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Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka Headshot

My Mother Always Told Me Inaction Is Not an Option

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I was born in South Africa, in Durban. My mother was a community health nurse, specializing in family planning. She understood that women's health is vital to the health of the entire society. She was determined to make a difference and express her opinion, and she was my first exposure to activism.

She has been an inspiration to me my whole life. In her eighties now, she still runs the St. Clement's home-based Care Project, helping families of people with HIV/AIDS. Every day she is an angel of mercy to hundreds of impoverished and sick people who receive food parcels and meals.

When I was a young girl, my mother, and my father, demonstrated that each person has value. They gave me a sense of social responsibility and social justice. Their quiet dignity inspired me, and with their support, I had the courage to enter politics and to work with others to end apartheid. In this struggle, I came to understand that women's issues are fundamental issues of social justice.

Today, I see the clear connection between the empowerment of women and girls, gender equality, and the ability to create change and a better future for all.

I draw much inspiration from my mother and our struggle against apartheid. At my school, I was one of the fortunate children to be able to bring my lunch with me. I had classmates who did not have enough to eat, who were hungry, so I shared my food with them. I remember thinking to myself that this sort of thing shouldn't happen in a rich country like South Africa. The deprivation that I saw angered me. It outraged -- and inspired -- me.

These two emotions have carried me on my journey. Through the anti-apartheid struggle and the example of my mother, I began to see how gender equality fit into the broader struggle for a just, democratic and peaceful society.

I worked with the YWCA as a teenager, and went on to become a teacher. Later, I continued my work with the YWCA in Geneva as a youth director for women's empowerment through education in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

When I returned home, I ran for parliament in South Africa's first democratic elections. It was such an exhilarating time for me, my mother and father, and all of us. I will never forget when President Nelson Mandela delivered his first State of the Nation address, outlining the mammoth tasks ahead to dismantle apartheid and expand the frontiers of human fulfilment and human freedom.

When Nelson Mandela appointed me as Deputy Minister of Trade and Industry, I was honored but also a bit overwhelmed. I sought his advice, and he said that he wanted me to learn, and to work hard. I remembered his words and eventually rose to be Deputy President.

My mother always told me that inaction is not an option. And neither is going it alone. I was fortunate to have my mother, my father, and all the older women who surrounded me and held me up in my early years, particularly at the YWCA.

Now as the head of UN Women, I still draw on my mother's example. She inspires me to believe that we will achieve equality in the 21st century between men and women!

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka is United Nations Under-Secretary-General and the Executive Director of UN Women. She was deputy president of South Africa from 2005 to 2008, the first woman to hold the position and the highest ranking woman in the history of South Africa.

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