There are a lot of things it’s hard to do by yourself. Play tennis, for example. Or ride a tandem bike. Or end gender inequality. “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go strong, go together,” says Executive Director of UN Women and head of HeForShe Initiative Elizabeth Nyamayaro.
The HeForShe Initiative, launched in 2014, is a gender equality campaign that hopes to get everyone working together to end gender inequality. Last month, Nyamayaro came to Hong Kong to present the first-ever Ideathon on gender equality at the University of Hong Kong.
Three years ago, Nyamayaro joined UN Women, and it was during her first meeting with her boss, a former freedom fighter in South Africa who helped end apartheid, that they both realised that something was missing from the campaign – partnerships.
The first partnership involved Nyamayaro bringing actress Emma Watson on board as a spokeswoman for the campaign. But partnerships mean more than just celebrity ambassadors. Gender inequality is an issue that affects all of us, and that means all of us need to address the issue.
For a long time, gender equality has been thought of as an issue led by women for women, and there have always been difficulties getting men involved. The word “feminism” has caused controversy over the years, and has often been misinterpreted as “hate for men”.
But “gender inequality impacts both men and women, and in fact all genders for that matter,” says Nyamayaro. “You can’t solve societal issues with only half of society,” she insists. “What we’re trying to do with HeForShe is to really make it a solidarity movement.”
Having grown up in Zimbabwe, where women did most of the work but men made most of the decisions, Nyamayaro knows there is a perception that gender equality is something only women would want or benefit from. But it’s in men’s interests to implement change, too.
“All of what I’m doing was really inspired by my own upbringing; recognising this wasn’t a man versus woman issue; that not every man is a bad man. Not only is there the economic imperative of ‘when women benefit, society benefits’ but we also know that when women benefit, so do men. We cannot solve any of these problems until we address the fundamental equality of men and women.”
Nyamayaro knows she has work to do.
“If UN Women was going to end gender inequality, we had to speak to the men and we needed to get the men to be part of the solution,” she says.
“It’s going to require all of us to address the issue, so we as UN Women need to understand even though we are a global entity, we can’t do this alone; hence building partnerships is an important part of my job.”
As a Hong Kong student, you might think that tackling gender inequality is a distant problem that doesn’t concern you, but that’s not true, says Nyamayaro.“It’s important to realise that neither the UN nor I have all the solutions, but you do; and to realise that you are part of the solution as well,” she insists. “Sometimes it’s not always looking at what [people in authority] can do for you. We don’t need [governments] to tell us about this; we can see that it’s impacting us.”
Nyamayaro holds a noble goal for the future of humanity: to end gender inequality for good.
“When you look back at history, in the 19th century, one of the key moments was when slavery was an issue and we all came together and made the situation better; in the 20th century, when it was the apartheid in South Africa, we made it better; in the 21st century we started a very important journey for gay rights, and progress is being made in the United States in terms of same-sex marriage,” she says.
“I’m hoping that the next defining moment is going to be in the 21st century when we all came together and ended gender inequality.”