Former President Bachelet Emphasizes Key Role of Women in Post-Disaster Reconstruction

AStephenie-Foster POST BY STEPHENIE FOSTER On Monday, June 7, Her Excellency Michelle Bachelet, former President of Chile (2006-2010) addressed a packed room in downtown Washington, DC, at an event co-sponsored by the Aspen Institute Council of Women World Leaders and the Bertelsmann Foundation, and moderated by Dr. Julia Sweig of the (U.S.) Council on Foreign Relations.  President Bachelet was on her way home to Chile after also addressing the Women Deliver Conference 2010, a global event dedicated to cross-cutting solutions to improve women’s health, particularly maternal health.

Bachelet is a moderate socialist who was the first woman president of Chile.  She is a pediatrician and epidemiologist by training and also studied military strategy.  Bachelet served as Health Minister and Defense Minister under President Ricardo Lagos; in fact, she was the first woman Minister of Defense in the Americas.  She is a separated mother of three and describes herself as an agnostic.

At the Monday forum, President Bachelet spoke frankly about a wide range of topics, often highlighting her own personal experience affected the policy solutions she pursued as President.  For example, she highlighted how her own experience as a single parent gave her insights into the need for child care and pre-K programs in helping women obtain and keep jobs in the formal sector.  Her professional background as a pediatrician was evident as she discussed the impact of disasters, such as earthquakes, on children and families.  She also emphasized that, during her presidency, she used her political capital to help women and children in Chile.

A discussion of post-earthquake reconstruction in Chile as well as lessons learned for reconstruction in Haiti dominated her remarks, as well as the questions that followed.  The Chilean earthquake affected six regions across the country, and occurred 11 days before the end of her Presidency.  She emphasized the need to use the crisis created by the earthquake to rebuild an economy that is even stronger than the pre-earthquake economy, and to address the psycho-social dimensions of the crisis.

Bachelet outlined three keys to success post-reconstruction: (1) strong public institutions, (2) vibrant public participation and (3) resilience and confidence.  When Bachelet recently traveled to Haiti after that nation’s devastating earthquake, she met with women’s organizations which are vitally important and relevant to reconstruction, and noted that women and men often voted for women to be the leaders of their post-quake organizations and encampments.  She did, however note that these important women’s organizations are not funded by the international community at the right level.

Finally, Bachelet spoke favorably of the emerging UN women’s “superstructure” but also emphasized two central questions that need to be answered (1) what the role of that structure will actually be at the UN and globally and (2) how it is to be funded at the most appropriate and highest levels.

It was an energizing and thought-provoking conversation, and only emphasized Bachelet’s impressive accomplishments and vision.

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