UN Women: Words from Michelle Bachelet, the Leader of a New Global Agency for Women

In July 2010, the United Nations established the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, known as UN Women. UN Women brings together the four former entities working on gender equality and women’s empowerment and will have greater clout to promote these issues. It became operational on January 1, 2011.

Michelle Bachelet, the former Chilean president, leads the agency.

How will this new entity better leverage all existing resources to benefit women? How will UN Women vault the cause of women’s equality and empowerment above its current position?

First of all, the establishment of UN Women is historic. This is an opportunity to accelerate the United Nations’ ability to help countries in their efforts to achieve gender equality. It will be a dynamic entity and a strong advocate for women and girls at the global, regional, and national levels. UN Women is unique in that it will support the work of member states in their development of global policy on gender equality and will also engage directly in country-level activities to facilitate implementation of such policies. Finally, UN Women will coordinate work on gender equality across the UN system to ensure better coherence and reduce duplication and fragmentation. In the past, there were efforts to coordinate the work on gender equality, but these efforts lacked authority and presence on the ground. The creation of UN Women will give us more political weight.

Why do we need an organization like UN Women? Why does women’s participation matter?

I believe that women all over the world are very powerful agents of development, agents of change, peace-builders, and peacekeepers. They are also essential—women are so essential because they have good ideas and proposals and they are hard workers in their communities. When they are given money, they tend to invest it in the children and the families. And I really believe that women have a perspective that can be a positive force, a perspective that they bring to the conversation and to activities in an inclusive way to produce useful and comprehensive outcomes. Half of humanity consists of women, and they suffer the worst in conflict situations, for example. Yet when global policies are made, they are not gender based, so they don’t effectively address these problems.

Women really matter. Also, when women are in decision-making positions, at national or local levels or in the UN system, they consider women’s concerns and situations more frequently. In the conflict countries, everyone suffers, but women suffer in different ways. So when you think of solving a conflict, you must take into consideration what happens to women or the discussion will not be comprehensive—it will be like a three-legged chair.

What government strategies have been found to effectively improve women’s conditions? What successful solutions are out there already?

What is successful is to empower women. It’s very difficult otherwise to have progress in other areas. You need that. We will make the social, economic, and political case that demonstrates why women matter. We are developing women’s national capacities in different areas. Two areas that have been very important are developing women’s economic security and autonomy and building more of their capacities in the political sphere. We provide women support to become leaders and give those already in power better tools so they can perform in a more effective way. Even here in the United States, women hold only 16 percent of seats in Congress. It is well known that in order to really bring about change, you need 30 percent. Globally, women hold an average of 19 percent of political positions, so we are still far from what is desirable.

In most international reports, Muslim-majority nations rank poorly in terms of rights given to women. Will you pursue any specific strategies for improving women’s conditions in this area?

We have a mandate that is global. We are not just in developed countries. We will work with women from every region in the world, and they all have different challenges. We will work with Asian and Arab world countries, and I am meeting with the League of Arab States soon. Every region has different traditions and cultures that have to be respected, but, in the meantime, we can work on progress. One of our approaches when we work with community-based women’s organizations and with religious leaders is to ask, are there doctrines or principles that are, in fact, in line with these practices that harm women? In some cases, religious leaders say there is nothing in the religion that supports these practices and they have been supportive of stopping them.

We will work with developing nations to provide technical support, but often that is not enough. We have to work within cultural practices and with the communities, women, religious leaders, and traditional leaders to make a change.

When I lived in Chile in 1996, it was a very conservative country for women. So much has changed since then. During your time as health and defense minister, and then as president, what was your signature accomplishment for women?

First of all, globally, having a woman president for the first time in Chile and being the region’s first female minister of defense were important. It is essential for women to have role models in high positions. It strengthened the self-esteem of women and encouraged them to believe dreams could be accomplished. Women have said to me, “I can die now because I know that my daughter has a better future.” Secondly, being a woman, I could see that social protections were so important for women and the elderly. So we introduced some reforms for them in social security. For example, I gave pensions for housewives to collect when they reached 65 years old, so they did not need to depend on their husbands for everything. Also, for women in the labor force, we understood there was an economy in care. When a child is ill, or you have one parent or elderly person who is ill, or someone has a disability in the family, it is the woman who does not go to work but stays at home and takes care of everyone. It is crucial to keep advancing, but I felt it was critical to develop strong social security reform. I strengthened policies to protect women and developed a network of nurseries and kindergartens and elevated the care of the children, so they will also have better educational opportunities and food. We also presented a lot of laws and bills to Parliament requiring equal salaries for women and men, and made laws regarding the situation of children after divorce, and gave rights to women.

On the symbolic issue, when I had to define my cabinet, I had parity in my cabinet and throughout the government. You could see powerful, clever women as heads of agencies and it showed that women are capable and efficient and not only nice and sympathetic. So we made very concrete changes and we also changed the culture. As my friend said to me recently, if you have a boardroom discussing a new person and that person is a woman, no man would say, “Well, she’s not capable enough because she’s a woman.” That’s a huge change in Chile.