Interview with Michelle Bachelet, Executive Director of UN Women

UN Women's Executive Director, Michelle Bachelet. Photo: UN Women

3 December 2012 – Michelle Bachelet is the first Executive Director of the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women – also known as UN Women.

The agency was established in July 2010 to accelerate progress on meeting their needs worldwide. It merges and builds on the important work of four previously distinct parts of the UN system that focused exclusively on gender equality and women’s empowerment.

Under the leadership of Ms. Bachelet, a former President of Chile, UN Women works for, among other issues, the elimination of discrimination against women and girls; empowerment of women; and achievement of equality between women and men as partners and beneficiaries of development, human rights, humanitarian action and peace and security.

The UN News Centre spoke with Ms. Bachelet amidst a 16-day programme of activities marking the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, which is observed on 25 November. She called on world leaders to make new commitments and take strong national action to protect women and girls from one of the most widespread violations of human rights.

UN News Centre: What are the main challenges you have encountered as a new agency in the UN system?

Michelle Bachelet: UN Women was created due to the acknowledgement that gender equality and women’s empowerment was still, despite progress, far from what it should be. Transforming political will and decisions, such as the Member States creating UN Women, into concrete steps towards gender equality and women’s empowerment, I think is one of the main challenges.

Of course, it meant putting together four organizations, but that’s more of an administrative challenge. We are like a child who staWomen, participating actively, will help find the best solutions for the challenges that the world is facing today, from the economic recovery to the food crisis, to the energy crisis, to climate change.rted walking, but now we need to start running and start delivering much better. I think the main challenge is to transform political will, reflected in good outcome documents, into reality. How we ensure that everyone – at the government level, at parliament level, in civil society, and also in the UN system – do more and better for women and girls in the world, to ensure that gender equality and women’s empowerment becomes a reality.

UN News Centre: How has your own life experiences helped to prepare you for your current role?

Michelle Bachelet: First of all, being a woman is the principal issue. I’m not saying that a man could not be an Executive Director of UN Women. What I mean is that I have lived, in my own reality, what it meant to be a girl, even though I was raised in a family where gender equality was a reality. My father respected and admired my mother and was a person who was always standing by my side, encouraging me to do more and believed in my capacity. So in that sense, my own experience was very good in becoming an empowered woman. From early on, I carried that strong message: ‘You can do it.’ So I never had any doubt that women can do a lot. I was not born in a home where there were stereotypes. So that was very useful because it gave me the sense of possibilities, of flying, if I may say, of making my hopes and dreams a reality.

But it was a society that was much less advanced in this regard, where stereotypes and prejudices were a reality in the daily lives of women and girls. So I did have to face discrimination. I also had to face all the issues of being a caregiver in my home, being a professional but also having children, and being the head of my family. This enabled me to have a personal experience of the real situation that many women have to confront every day.

Ms. Bachelet attends a gram sabha meeting with elected women representatives during a visit to India in October 2012. Photo: UN Women/Gaganjit Singh Chandok

During my lifetime, I realized that discrimination was not accidental, that there were structural roots and causes to it. So if we wanted to change women’s lives, we need to deal with those root causes. Afterwards, being a minister and then a president of a republic gave me the chance to make a reality of what I thought was needed through different policies, programmes and budget allocations for the essential issues that women needed. So I would say that my personal experience as a woman in a country where there were prejudices and stereotypes, of being a woman in a position of power that enabled me to make decisions to fight against gender inequality and support women’s empowerment, have given me, on the one hand, the personal experience, but on the other hand, the practical experience of being in power to know what works, what can be done and how no one will do it alone. But building alliances and partnerships with others, we can continue progress.

The other thing that has helped me in my current position is having been in a political position helps me to try to think with the head of the one who makes decisions. I think that’s essential. We need to work on [creating] an environment in which women’s rights are human rights, and that women deserve to be treated respectfully, with dignity and also understanding that, in today’s world, we just cannot afford to lose the potential of the half of humanity that are women and girls. Being in politics, you understand how people who make decisions, in politics or in big companies, are pushed by many different interests… It’s helpful having been there because you understand the problems, but you also try to think of better strategies and better ways to pass on the word.

UN News Centre: The role of women in society varies from country to country, depending on the cultural context. How do you tackle gender inequality in regions of the world where there may be extremism?

Michelle Bachelet: When the UN was created, it was created by a Charter that was approved by all Member States of the UN, that every human being – irrespective of their biological, social, economical, political or cultural circumstances – is entitled to equal rights and to reaching his or her full potential.

