UN Women: Bachelet says ending pandemic violence against women is priority

Publication Date: 
May 15, 2011
Today's Zaman
Michelle Bachelet

UN Women's Executive Director Michelle Bachelet, who was formerly Chile's president, has told Today's Zaman for Monday Talk that ending pandemic violence against women is one the top priorities of the United Nations, which created UN Women in September of last year.

“It is pandemic all over the world; it is not only in the less developed countries. We have to ensure that women can live free of violence,” said Bachelet, who was appointed the first head of UN Women by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Sept. 14, 2010, and took office on Sept.19.

She added that empowerment of women will be of the utmost importance and this will involve increasing women's economic power, having more women in top positions in companies, and, overall, seeing the leadership and participation of women at all levels of society. Before rising to the top of UN Women, Bachelet had a history of women's advocacy in Chile, where after being declared president she formed a cabinet of ministers composed of an equal number of men and women, as promised during her campaign. Her deputy ministers and regional representatives were appointed following the rule of “gender parity.” Answering our questions, she elaborated on the UN's emphasis on women and more.

Would you explain why there was a need to establish UN Women?


In the past, there were four entities working on women's issues but they were fragmented and under-resourced. When you look at the Millennium Development Goals, all of them were linked to women's issues where the progress is slow. There was a question of why women's rights do not advance as fast as other areas. There was a strong feeling among the member states that a new institution was needed that would have a stronger voice and stronger political relevance. So a new entity was formed under the secretary-general and women's issues have been given higher priority. The new entity has a role to define international standards for women's rights. In addition, there is a new mandate for coordination and accountability because we are not replacing the already established systems, and the whole system has to continue its work on women. For example, all the others, the UNDP has to continue working with women, UNICEF has to continue working with children, UNESCO has to continue working on the education of women and girls and so on. We will be successful if we can produce synergies within all these agencies to have better outcomes to improve the lives of women all over the world. So what is our role going to be? One key word is empowerment. Women who are powerless are not taken into consideration. So we will empower women.

How is that going to happen, would you elaborate?

One is by enhancing the voices, the leadership and participation of women at all levels of society. And the second one is by increasing women's economic power. Women should have economic independence to have their own options. We have to ensure better labor conditions for working women. We have to also support women who are engaged in small, medium and macro businesses. Especially in the case of rural women, we have to ensure their access to financial resources and technical assistance. In addition, we have to ensure that there are more women in top positions in companies. International data shows that companies who have women at the top levels are very successful in their performance. Another priority is ending violence against women. It is pandemic all over the world; it is not only in the less developed countries. We have to ensure that women can live free of violence. Moreover, we have to consider women in our peace and security agenda. There are many countries which have had conflict, are in conflict or in post-conflict; we need women to be part of those processes to produce peace. We have many examples in the world that women are instrumental to calls for peace but when peace talks start they are not taken into consideration. Women also need reparation in post-conflict time since they have been subjected to all forms of violence, including sexual violence, during war. Besides, even during peacetime there is violence concerning women, considering that 80 percent of human trafficking involves women and girls for sexual or labor slavery.

‘UN Women will be present in Ankara, possibly in İstanbul, too'

You underlined that violence affects women all over the world, not just women in the developing world…

At least domestic violence… There are other forms of violence that are not all over the world, for example, forced marriage, early marriage, female genital mutilation, so on.

You met with the Turkish president. Have you observed enough attention being given to measures against domestic violence?

As a key Council of Europe treaty to combat violence against women was opened to signatures by member states on Wednesday in İstanbul, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu [the outgoing chairman of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe] became the first official to sign the treaty ahead of the opening of a meeting of the Committee of Ministers. This is the latest and the most modern law. This will be very important for all countries of the Council of Europe, providing a legal framework to combat violence against women. Sexual violence, particularly domestic violence, is the most pervasive human rights violation against women all over the world. Indeed, women's issues are the issues of the whole of society. We need men and boys to be part of a campaign against violence against women.

As I understand, you will start a new project in Ankara as part of the framework of UN Women.

We have been present in Turkey with several projects. We will start a new project in Ankara and will have a physical presence in Ankara to work with the political leadership. We are looking with very high estimation and very high consideration into a proposal that the government brought to us to consider establishing in İstanbul the regional hub for UN Women. That is a project that we are analyzing right now; we have to discuss it with our executive board in New York, 31 member states which approve our budget and strategic planning.

You have challenges in front of you regarding your budget. What is your target?

We aim at having $500 million annually. The UN gives us only 1.4 percent of its whole budget, all the rest is voluntary contributions from member states. Because everybody is so committed to UN Women, we have been receiving pledges from different countries and we hope to receive more.

