Skip to main content Skip to navigation

Bience Gawanas

LLB Law, 1986

'I love being a woman and being myself and never wanted to be a man or act like a man. So be proud of who you are and always show the side of you that says no matter what I will, and I can. Do not give up on yourself because you are all you have.'

Special Adviser on Africa, United Nations

Tell us about your journey to working for the United Nations?

My relationship with the UN started while growing up under a system of apartheid in Namibia – a system that was ruled a crime against humanity. I became actively involved in the struggle for Namibia’s liberation at a young age. The link between Namibia and the UN is evident. It took direct responsibility of the country when South Africa’s occupation was declared illegal and the United Nations Council for Namibia was set up to administer the country until it achieved independence in 1990.

I left Namibia in 1977 and went into exile. During that time, I lived and taught in SWAPO refugee camps (South West African People's Organisation) in Zambia and Angola. Between 1979 and 1981, I lived in Cuba and taught Namibian exiled children in schools there. Subsequently, I had the chance to study at the University of Warwick and obtained my LLB honours. I enrolled at the School of Legal Education and got my Utter Barrister and did pupillage at Wellington Street Chambers.

I returned home as part of the UN repatriation process and took part in Namibia’s first election, which led to its independence on 21 March 1990. Since then, I've worked at a Human Rights NGO and joined government in 1991, serving in various official capacities as a Public Service Commissioner, Ombudswoman, Special Adviser to the Minister of Health and Minister of Poverty Eradication. I also engaged in part-time work as a lecturer in gender law, law reform, and as a member of the Board of the Central Bank amongst others.

I became the Commissioner for Social Affairs at the African Union Commission in Addis Ababa in 2003. I was one of the first five women elected to the Commission and served for a total of nine years.

Somehow, I feel that working at the UN is like having completed a circle: from the liberation struggle to my service at a national, continental and now global level. From growing up as a young black girl in Apartheid Namibia to being the Under Secretary-General and Special Adviser on Africa to the UN Secretary-General. Every day when I walk through the corridors, I am reminded of the days when Namibians were lobbying UN Member States to support our freedom. I felt the same when I worked at the African Union which also supported our liberation.

Could you tell us about what you do?

The Office of the Special Adviser on Africa (OSAA) is the only office with a clear African mandate within the UN Secretariat. It was established in 2003 to generate support for Africa’s development and peace; to build synergies across the UN system in support of Africa’s priorities. It promotes the African voice through positive narratives and by fostering an understanding of the region’s experiences of peace and development.

In my work, I engage with member states, the Africa Group, international partners and civil society organisations. Every year we organise the Africa Dialogues Series to provide a platform for debate, interaction, and the sharing of experiences. It is my hope that we can also have a Forum for African and Diaspora Scholars to share research on emerging issues on the continent.

I am interested in providing a more active and prominent role for the youth and will continue to promote inter-generational dialogues to hear the perspectives of young people and their elders.

The African Union remains an important partner of the UN, and my nine years of experience of working at the African Union have been very helpful in further strengthening the partnership between the two organisations. One key concern is enhancing UN support for Africa in a more coherent and coordinated way.

What do you love about working at the UN?

Working at the UN reminds me of the struggle for our independence, when our leaders and supporters of the liberation struggle walked the corridors of the UN to lobby for support for Namibia.

I feel very honoured and privileged to work for the UN. I believe in multilateralism and view the UN as a primary global organisation with a convening power that brings together 193 countries to debate, agree and disagree on various issues. Multilateralism is more important now than ever because of the increasingly divided world. Whilst the UN started its focus on peace and security, today there is a greater recognition of the link between peace and development. Hence the UN is very much involved in development and humanitarian work.

Today we have the Sustainable Development Goals and AU 2063 agenda. Both crafted with the express intention to serve humanity so that people can live in dignity.

What is the biggest challenge you think women face today?

When I grew up, there were fewer black women role models and few opportunities for girls. We were brought up to go into roles that are considered traditionally female.

Today there are role models in various professions and at all levels and the choices are therefore wider. However, the challenge remains access to opportunities, and the still pervasive discrimination and violence against women. We continue to fight for gender equality and social inclusion. It is not enough for women to just get a job, it all depends on the level of that job and whether it is high paying, safe and secure.

Another challenge, especially to those from poor backgrounds, is the lack of power girls and young women have on deciding whether or when to become pregnant. This leads to unwanted pregnancies, teenage pregnancies and girls dropping out of school. We have women dying while giving life. There is a need for greater access to sexual and reproductive health and rights for men and women, boys and girls.

What does International Women’s Day mean to you?

IWD means first and foremost that as women we must reaffirm ourselves as being strong, capable, caring and equal human beings.

We must commit ourselves to work towards a better and humane world in which women matter.

We commit to greater solidarity amongst us as women and promote generational equality.

We must keep the ladder which allowed us to climb in place so that other women can also climb up and join us.

What advice would you give to female students and alumnae?

I never gave up when I was advised at age 17 that my intelligence as a black child/girl was much lower than that of a white child and that I would not be able to study the law. I persevered and proved them wrong. I am now a qualified lawyer, and the first black woman to be admitted as an Advocate of the Namibian High Court. If I am not mistaken, I was the first black Namibian woman and refugee to grace the halls of Lincoln’s Inn, wearing the black gown and sitting down for the mandated dinners.

I love being a woman, being myself and never wanted to be a man or act like a man. So be proud of who you are and always show the side of you that says no matter what I will, and I can. Do not give up on yourself because you are all you have.

I also think it is important for girls and women to be empowered not to accept what is happening to them, but to challenge and confront those who perpetuate inequalities - even within family settings.

Is there a woman you look to for inspiration?

A woman who gives birth to 11 children and helps to feed, clothe and educate them should inspire everyone. That woman is my mum. She could drive when many women could not and change the tyre of a car. As I grew up, I realised there was nothing that my mum could not do and therefore I was not confined to so-called women's roles. My mum was a domestic worker; she never gave up on all her 11 children. Together with my dad they ensured that we were taken good care of and she remains my foremost inspiration.