I think this belief must be the one that guides us. If we think about CEDAW – that’s the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women – it has been ratified by 187 Member States and it also acknowledges and recognizes women’s rights. Member States who have ratified this should eliminate all kinds of laws, practices as well as attitudes that discriminate against women.

Ms. Bachelet and Bolivian President Evo Morales receive their team t-shirts ahead of a football held as part of the UNiTE to End Violence against Women campaign. Photo: UN Women/Catianne Tijerina

We’re not starting from zero here when we’re talking about women’s rights… we have an international framework approved by a huge majority of countries and those countries are obligated to fulfil those commitments. So governments know what they have agreed to and what they are obligated to do.

But there are countries where women are facing problems because they have to deal with fundamentalist groups or extremist groups. A terrible example is what happened to the young Pakistani girl, 15-year-old Malala, who was shot because she had been defending the right of girls to education. And nobody – no girl, no woman – should be shot, risk her life or her health because of standing up for women’s rights.

So we know we have to deal with this, and that means that we need to continue working with all our partners. And we recognize governments, parliaments, civil society, the private sector, human rights and women’s grassroots organizations as partners… but we also need to work with leaders in the community, religious leaders… work with them and together make it clear that there’s nothing, no culture, and no religion that can support harming women and girls.

It has worked in the past. There are some places where, even though it’s outlawed, FGM – female genital mutilation – continues to be a practice. Everybody knows it’s against the law, but people are still doing it. This is because it’s a social norm. So legislation is very important but it’s not enough. We have been working with community leaders, with women and mothers, and trying to see how they can change this social norm – of cutting a girl when she becomes a woman – to another more constructive, positive and non-harmful norm for girls and women in the future.

Ms. Bachelet tours Carradeux in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in October 2012. Photo: UN Women

There are also inequalities in terms of land access for women in some places, in terms of property rights. We have worked with religious leaders, looking at their religious texts and agreeing with them that women shouldn’t be deprived of the possibility of having the right to land. And they have helped in the discussions in parliament. For example, in Kyrgyzstan, a law was approved and women can now receive and are entitled to property rights.

UN News Centre: You are an advocate for having quotas for women in governments. How have countries responded to this?

Michelle Bachelet: We have had some interesting progress, but still not enough. The Beijing Platform for Action [adopted at the Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995] defined a threshold, stating that for parliament to really reflect everyone’s needs and concerns in a country, it needs to have at least 30 per cent or more female representation.

Today we have 33 countries, up from 27 last year. Of those, only five did not need special transitional measures, such as quotas. There can be other measures, such as parity laws. One interesting example is Senegal, which has a law on parity which it adopted in May 2010 that has helped to promote female participation. In the last election in 2012, it allowed them to achieve 44.6 per cent female representation. You have other countries, like Rwanda, where it’s 56 per cent, or South Africa, where it’s 44 per cent.

In other places what we have seen is a difference between countries that have chosen to include some special transitional measures, such as Libya or Tunisia. In both countries, they have had elections – democratic, fair, transparent and free – some of them for the first time in their lives. In Libya, they have 16 per cent, in Tunisia 26 per cent. So this is significant progress.

On the other hand, in Egypt, they used to have a quota of 10 per cent. That has been eliminated and as a result there are fewer than two per cent women in parliament. It’s not only about quotas; special transitional measures are also needed. But the most important thing to do is analyze whether the electoral system as a whole can facilitate or be an obstacle to getting women elected.

Ms. Bachelet visits a textile production and trade centre in Gamarra in Lima, Peru, in October 2012 along with Peruvian First Lady Nadine Heredia. Photo: UN Women/Anibal Solimano

Certain kinds of electoral systems are better to facilitate representation of women than others, and of course, the inclusion of some special transitional measures, such as quotas, has shown that they can make a real difference. And why is this important? It’s important because women in decision-making positions will make a difference… it will be a better democracy and I think that women can improve the quality of politics too.

UN News Centre: You have travelled all over the world talking to women in cities, in rural areas, what do you think is one challenge that women face regardless of where they live?

Michelle Bachelet: One universal challenge is inequalities. You will have inequalities in salaries everywhere, even in the developed world. You have inequalities in terms of land rights, inheritance, of getting into powerful positions in politics, in the corporate world. In addition to the glass ceiling, let’s not forget invisible bias, the so-called ‘leaking pipeline’ – that it’s not only when you go to the top that you have problems, it’s right through your career. These inequalities include access to health, education, participation. Of the 700 million illiterate people in the world, two-thirds are women; almost 70 per cent of the world’s poor are women and children.