‘I am a pediatrician, a woman and a mother'

When the UN secretary general introduced you last year, he referred to your work in Chile, where you tripled the number of free early childcare centers for low-income families and completed some 3,500 childcare centers around the country. Why have you put great emphasis on that area of work?

I am a pediatrician, a woman and a mother. I know that children are full of energy, capacity and talent. Depending on where they are born, they will have opportunities or not. A very important way of leveling the playing field in life is that you give all the possibilities in the early stages of life. I am therefore pro-education at an early age because if you start with little babies and children and teach them how to relate to each other, the values of respect and dignity, the values of how to deal with conflict and frustration, that's the best way. At home, most of the time they won't have the conditions to develop their capacity.

Did you send your children to kindergarten?

Each time. In Chile, when babies are about three months old, the mother has to go back to work if she has a job. I put my children in the nursery while I was studying and working. I could afford it, but I knew so many women couldn't afford it. I put so much emphasis on this because I know the difference it makes for the mother to go back to work and know that their children are safe, loved and cared for. As I said, children learn to be socialized and how to care for each other in addition to other skills in kindergartens. Since I wanted that for my children, I wanted that for all the children of my country.

Affordable childcare is a problem in Turkey, too…

Every country has to see its own issues. Countries like Turkey, developed in some areas and not developed in others, have different challenges. In Chile, like Turkey, the challenge is how you deal with the issues related to the economy of care. If the woman is the person who stays at home every time a child gets sick, it will be very difficult for the woman to have equal opportunities. We need to think about this and find a solution. In Chile, we developed childcare centers which are free of charge. We also established childcare centers in prisons and universities and even high schools, because unfortunately there are sometimes young adolescents [that get] pregnant. Most of the time, they stop going to school because they have a baby and this is the worst thing that can happen to a young person.

‘Truth has to be known about the past'

Like Turkey, Chile has a history of military intervention in politics, has suffered the results of it in terms of human rights violations and delays regarding a full passage to democracy. What would you say about how to deal with it?

There is no recipe. Every country has its own rhythm to deal with its past. If you don't learn a lesson from the past, you could repeat the same mistakes. When we recovered our democracy, we established a commission and had a noble person in charge of it. They mainly collected information on all the cases of people who died because of political violence, including the military people and police. It took some time but it helped people to file cases to seek justice. There were other steps that we have taken, too, but we haven't been able to get the final truth and justice for each case. Still, families have felt that they have been able to have that possibility. We also have had reparations for families. Nobody will bring back their families, but at least they will have scholarships for their children, etc. We have a number of creative reparation schemes related to health, education and housing benefits. The important thing is to have a political agreement to have a healthy future. Every country does it its own way. In many countries there are terrible civil wars. Sometimes people are put on trial but they don't go to jail because they decide on amnesty. A country can decide that, but truth has to be known at least. In our country, people are in jail because of violations of human rights. This is not something a political party decided. It is because of justice and it is because of the rule of law. It is up to each country how to deal with it, but I believe in the rule of law. It has to be important. Anybody who has broken the law has to be [held] responsible.

Michelle Bachelet

Currently, she is the first undersecretary-general and executive director of UN Women, established on July 2, 2010, by the United Nations General Assembly. Most recently she served as president of Chile from 2006 to 2010. As defense minister, she introduced gender policies intended to improve the conditions of women in the military and police forces. During her tenure in the ministry -- the first woman both in Chile and in Latin America to hold such a position -- Chile's rules about obligatory military service were modified, the role of the ministry and the government in military affairs was also strengthened. She has three children.

Her father, Gen. Alberto Bachelet, was asked by President Salvador Allende in 1972 to head the government's Food Distribution Office, and remained there until Gen. Augusto Pinochet led a coup against Allende's government on Sept. 11, 1973. Gen. Bachelet was arrested that same day and held captive and accused of “treason against the homeland.” He died in prison having suffered a heart attack. Michelle Bachelet continued studying and was part of Chile's Socialist Party. Later, together with her mother, they were moved to the Cuatro Alamos detention center and then traveled to Australia as exiles. From there, they continued on to East Germany. She returned to Chile in 1979, and when democracy was restored in 1990 she was hired as an epidemiologist. In 2000, she was named minister of health, where she reformed the country's health care system.

In her own words:

“My father was a general who was tortured in jail and died in jail. I was tortured, too. I and my mother had to go in exile. But I have no rage in terms of revenge. What I want is to be able to contribute, to develop a healthy society where those kinds of things will never happen again. Therefore, I have a positive attitude. But as a doctor, I know that when you have an injury, and when it's dirty, you will never repair it completely. You first need to clean it. You need to give it air; you need to open it so it really can heal. That may sound strange but it symbolizes a society.”