I've been blessed in my life to do work that I love -- advancing social justice and equality. Now I am taking the lessons I learned from our struggle to end apartheid and establish democracy in South Africa to advance equality for the world's girls and women as the head of UN Women.
We are fortified by evidence that equality for women is progress for all.
Countries with higher levels of gender equality perform better in education, health and economic growth. Companies with more women managers have higher returns for shareholders. Peace agreements and national institutions that include women's voices and concerns are more durable and democratic.
In fact, the UN General Assembly has now acknowledged that alleviating poverty and disadvantage, securing peace, and achieving progress on all of the Millennium Development Goals depends upon the promotion of gender equality.
I saw this firsthand on a trip last month to South Sudan and Jordan, where I met with displaced women and refugees who are bearing the brunt of conflict and raising their voices for peace.
In South Sudan, where more than 870,000 people have been displaced since the recent conflict erupted in December 2013, I spoke to women who had left their homes and belongings behind and are struggling to care for their children.
They told me about their suffering, the violence they had endured, the children and husbands they had lost or been separated from. They told me about the lack of food, water and medication and the lack of safe spaces for them and their children to receive some form of education. And they told me about their yearning for peace for South Sudan.
Despite hardship and displacement, the women I met with are keen to rebuild their country.
As one of the displaced women told me, "All we ask for is peace so that we can go back to our lives. We want our children to go home, to school and to get nutritious food and proper health services."
I found the same determination and hope in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, where I had the honour to meet Syrian women refugees and their children.
The camp currently hosts about 120,000 Syrians, according to the UN Refugee Agency, with women making up approximately 55 percent of the population.
UN Women is supporting a safe space there called Oasis, where girls and boys in a daycare centre sang while their mothers engaged in the programs such as sewing and jewelry-making.
Several Syrian women said the Oasis offers them a place where they can regain their confidence and dignity.
"You gave us hope; thanks for that," said Rana Sais, a 32-year-old woman.
While I was there, the women asked me to lobby for more assistance for people facing war in Syria. I pledged I would call for greater support and continue efforts to include women in the peace process.
From Syria to South Sudan, Mali to Colombia, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to Afghanistan and Somalia, UN Women and partners are supporting women to play their full role in peace and security.
The reason is simple: Inclusion brings different voices to the table and the discussions and decisions better reflect and respond to the diverse needs of the society.
Since the adoption of the landmark UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security in 2000, six more related resolutions have been passed that guide our work.
Yet even though women's voices need to be heard, fewer than three percent of signatories to peace agreements are women. Women still represent less than 10 percent of negotiators at peace tables.
The percentage of women in the police and military component of peace missions remains in the single digits. So does the percentage of post-conflict spending budgeted specifically to empower women or promote gender equality.
And women's contributions to peace and democratization do not typically translate into leadership roles in decision-making institutions.
The work of women is vital to recovery, but it is invisible, not paid, not recognized, and underfunded.
By failing to invest in women, we undermine prospects for immediate family well-being and long-term peacebuilding.
When women have a stable income, they are more able to take care of their families and participate in decision-making. When more women are involved in public life, there are pay-offs that matter enormously for peacebuilding.
Women's political participation is associated with lower levels of corruption, greater investment in social services, job creation for women and family welfare.
In many post-conflict countries, 40 percent of households are female-headed, and research shows that women spend up to 90 percent of their income on their household's education, health and nutrition, both during and after conflict.
We also know that having more women leaders has a role model effect that enhances the perception of possibilities and aspirations for girls. Increasing the proportion of female teachers above 20 percent is correlated with improved enrollment of girls in school, and, in some cases, better student performance. Increasing the proportion of female police officers above 30 percent shows an increased rate of reporting on sexual and gender-based violence.
Women's priorities and concerns must be addressed in the governance, justice, security, and recovery aspects of peace agreements. These concerns, such as quotas for women in elections, land and property rights, and the treatment of widespread sexual violence as a war crime, if addressed, can help build a more comprehensive peace.
Gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls are fundamental to a more just, peaceful and secure future for all of us.
Dr. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka is an Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and the Executive Director of UN Women