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.

Bachelet, about to turn 59, acknowledges that she hesitated before accepting the UN appointment, reluctant to leave Chile, where she got her start in politics in the Socialist Youth organization of Salvador Allende’s Popular Unity coalition. She trained in medicine in Chile and in East Germany.

On the sidelines of what was still the Pinochet era, she steadily built her own medical and political career after returning to Chile in 1979. When democracy was restored in 1990, she joined the government health services as an epidemiologist and expert on HIV-AIDS. She then took time to study military strategy at Chile’s National Academy of Strategic and Political Studies and at the American Defense College in Washington, DC, preparing herself for higher offices in a country not used to seeing women wielding responsibility at the top.

Bachelet’s moderate view of the military, despite her family’s tragedies at the hands of the Pinochet regime, is colored by the character of her father, Alberto Bachelet, an air force general. "My father," she said, "was a very open-minded man." He had been appointed by Allende to head a government price and supplies committee and was arrested the day Pinochet took power, charged with "treason against the homeland," according to Michelle Bachelet’s official biography. He died of a heart attack in prison a year later, after suffering torture.

Her mother, Ángela Jeria, an archaeologist, always worked, Bachelet said. "Even though she had a very soft voice, she was a very strong woman, and my father was so happy about that; he was so proud of that." Bachelet and her mother were taken into custody for a short period in 1975 and went into exile after they were released. Her mother still lives in Chile.

"In my family I learned that all people should be equal in opportunities, and that justice was essential, dignity was essential," she said. "So it is in my DNA to believe in peoples’ rights, and to believe we are all different, and that is great because that makes this world more interesting."

Bachelet—she pronounces her name in Spanish style, with a hard T at the end—does not want to dwell on her time in prison. "I had the same situation that many people had in jail, but I don’t speak about it because I believe I was one of many then and nobody had a good experience."

Chileans are resilient people, she said. "We have the capacity of getting up again after very adverse conditions. It’s a wonderful characteristic. My mother used to say we must be very constructive. From the pain—because we did have pain—and the rage—we did have rage—we need to assure that no one else, not only in the family but in a whole generation, will never have that pain again."

Bachelet said she focused her mission in government with that in mind. "I put my energy into ‘let’s generate all the conditions to assure a democratic society’—and I’m not talking only of electing governments," she said. "For me, democracy is much more than elections. Democracy means also democratic culture—to understand that we can be adversaries but not enemies. We can think different and do things different but we are part of the same nation and the same family. That is the thought that has led me all these years."

Then she added, "Of course, it still hurts sometimes, when you get in touch with your memories."

Bachelet recently built a museum for human rights in Santiago, her gift to Chile on its bicentennial of independence this month. She said, "The essential idea is that we cannot change the past, but the future depends on all of us."