I will always remember the first time I met the girl in the blue uniform. I was eight at the time, living in the village with my grandmother, who was raising me and other children. Famine had hit my country of Zimbabwe, and we just didn't have enough to eat. We were hungry. And that's when the girl in the blue uniform came to my village with the United Nations to feed the children.
As she handed me my porridge, I asked her why she was there, and without hesitation, she said, "As Africans, we must uplift all the people of Africa." I had absolutely no idea what she meant.
But her words stuck with me.
Two years later, famine hit my country for the second time. My grandmother had no choice but to send me to the city to live with an aunt I had never met before. So at the age of 10, I found myself in school for the very first time. And there, at the city school, I would experience what it was to be unequal. You see, in the village, we were all equal. But in the eyes and the minds of the other kids, I was not their equal. I couldn't speak English, and I was way behind in terms of reading and writing. But this feeling of inequality would get even more complex. Every school holiday spent back in the village with my grandmother made me consciously aware of the inequalities this incredible opportunity had created within my own family. Suddenly, I had much more than the rest of my village. And in their eyes, I was no longer their equal.
I felt guilty. But I thought about the girl in the blue uniform, and I remember thinking, "That's who I want to be — someone like her, someone who uplifts other people." This childhood experience led me to the United Nations, and to my current role with UN Women, where we are addressing one of the greatest inequalities that affects more than half of the world's population — women and girls.
Today, I want to share with you a simple idea that seeks to uplift all of us together. Eight months ago, under the visionary leadership of Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, head of UN Women, we launched a groundbreaking initiative called HeForShe, inviting men and boys from around the world to stand in solidarity with each other and with women, to create a shared vision for gender equality. This is an invitation for those who believe in equality for women and men, and those who don't yet know that they believe.
The initiative is based on a simple idea: that what we share is much more powerful than what divides us. We all feel the same things. We all want the same things, even when those things sometimes remain unspoken. HeForShe is about uplifting all of us, women and men together. It's moving us towards an inflection point for gender equality.
Imagine a blank page with one horizontal line splitting it in half. Now imagine that women are represented here, and men are represented here. In our current population, HeForShe is about moving the 3.2 billion men, one man at a time, across that line, so that ultimately, men can stand alongside women and be on the right side of history, making gender equality a reality in the 21st century.
However, engaging men in the movement would prove quite controversial. Why invite men? They are the problem.
In fact, men don't care, we were told.
But something incredible happened when we launched HeForShe. In just three days, more than 100,000 men had signed up and committed to be agents of change for equality. Within that first week, at least one man in every single country in the world stood up to be counted, and within that same week, HeForShe created more than 1.2 billion conversations on social media. And that's when the emails started pouring in, sometimes as many as a thousand a day. We heard from a man out of Zimbabwe, who, after hearing about HeForShe, created a "husband school."
He literally went around his village, hand-picking all of the men that were abusive to their partners, and committed to turn them into better husbands and fathers. In Pune, India, a youth advocate organized an innovative bicycle rally, mobilizing 700 cyclists to share the HeForShe messages within their own community.
In another impact story, a man sent a very personal note of something that had happened in his own community. He wrote, "Dear Madam, I have lived all of my life next door to a man who continuously beats up his wife. Two weeks ago, I was listening to my radio, and your voice came on, and you spoke about something called the HeForShe, and the need for men to play their role. Within a few hours, I heard the woman cry again next door, but for the first time, I didn't just sit there. I felt compelled to do something, so I went over and I confronted the husband. Madam, it has been two weeks, and the woman has not cried since. Thank you for giving me a voice."
Personal impact stories such as these show that we are tapping into something within men, but getting to a world where women and men are equal is not just a matter of bringing men to the cause. We want concrete, systematic, structural change that can equalize the political, economic and social realities for women and men. We are asking men to make concrete actions, calling them to intervene at a personal level, to change their behavior. We are calling upon governments, businesses, universities, to change their policies. We want male leaders to become role models and change agents within their own institutions.
Already, a number of prominent men and leaders have stepped up and made some concrete HeForShe commitments. In a few early success stories, a leading French hospitality company, Accor, has committed to eliminate the pay gap for all of its 180,000 employees by 2020.
The government of Sweden, under its current feminist government, has committed to close both the employment and the pay gap for all of its citizens within the current electoral term. In Japan, the University of Nagoya is building, as part of their HeForShe commitments, what will become one of Japan's leading gender-research centers.
Now, eight months later, a movement is building. We are seeing men sign up from every single walk of life, and from every single corner in the world, from the United Nations' own Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to the Secretary-Generals of NATO and the EU Council, from the prime minister of Bhutan to the president of Sierra Leone.
In Europe alone, all the male EU Commissioners and the members of Parliament of the Swedish and Iceland governments have signed up to be HeForShe. In fact, one in 20 men in Iceland has joined the movement. The rallying call of our passionate goodwill ambassador, Emma Watson, has garnered more than five billion media impressions, mobilizing hundreds and thousands of students around the world to create more than a hundred HeForShe student associations.
Now this is the beginning of the vision that HeForShe has for the world that we want to see. Einstein once said, "A human being is part of the whole ... but he experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separate from the rest ... This delusion is a kind of prison for us ... Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion."
If women and men are part of a greater whole, as Einstein suggests, it is my hope that HeForShe can help free us to realize that it is not our gender that defines us, but ultimately, our shared humanity. HeForShe is tapping into women's and men's dreams, the dreams that we have for ourselves, and the dreams that we have for our families, our children, friends, communities.
So that's what it is about. HeForShe is about uplifting all of us together.