Michelle Bachelet's video message to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. Credit: UN Women

Another challenge is violence against women. You can go to the most developed countries, you will find violence there. And of course in the developing world, you can find gender-based violence in many forms, not only domestic violence, but also forced early marriage for children, early forced pregnancy, honour crimes, FGM, human trafficking, rape and so on. And in conflict and even post-conflict countries, gender-based violence is, unfortunately, a common phenomenon.

It’s complicated because even when peace is agreed and settled, violence against women doesn’t end. So violence against women is a priority; this year, as in others, the campaign starts on 25 November and activities are organized worldwide through 10 December [This year countries will be presenting their commitments towards progressing in the battle against violence against women.]

UN News Centre: What can men do to work towards gender equality?

Michelle Bachelet: I think that men’s commitment is essential. It’s not just a problem for women – women’s rights. It’s not women talking to women. It’s about everyone being committed to advancing a world that’s better for all, for women and girls and for men and boys. A world where everyone can achieve their potential is the best world for everyone.

We should have on board a lot of men really doing advocacy, spreading the word… at the government level, in parliament, in the private sector, but also average citizens… a person who raises a child and doesn’t make a difference between his little girl and his little boy. At school, teachers can do a lot, men and women, in terms of teaching and also supporting the learning of people’s rights, women’s and men’s rights.

World leaders join Ms. Bachelet to sign a ‘Call to Action: The Future Women Want’ in June 2012 at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Photo: UN Women/Fabricio Barreto

On a daily basis, it does not have to be very sophisticated. You don’t need to be the Secretary-General of the UN to do advocacy. And we have a great champion in the Secretary-General… but you can also do it in your home. The equal way you treat your children, the way you try to give equal opportunities to your daughters and to your sons. I think all of us can do so much.

On the other hand, because of the importance of role models, we also need more men on board telling the world how important gender equality is… So we can ensure that men and women are convinced that gender equality is essential, not only because it is the right thing to do but it’s also the smart thing to do.

UN News Centre: What do you expect to be the main focus of UN Women in the next couple of years?

Michelle Bachelet: We will continue to work with all our colleagues in the UN system, because we think the UN has to lead by example. So we are making common cause inside the UN system but also through all the programmes, projects and initiatives and strategies that we take on. That includes trying to have more women in peacekeeping, more women in the reform of the security sector, more women targeted through economic empowerment in development projects, more women in the agricultural sphere.

We will also continue working on our priority areas in terms of empowering women. I believe that women are empowered but sometimes they don’t have the tools to really be able to achieve what they want to achieve. If we want to make progress on gender equality, we have to make progress on women’s empowerment. That’s why we have focused a lot on how women have to become forceful constituencies… Especially where women did not have a strong political presence and political participation in the past, they need to learn to create networks, to build capacity.

We are doing this by networking, by supporting women candidates or women elected to office at different levels, and also by endorsing governments’ and parliaments’ efforts to make systems more accessible for women. Political participation and empowerment are very important. Because if you have women decision-making positions, you will have de facto progress towards gender equality and women’s empowerment.

During a visit to Morocco, Ms. Bachelet meets with rural women of the Soulalyates ethnic group who have been striving for inheritance and property rights. Photo: UN Women/Karim Selmaoui

The second issue is: if you are dependent on somebody else in economic terms, it’s difficult sometimes to be independent in terms of having the possibility of making your own decisions and choices. So economic empowerment is very important for us. Not only to give women the right to choose but also because we know that when a woman has  independent income, it’s not only her who benefits but also the whole family and the community; because women usually set aside 90 per cent of their incomes to health, education, food security and so on. And when a woman is a small entrepreneur, she will generate employment for other people, and then a community ends up benefitting.

Of course violence is a huge issue that we’ll continue working on because it’s so essential and, unfortunately, the most pervasive violation of human rights worldwide. Also, the women, peace and security agenda is our particular responsibility. We will be continuing advocacy for many other issues – on health, education, migration, labour conditions, and on HIV/AIDS…

We will continue to try to put women’s human rights and women’s empowerment on the agenda at the highest level because we do believe that women, participating actively, will help find the best solutions for the challenges that the world is facing today, from the economic recovery to the food crisis, to the energy crisis, to climate change.