Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka is United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women. After speaking at the FIFA’s Women’s Football Convention, she told us about the importance of females in football, the game’s effect on the advancement of women, and what needs to be done to achieve gender equality.
How do you see the role of sport, specifically football, in helping advance the cause of women throughout the world?
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Football is the most widely played and watched sport in the world. If its governing body promotes women’s empowerment – through its policies, actions, partnerships and in its biggest tournaments – it can have a massive impact on advancing gender equality, both in the world of sport and beyond. For example, stereotypes, discriminatory social norms and lack of representation remain some of the most pervasive barriers to gender equality around the world.
But with visible role models of women footballers excelling, girls, boys, women and men alike can see what women can achieve and be inspired to follow their lead. Further, we know that when girls play it increases their belief in their own ability, which translates into everyday life and encourages them to take initiative and attempt things they never imagined were possible. When girls find their voice on the field, they are better able to speak up in other areas of their lives. In fact, girls’ participation in sport is associated with a multiplier effect on a wide range of development outcomes from health to education, leadership and more, with benefits that can last a lifetime.
And how does the MOU signed between FIFA and the UN play a part in that cause?
The MOU simply allows us to pursue our partnership. It represents an essential first step on our journey ahead. I think that both parties have a similar view of what needs to change to make football not only a more gender-equal sport but also a tool for social transformation, with its massive appeal that can drive gender equality throughout society. We need to come together now to establish the details of how we can work together and the specifics of what we will do to really make this happen. From our side – we want more women players to be role models, not only for girls, but for everyone. We want more male players to speak out in support of women and girls – and to stand up for their rights on and off the field. We want a more even playing field overall, including closing the gender pay gap. We want more and higher-quality coverage of the women’s game. We want more girls to have the chance to play and to benefit from the life skills that sport brings them for the rest of their lives. And we want to smash the stereotypes that hold all of us back.
As a high-profile event coming at this time of growing recognition for the need for women’s equality, how does the FIFA Women's World Cup in France fit in to this movement?
The Women’s World Cup in France is a massive global stage where the world celebrates women as champions and where they inspire masses of fans from different countries and contexts. These women are examples of living to one’s highest potential – potential that is achieved only through intense discipline, extreme dedication and fighting against the odds. This power, combined with the tournament’s wide reach and the rising global momentum for gender equality, makes this an exciting moment for women’s empowerment. Many things have changed since the last Women’s World Cup.
For one, we have seen the 'MeToo' movement bring sexual harassment and the stark power imbalances between women and men firmly into the public discourse. And while there is still much to do to end the many forms of discrimination, exclusion and violence experienced by women and girls around the world, we are increasingly seeing people from different sectors of society standing up against discrimination and gender inequality.
For example, I work with some of the world’s largest advertisers who are now taking action to eliminate gender stereotypes from their content. In the private sector more broadly, many companies are making progress in creating more equal opportunities for women at all levels, and building towards parity of representation. And civil society movements around the world, including critical youth-led initiatives, are raising their voices and demanding a more equal and sustainable world. But we need to do much more, so the fact that we are here at the most important sporting event for women in the world presents an exciting opportunity to take action together.
And how important is it for leaders from around the world to come to an event like the Women’s Football Convention?
This is a global sport in the process of transforming itself. So, it is extremely important that leaders from across the world, and from all sectors of society, attend this convention. Governments play a vital role in setting the policies that create equal opportunities for women and girls in sport. But they are not the ones capable of making important change. The private sector needs to step up and sponsor women’s sport on equal terms. The media needs to produce more and better coverage of women on and off the field. And we need women’s rights activists to drive awareness of injustices and to push for stronger accountability. As the United Nations, we intend to hold FIFA to a high standard of progress across these areas and to help convene all of these partners to work together to create the more gender equal world that benefits everyone.
From your experience all over the world is there any action that you would recommend to the football world to keep on moving toward gender equality?
There are several actions that the football world can and must take. First: pay the players. I have heard too many stories about women receiving little to no pay – even on national teams and in countries that can definitely afford to do better. This has to end. Second: cover the women’s game. It’s a way to build the audience and build the sport. There are multiple benefits to doing so. Third: invest in more opportunities for girls to play and love the game. There is an opportunity to build the next generation of athletes and fans, which is good for women’s football – and for so many reasons, we know it is also very good for society.
How is something like women’s football significant in a country like your own, South Africa, as a tool for development and education?
The wonderful thing about football is that it is so universal. People of all ages and genders play it, whether on a professional pitch, an urban alleyway or a rural field. So, its potential as a tool for development and education – in every country and community – is powerful. One example from South Africa is the initiative Grassroot Soccer in Cape Town, which uses the power of football to foster girls’ empowerment, support their awareness of sexual and reproductive health and increase their access to medical, legal and psychosocial services. By participating in the programme, the 12-16 year-old girls –many of whom come from areas of poverty and violence, a high prevalence of HIV/AIDS and limited social infrastructure – not only had the chance to play football in a safe space, but showed an increase in HIV knowledge and a reported significant decrease in experiences of violence.
We have also seen the power of sport as a tool for development and education in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil through One Win Leads to Another, UN Women’s joint programme with the International Olympic Committee. It combines sport with life skills education to empower young women and girls in some of the most vulnerable communities. After seeing its participants gain confidence – for example to go back to school, secure quality jobs and lead community initiatives – last year, we launched the programme in Buenos Aires, and we hope to develop like-minded initiatives with partners in even more countries.
Banyana Banyana have qualified for their first ever Women's World CUp. How big a deal is that for the cause of women in South Africa?
As the Under-Secretary-General of a United Nations organisation, I am an international civil servant, and officially it is difficult for me to pick a favourite. But without astonishing anyone, I can say that not only am I watching our Goodwill Ambassador Marta play for Brazil with keen interest, this is a very big deal for both the women of South Africa, as well as for the men. It is the first time that my home country’s women’s team has qualified for the Women’s World Cup. I hope that this will raise their profile in the eyes of the country and like many other women’s teams, that they will get the equitable level of resources that they deserve.