The choice of Michelle Bachelet, the former president of Chile, to develop and then head a new and potentially powerful United Nations agency for women may well be the most important and smartest appointment Ban Ki-moon makes in his tenure as UN secretary-general.
A socialist, a single mother in a conservative Catholic country and a survivor of imprisonment, torture and exile under the Augusto Pinochet regime, which killed her father, Bachelet can understand the difficult lives of many women around the world whose rights she will now promote and defend.
Apart from her personal history, Bachelet, now a UN under-secretary-general, brings a unique set of professional qualifications to the job. Reproductive health and rights, domestic violence and the abuse of women in conflict areas will be topics on her agenda in the new agency, which was blandly named UN Women after a long battle over its creation in the General Assembly. The agency will begin functioning in January, combining four under-funded and under-powered existing offices and programs for women.
Bachelet is a physician and surgeon as well as a military specialist, having served as the country’s health minister and then defense minister—the first woman in Latin America to hold the latter job—before her election to the presidency in 2006. Chilean presidents cannot have successive terms; her term ended in March of this year and it will be four years before she can run again.
Not all members of the UN were happy with the choice of a Chilean. Africans had campaigned hard for the job; there were African contenders in the final short list. Chile, now a member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the OECD, is a middle-income country with a strong market economy and good relations with the United States and other industrial countries. Poorer nations of the global South were looking for a different profile at the top of UN Women.
Bachelet does not see this is an issue, she said in an interview. Her nomination was, in the end, broadly welcomed, she said. The problems women face, and the hopes they have, are universal. They want security, equality and dignity, and protection against persistent vulnerabilities. Echoing demands from developing nations for greater attention to economic and social rights, Bachelet said that human rights must encompass gender and also health, education, culture and even sports. It a government’s responsibility to provide what she calls "permanent social protections."
"The state cannot be neutral," she said, in English, one several languages she speaks. "We need to develop a focus—not only against poverty." While diminishing poverty—which in so many places has a woman’s face—it is also important to reduce inherent social weaknesses, she added. "The market has an important place," and the private sector has a role to play, she said. "But the state has to guarantee peoples’ rights, especially for the most vulnerable and the people who are living in the most difficult situations."
"As Americans have seen, you can never expect when a crisis comes, and then you can become poor [if] you don’t have the social network or the insurance that can help you cope," she said. During her presidency in Chile, she introduced child protection and improved unemployment benefits, among other policies. Divorce was legalized and Bachelet backed women’s rights to contraception and greater reproductive rights generally—although it proved impossible to overturn a Pinochet-era ban on abortion for any reason.