A BLOG POST BY THE WOMEN'S FOREIGN POLICY GROUP New York, NY – On April 28, 2011, Michelle Bachelet, Executive Director of UN Women and Under-Secretary-General for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, addressed WFPG on the role her agency plays in the political and economic empowerment of women internationally. The luncheon was held at the United Nations and moderated by WFPG President Patricia Ellis.
Launched on February 24th of this year, UN Women is already working hard to improve life for women worldwide. Bachelet outlined the five main goals of UN Women for the audience: encouraging women's economic empowerment, increasing female political participation and leadership, engaging women in peace and post-conflict processes, involving women in national development planning, and ending violence against women and girls. To help achieve these goals, UN Women will build partnerships with other UN agencies such as UNESCO, UNICEF, and UN HABITAT, as well as international NGOs and locally-based women's organizations.
Bachelet has firsthand experience in encouraging women's political leadership. During her term as President of Chile, Bachelet created gender parity by appointing equal numbers of men and women in her first cabinet and other politically appointed positions. Bachelet believes that gender quotas are an effective means of creating female political participation. She noted that in states with quotas, an average of 34% of the government is comprised of women, as opposed to an average of 12% in states without quotas. She also stressed the importance of women's leadership on a local level.
One of UN Women's aims is to "build the political voice and institutional capacity of women's organizations" because "[o]ne of the most important factors in women's political empowerment is providing spaces for effective engagement with their governments so that they can negotiate for gender equality priorities." In keeping with this goal, UN Women hopes to foster women's political leadership in Tunisia and Egypt. Bachelet talked about the role of women in the recent political uprisings in these countries. While women played a very active role in organizing political demonstrations and engaging social media, for the most part they have been excluded from the political decision-making process during the transition. UN Women will attempt to counteract this by sponsoring a national women's convention in the lead-up to the Egyptian elections in September in order to organize Egyptian women's organizations so that they can "speak with one voice." UN Women is also "advocating for the establishment of an international facility to support women's institutional participation, consisting of on-call experts that can work with local women to facilitate their involvement in all official processes."
Bachelet believes that women's political involvement and economic power are complementary. As she explained: "On the one hand, women are more likely to take on leadership roles if they have some degree of economic autonomy; while on the other hand, greater numbers of women in leadership positions increases their ability to secure policies that advance women's economic empowerment in different sectors." Though progress has been made in this area, women hold only one in five senior management positions globally. One reason mentioned for this disparity is the "economy of care," meaning women are often limited professionally by their duty as caregivers. As President of Chile, Bachelet attempted to reconcile women's private and public lives by creating thousands of daycare centers for low-income children and expanding free healthcare to cover many serious conditions.
Another focus of UN Women is to increase the involvement of women in peacemaking and post-conflict processes. A UN study found that women are vastly under-represented in conflict negotiation teams, since it is suggested that there are not enough women trained in this expertise. In addition, often one or both parties in a conflict veto the choice of a female negotiator. In order to ameliorate this problem, UN Women will be training women in conflict negotiation and encouraging the inclusion of women in peacekeeping teams.
Ending sexual violence is another important priority. Bachelet emphasized that this is a problem faced by women in both the developing and developed world. Though many countries have laws prohibiting sexual violence, they are frequently not enforced. To combat sexual violence, UN Women will be working with UN HABITAT, city planners and officials, and local-level women's organizations to make cities safer for women and enable their access to public life and political participation. Bachelet also believes that it is critical to engage men in the fight for women's empowerment and the end of sexual violence. Men are the primary focus of the UN Secretary-General's Unite against Sexual Violence campaign. Additionally, she feels that it is important to examine negative portrayals of women in the media worldwide.
Bachelet hopes to bring the experience that she gained as President of Chile and as Minister of Defense and work together with male and female colleagues to dispel negative attitudes towards women. As the first female President of Chile and the first female defense minister in the Americas, she was an important symbol of women's empowerment and showed that women have the ability to manage national security issues. In these positions, Bachelet used her power to improve the conditions of women in the military and the police forces, and to dramatically increase women's political participation in her country. Now as the Executive Director of UN Women, Bachelet is working to empower women worldwide both politically and economically.