UNITED NATIONS - Miss Universe 2019 is using her global platform to strive for gender equality, saying she wants to encourage girls and young women to "tap into their power" and use their voice.
"We're really taught to be followers from a very young age men lead and women follow," Zozibini Tunzi told a small group of reporters this week in New York. "I think it's important because we're killing so many dreams of young girls. We're killing so many opinions they have. They could resolve so many issues in the world, but they can't because they're not given their platform."
So she has made it her mission as Miss Universe 2019 to give girls a platform and advance gender equality.
Tunzi, 26, a model from Tsolo in the Eastern Cape of South Africa, was crowned Miss Universe on December 8 in Atlanta, Georgia, defeating nearly 90 other women for the title. New York City will be her base during a year of international travel and appearances promoting her platform.
"You're not taught to be ambitious as a woman. And so when you are, sometimes you shy away from it or you're scared of voicing your opinions," she said. "I think we need to start honing that at a young age to say, 'Don't be scared of your power. You have a voice. Learn to use it, because one day it might change the world.' "
She says promoting her platform is the biggest part of her role and she is excited to take it on.
"I think women should be in women's corner even more, wherever across the world, women need to be in each other's corners. We need each other so much at this time," she said.
Her native South Africa has one of the highest global rates of women being killed by a partner or a relative. One way to start reversing this trend, she says, is to educate children at a young age.
"I like to make an example of how when we're in preschool, you have a young boy who starts having a crush on a little girl. When he beats her, that's what adults usually say, you know? 'Maybe he has a crush on you, that's why he hits you,' " she said. "That is subconsciously really teaching the young men to say that that is how to love, that love is violence, and teaching young girls as well that to be loved means to be violated."
She says if boys are taught to express affection in a positive way, then they are more likely to grow into men who respect women.
'Different types of beauties'
It is also important for developing girls' confidence that they learn to love themselves as they are, Tunzi says. That is the message she hopes she is sending as an African woman who wears her natural hair. There are "different types of beauties," she points out.
And while she hopes to inspire others as Miss Universe, she has been profoundly influenced by two South African icons in her own life's journey: anti-apartheid activist Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and musician Mama Miriam Makeba.
"They both really fought for freedom of the women of South Africa and of the people of South Africa, even though they did it both in different ways," she said.
They and the other women who fought injustice in her country continue to inspire her.
"I've always felt that as a young woman in South Africa, it's my responsibility to make sure that their names never died in vain, and to pick up the baton that they left for us as young women, and to make sure that I give that baton to the next generation so that they, too, can empower the next generation as well," she said.
Source: Voice of America