The Future is Young and Female

Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda on the Power of Girls to Drive Progress, Male Responsibility, and the Future of Development

At this year’s 59th Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), delegates and advocates from around the world convened at the United Nations to review progress made and challenges remaining since the Beijing Platform for Action was adopted at the Fourth World Conference on Women. Twenty years after attending the Beijing conference, Peace is Loud speaker and World WYCA General Secretary Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda provides an inspiring, bold call to action to allocate sufficient resources to women, end child marriage, hold men accountable, and acknowledge the ways girls and young women are already changing the world.

Lessons from the Millennium Development Goals
Gender Equality
Male Responsibility
Youth Participation

Q: When you look back at the Millennium Development Goals(MDGs), in the sense of the kinds of indicators and targets used, and overall the progress that has or hasn’t been made, what do you think are some of the lessons learned?

A: The first lesson for me was that the MDGs didn’t have a strong rights-based foundation. Even if that was articulated, it was not applied.

In terms of the goals themselves, when you look at gender equality, overall the targets and indicators were very narrow such as the number of women in decision-making roles in Parliament. But Parliament is not the only place where decisions are made. The whole local and international-level decision-making [processes] were not tracked.

The second was the indicator on education. It was focusing on basic education and completion of primary education. But we know that the ability to write ABCs or read does not translate to the adequate skills for one to be entrepreneurial or for one to gain access to the job market. The education indicator needed to go beyond primary education to secondary and tertiary, which I see in discussions happening now.

The third indicator was on the number of women working in the non-agricultural sector, and progress in that area seems to have shifted women from agricultural to other non-traditional sectors. But the issues around decent work and the quality of work were not sufficiently elaborated on.

So, that is just in terms of the MDGs and the gender equality targets. But looking comprehensively, I think it has been a good decision to look at the sustainable development agenda rather than just the MDGs so that we bring forward the issues of climate justice and clean energy much more strongly, and that we go beyond the economic growth traditional model to also look at how to have inclusive development.

I also feel that both in the MDGs and currently in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) drafts, there isn’t sufficient attention to young women and girls. They’re still mentioned in passing, and yet the demographic data is telling us that the future is female and young. Yet there is no intentionality on programming and resourcing around the issues of young women and girls.

On the MDGs, there were also insufficient allocations of resources. I actually do not buy the argument that the world has no money. I don’t. It’s a distribution issue and a prioritization issue. So when our governments can afford to buy military equipment and helicopters and gunships and drones—what if that money was used to build schools, textbooks, or medicine for a health center? It should be about human security, and women’s security, more than military security, and therefore shifting the resources to the social sector. I believe that governments are not prioritizing the issues that I care for, and those are the issues that advance human rights and that prioritize women and girls.

Q: What do you see as being some of the biggest obstacles to achieving gender equality?

A: Political will. When I was a young woman, I was actively involved in the preparations for the Beijing [Fourth World] Conference [on Women]. There was a lot of excitement, and governments were putting resources into organizing. After Beijing, I think there were a couple of things that shifted.

One was a very strong focus on gender mainstreaming [ensuring that all activities and programs critically examine how different roles, resource allocation and decision-making authority are balanced between men and women] which was good in itself but not sufficient to bring the change that we wanted to see. Gender mainstreaming became the more driving force, with less of the women’s rights/women’s empowerment [focus] that had been there before.

We saw quite a strong push in many countries to have new laws that protect women’s human rights and that address violence against women. But a law without implementation does not protect women. We saw, at the European level, the adoption of a commitment on violence against women in the last couple of years. The Istanbul Convention was really powerful. At the African level, we saw the Maputo Plan of Action and the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa. And at the international level, it was good to see a whole range of global commitments within the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council. Each year, there was a resolution against violence against women, from prevention to protection to remediation and reparations. We saw at the global level, within the UN Security Council, the adoption of resolutions13251820, and a range of other key decisions. And recently, some significant instruments on issues around child marriage. So yes, there have been good steps around laws and policies.

But life in the villages, inner cities, and communities, for most women, remains as if there had been no Beijing conference. That for me is where the gap is—the gap between pronouncements, laws and the lived realities of young women and all women.

Q: What do you think are good ways men and boys can be involved in championing for the rights of girls and women without taking the conversation focus away from them?

