The new head of the U.N. agency promoting women's rights says there is "a definite backlash" against equality for women despite some significant progress, pointing to an upsurge in violence against women and the uphill fight to escape poverty and crack the glass ceiling.
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, who was South Africa's first female deputy president, said that 18 years after world leaders adopted a blueprint to achieve equality for women at a U.N. conference in Beijing there are still major economic and social barriers and new crimes to confront including trafficking of women and girls and cyber bullying.
"All of those means that we do need to go back to the drawing boards and strengthen the mechanisms and options that we have to engage in the fight to advance women's equality and emancipation," she said in an interview Wednesday.
Mlambo-Ngcuka said the campaign for equality of the sexes has been dominated by women and it needs to be broadened to include boys and men as well as the private sector.
"You need men — you just cannot crack these issues without winning over men," she said. "We need to win the priests, the rabbis, the traditional chiefs" to tackle religious and cultural barriers.
UN Women was created three years ago by the General Assembly to combine four U.N. bodies dealing with the advancement of women under a single umbrella. Its first leader, former Chilean president Michelle Bachelet, stepped down to run for president again.
As the second executive director, Mlambo-Ngcuka said she plans to take "a very collaborative approach" with the 193 U.N. member states, other U.N. offices and agencies, and civil society groups "who are crucial for success."
Bachelet's greatest success came in March when 131 conservative Muslim and Roman Catholic countries and liberal Western nations approved a U.N. blueprint to combat violence against women and girls. Data from the World Health Organization and other research has shown that an average of 40 percent — and up to 70 percent of women in some countries — face violence in their lifetimes.
Ending violence against women and girls remains a top priority for UN Women, and Mlambo-Ngcuka said she wants to take this campaign to every city in the world and mobilize local governments, non-governmental organizations, religious leaders and interested citizens to fight the scourge and create safe communities.
UN Women's other priorities include expanding women's leadership, economic empowerment and participation in peace and security efforts.
"Women's voices need to be heard in the household, on corporate boards, in peace talks, and in public institutions," Mlambo-Ngcuka told a news conference Thursday.
"Women need equal access to education, opportunities, and to economic resources such as credit and land, and to justice," she said. "Women need to have choices and for this sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights are essential."
Access to finance for women is a big issue, Mlambo-Ngcuka said, and she will be pressing for more small loans to help women escape poverty but also for "big bucks" to help them climb the economic ladder.
"There's no reason why women should not be in the commanding heights of economy," she said, pointing to the success of women in China from rural areas and poor families who have been able to "crack the city and crack the big markets."
Looking ahead, Mlambo-Ngcuka said "the elephant in the room" is money.
In 2012, UN Women's revenue was $220 million and its expenses were $235 million. This year, she said the agency needs $100 million to end 2013 "in a healthy way."
Mlambo-Ngcuka said one of her immediate priorities is to expand the donor base and try to tap the private sector, foundations, philanthropists and private individuals. Much greater investment is needed to "help us do things with real people in real situations" to promote equality for women," she said.
The top donor to UN Women is Norway which gave the agency over $25 million in 2012.
Asked why the United States, which has the world's largest economy, was only the ninth largest contributor, at $8.3 million, Mlambo-Ngcuka replied: "I don't know why but I know I intend to talk to them about it."
She said she's trying to get donors to contribute at least $15 million, but the U.S. should be able to triple that and contribute $45 million.
"I'm appealing that we don't turn a blind eye to the needs of women throughout the world," Mlambo-Ngcuka said, because "there is an awakening" and women want to address the issues and improve their lives.