Interview with Elizabeth Nyamayaro

Elizabeth Nyamayaro, an advocate for women’s rights and economic development, is the driving force behind the HeForShe campaign, a UN Women’s initiative and global solidarity movement that seeks to engage men as advocates for gender equality. Nyamayaro grew up in rural Zimbabwe where she met a UNICEF aid worker who altered the course of her life – she has since become the senior advisor to the Executive Director of UN Women, worked at the forefront of Africa’s development agenda for more than a decade, worked with UNAIDS, the World Heath Organization, and the World Bank, and founded Africa IQ, a social impact organization promoting Africa’s sustainable economic growth and development. 

In honor of International Women’s Day, we chat with Elizabeth about intersectional feminism, Twitter’s parental leave policy and what’s on the marquee for HeForShe Arts Week.

Aja Pecknold: I watched your TED talk, and I actually spent a few weeks in Zambia last summer traveling with Amy Richards and Gloria Steinem through villages in the Lower Zambezi where we worked a bit with CAMFED, so hearing your story about growing up in a village in Zimbabwe made me think a lot about the women that I met who are working with CAMFED. A lot of them grew up in the rural villages as you did. Your story about going from this village and being helped by the women in blue, which lead to the role you inhabit currently, made me want to know a bit more about that trajectory and how you got to where you are today.

Elizabeth Nyamayaro: That’s a very eventful question and I’ll try to give you a much more concise answer because it’s been a very long and blessed journey. It’s funny that you were Zambia because I’m actually half Zambian – my mom is Zambian, and my sister lives there. And there’s also a connection with CAMFED because Emma Watson used to work with CAMFED before she became a Goodwill Ambassador for young women.

The United Nations became a very important part of my life, without me even knowing how much it would mean and without realizing just how much it would shift my worldview, shift the things that I wanted to do with my life. The girl in the blue uniform was actually UNICEF who came into my village – and as I mentioned in the TED talk, at that time I had not been in school. I eventually left the village and went to live in the city with my aunt. The moment I started going to school I realized just what that moment had meant for me that this woman was, in fact, a UN employee.

So I set my mind to the fact that this is what I wanted to be. I also wanted to help uplift my whole family because I’m one of four and my siblings didn’t have the same opportunities that I did. There was almost a responsibility that came with this opportunity and I eventually left Zimbabwe in my twenties and moved to the UK with the determination to work for the UN. I ended up going to university there and started working for the UN in Geneva with UNS.

That’s incredible.

It’s very humbling. It’s what I wanted to do, and I’ve been blessed that I have this job I would do for free.

I’m curious about the initial motivation for the HeForShe initiative. In some ways, it seems like the way it’s geared toward men could have the potential to cater to the perceived oppressor.

In thinking about any other big societal achievement – whether the civil rights movement in the U.S. or anti-apartheid in South Africa – my biggest role model is the head of UN Women, my boss [Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka]. She’s a former freedom fighter from South Africa and was instrumental in the anti-apartheid movement alongside Nelson Mandela. One of the things she understood, and one of the things that she taught me, was that it required both the whites and the blacks to work together to end apartheid. It wasn’t one race against the other, it required all races coming together.

We know that these societal achievements have required the engagement of all members of society enthusing for the movement and so we recognize that legit equality isn’t, in fact, a women’s issue – it’s a professional issue, which means it’s a men’s issue, which means it’s an all-gender issue. So how can we, instead of traditional male bashing and seeing them as the problem, engage more than a few good men to want to be part of the solution and create a magnet of solidarity?

HeForShe isn’t about men serving women because women aren’t helpless and they’re not looking to be saved. Rather, it’s about shared responsibility and ownership of the issue. It’s also about acknowledging the power that a mixed gender has, which is that men are mostly in power. So how do we use HeForShe for men to also examine and recognize their own privileges and use them for the best of humanity?

I was just reading a piece by Nicholas Kristof about the fact that husbands are actually deadlier than terrorists in terms of the number of deaths in the United States. It seems like there’s a perception issue. You look at something like terrorism then you look at something like domestic violence and you see the different attention that it receives in the media, and the fact that from a sheer numbers point of view, husbands are killing at a higher rate than terrorists. And yet, terrorists are perceived to be a great American threat and domestic violence is less so. I’m curious what the HeForShe initiative is doing on that front.

I also want to correct this narrative. Indeed, gender imbalance is one of the most pertinent issues that we are dealing with. One in three women are subject to violence in the world and so it’s almost – if we’re able to categorize it – a pandemic, a global pandemic. There’s also an almost unspoken idea that what we share is actually much more powerful than what divides us. Obviously, the rates aren’t the same but it happens for all genders, it even happens more with the LGBTQIA communities that we engage with. We know that issues of violence are quite high. I want to frame that to say that this is not a mindset of women, it’s a very unfortunate thing that’s happening. But it’s happening for all genders.

Of course, the statistics are higher for women so we’re concerned about that and I do not want to minimize that. HeForShe is a movement of the UN, for UN Women to be a global entity for gender equality, and one of its critical pillars is gender against violence. As UN Women, we are implementing programming on the ground and in the offices where we operate, whether through raising awareness or through policies.

It’s sort of the unsung side of our work because equality work doesn’t sound very exciting. But at the end of the day, the fact that a woman in any part of the world can pick up a phone and make a report, get services, is because laws exist. This is the work of UN Women. It’s one of our biggest focuses to make sure the laws exist and then are implemented.

