male. It’s now looking at its own process for posting job vacancies, seeing that “they are announced in a manner that encourages women to apply,” she said.

UN Women, which serves as a convening platform on gender for the broader U.N. system, is also encouraging other entities to head hunt, “so they do not just wait for potential interested parties to show up.”

On Monday, Mlambo-Ngcuka kicked off the 16 days activism campaign against gender-based violence in Côte d’Ivoire, a country that has seen a rise in gender-based violence in the past few years.

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About the author

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the U.N. Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.