A: It’s about responsibility and accountability. Let me use a concrete example. The World YWCA and I are quite involved in the Campaign to End Child Marriage. So, we think of the statistics that the UN has given us: 39,000 girls are married each day. That’s extrapolated to 15 million girls [a year] that experience early, child or forced marriage. We are actually not just talking about the 15 million girls. We’re talking about 15 million men abusing girls. We’re talking about another 15 million men giving away their daughters. That’s 30 million men in a year who are committing a crime, who are abusing girls, who are not speaking up, who are perpetuating a modern form of slavery, and who are complicit in multiple layers of violations of the rights of girls.

I start from that point of male responsibility. I don’t think any father would not know that it’s not just that his daughter needs to remain in school. It means that the father is prioritizing his own economic well-being over the life and well-being of the daughter. I don’t think any man would not know that if he’s 40 or 50 or 29, it’s wrong to marry a 10 year old.

I think, for me, the first concept is about male responsibility because it’s not about male involvement. They’re involved. The majority of people who make decisions in the world today are men. They’re involved in our lives anyway: at a household level, at places of worship, as teachers, judges, doctors and parliamentarians. Heads of State are majority male. Men are involved. What we’re asking for is male responsibility and male accountability. I’m looking for responsible brothers, fathers, neighbors and classmates who respect the dignity of women and treat them as equally valuable. That’s where I would like the discussion to be. It’s about socializing our young boys and redefining masculinity. I really would like to meet one older man who would say that he didn’t know that it’s wrong to beat up your wife. Patriarchy is being used to justify, give explanations and rationalize bad behavior. We just need to call out bad behavior and not say, “Oh, actually they don’t know!” Really? Child marriage is just one example for me where 80,000 adult men in a day are complicit in abusing the rights of girls. We need men to be more responsible. I’ve attended some meetings with male Parliamentarians and they say, “Involve us.” And I’m like, “Involve you in what? You’re sitting in Parliament. Make the right law. When you make every law, think about how it impacts women and girls.”

Q: What do you think are some ways in the new development framework that we can better advocate for young people’s participation?

A: When you look at the 2008 U.S. elections, the consumer industry, and the technology sector, when they want to reach young people with mobile phones and other gadgets, there is data, analysis, advertising and interaction. I go back to the lack of political will. Because when it comes to development, there’s not the same level of intentionality or consistency where there can be a critical mass of young women and girls. It’s more anecdotal, like having one young woman or girl on a stage to make a speech and people applaud, but there isn’t a meaningful number of young people involved in a consistent way from their communities or at the global level, with resources, mentors, skills and support available to them, to be able to bring the change they want.

At times when we talk about young women, there’s also this assumption that young people are vulnerable. Yes, there’s this image of vulnerability. But you’re also talking about young doctors, scientists, graduates, moms, community workers and social mobilizers. So we need to shift, to say that young people are not just marginalized, vulnerable and disempowered, waiting for the world or government to come and help them. They’re not helpless. Actually, our government and our society are way behind. The young people are way ahead. So we actually need to run and catch up with them and their own innovations.

The next stage demands stepping up investments in innovations for young women and girls. And those innovations include meaningful participation; enabling young people to have resources—real money, not little projects—and trusting that young women and girls can manage. Groups that work with amazing networks, like the YWCA’s around the world, have to be trusted that we have been doing significant work over the last 100 years. We have worked with millions of young women and girls in our communities. They have built fantastic change initiatives in their own spaces. They need to be trusted to go to scale. For the next 15 years, we cannot continue to pilot projects. We just need to go to scale and make the change happen. This is why the World YWCA has a very bold and daring vision for ourselves and we really need to reach millions of young women and girls who are champions, leaders who are agents for change, and for them to shape the world they deserve.

Q: Who are some of the women that inspire you?

A: My daughter and my mother. Just to see my daughter dare to find herself, to express herself, and to negotiate her own life, I see her as a mentor to me more and more. Yesterday, it was fantastic to be with my daughter at the March [for Gender Equality] and to also see [Nobel Laureate] Leymah [Gbowee] and her little one at the March. I think a couple of us had a sort of Beijing guilt: we went to Beijing and left them, and now we have to bring them! But yes, I get a lot of inspiration from her.

I also am quite inspired by the critical, invisible significant—the women in our communities, like my mother. They may not even be able to write their own names—they can put a thumbprint afterwards—but they’re the most resourceful women. They have to put food on the table with nothing every day. They have to inspire their little ones even when things are so desperate. They have to keep hope alive and that little flame burning. It’s those women who, at times, have no options but to protect the minimum of just being born human. And they do it with everything they have.

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