Also, now with HeForShe, we’re running (especially in the Middle East) a lot of workshops in terms of why this is important, working with men and boys to teach them to understand how big the issue is and how they can be part of the solution in putting an end to this particular issue. We’re also doing a lot of work with UNICEF Ethics as part of the HeForShe initiative. We work with 10 UNICEF teams. Across all teams this year we held an idea-thon, a brainstorming session with students to empower them, and with staff to come up with solutions on how they can also end violence on college campuses which is a huge issue.

The 10x10x10 initiative is really interesting. It seems like the potential for impact is incredible. Through that program, you’ve obviously created really visible role models and agents of change who are committed to things like closing the pay gap, funding gender research centers, education initiatives and violence prevention. What kind of issues do you think still need to be addressed? What kind of work still needs to be done to continue the fight either on a micro or macro level?

I would say on an individual level, we are not yet there. I think HeForShe had a good start, we saw a hundred-thousand men sign up in three days. We saw at least one man in every single country sign up. But the goal is to sign up one billion men, which would be fantastic. Looking at the statistic that one in three women are subject to violence, that’s one billion walking around wounded — we would like to have the same critical mass in terms of men that are standing up against it.

So at an individual level, my call to action is that we still need more men at the table. It’s a solitary movement, so that means we all have to chime in equally.

I don’t think that HeForShe is a genius idea. In fact, I think it’s a very simple idea that also happened at the right time, at the right moment. There is so much discourse on this issue, even just with the Women’s March. I almost feel like it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity for us to do something.

The issue of equal pay has to be addressed. It’s almost like hanging fruit and it’s sad that right now it doesn’t matter whether you’re an A-list celebrity in Hollywood, a woman working on the stock exchange, or a woman working on a tea plantation in Kenya — all these women are not getting paid equally to men.

Another focus right now, which I’m going to be launching on March 8 with Anne Hathaway, is the issue of paid parental leave. We know that the majority of laws are not working for women in the way that they’re supposed to. In most cases, women aren’t taking the time off because of the stigma that comes with it. We also know that it has created a situation where women, by taking time off to raise their children, get off the professional track so it’s harder for them to get promoted which continues unequal pay.

So one of the things we are pushing for is paid parental leave. Let’s make it equal for everyone, not only in terms of wanting equal care for women, but also for men that want to be able to raise their kids. There should be shared responsibility in the home and in the workplace. And then, at the cultural level, policies need to be implemented. It’s sad that in most cases it’s not that it isn’t a law, it’s that the law is just not implemented. I think it will be a very long wait. We need more political will, we need more political commitment for the implementation of these laws.

It was really unfortunate to see that gender equality in the workplace isn’t projected to be achievable until 2095, which is far too long.

That’s just crazy. And I think it’s also the thing that helps me every morning in creating this impact initiative making men responsible for being part of the solution. We’ve actually been able to do some really great stuff.

Twitter had zero parental leave policy. You couldn’t blame them because the U.S. is the only industrial nation that doesn’t have any paid maternity leave, let alone parental leave. But, last year, they implemented one of the top policies in the U.S. and it’s a twenty-week gender-neutral parental leave policy.

So, again, just a handful of examples but change can happen. We want to leapfrog, we want to accelerate, which is how people shift positioning in the UN, but we’re the accelerator. We are looking at commitments that don’t simply promote advance – we call them reparative commitments – asking, so, what are you going to do as a CEO, as a head of state, to actually close the gap or implement a particular policy issue? It’s exciting work. It’s very rewarding to see some early results.

There was a lot of talk, especially following the Women’s March, around intersectional feminism. I'm curious how HeForShe might account for that specifically.

Yeah, it’s a very good question. Actually, I’m going to give you what may be an unlikely answer, which is that one of the experiences that I’ve seen over the past couple of years working on this particular issue is that sometimes if one meaning is leveled up, it can also actually be counter-productive and polarizing.

I have tried to actually resist focusing on labels because they sort of divide and they put people in boxes. I’d rather focus on the ideal of what they’re trying to do. And, for me, equality simply means that one will believe all human beings are created equal. In fact, with HeForShe what we are trying to do (despite the name sounding quite binary), is to acknowledge that equality benefits all of us. So, I tend not to focus on the labels, but rather focus on the meaning of the work, which is: do you believe in equality for everyone?

Can you share any news about HeForShe Arts Week, 2017

Yes. This is an exciting topic. We’re always trying to figure new things out – again, given the agents around this matter, and knowing that if you highlight the timeline, it’s not positive. It’s more in terms of “if we continue business as usual it’s going to take us forever.” You and I will probably never see an equal world. But we can’t wait that long. Arts Week was actually inspired by a very simple idea, New York Restaurant Week. I remember being in New York the first time living here, and seeing that there was this thing called New York Restaurant Week. And I thought, “Well, these people can celebrate food and eating for an entire week. Surely, we should be able to celebrate gender equality for more than just a day, which is March the 8th.”

So we created Arts Week as a way to rally the art community around gender equality. During this week, March 8 to March 15, as we raise awareness of gender equality, we also call on our partners to also fundraise for us. They identify a day where they give a percentage of their proceedings to women, to advance the work on gender equality. And, in addition to New York, we also have about six or seven cities in 2017 including London and Paris.

That’s amazing.

One of our goals is to make sure that we continue to come up with innovative approaches that do some things. We have to take the UN to the people. This is a movement for the people by the people, so we need to find a way that we can be out there with them instead of inviting them to come to the UN. Arts Week enables us to do that, to go into communities, to empower them to come up with their own performances.

This interview was originally published by Ace Hotel.

Mikki Brammer