“Women’s engagement is smart economics”

Michelle Bachelet

Michelle Bachelet is a clear illustration that it is possible for women to do it all, and more. A mother of three, the former paediatrician and epidemiologist became the first woman to hold the office of president in a South American country after serving as the continent’s first female defence minister. As president of Chile from 2006 to 2010, she widened health insurance provision, reformed pensions and instituted social protection programmes for women and children, as well as promoting female participation in government – half her cabinet were women. Now, as the first head of UN Women, the new agency dedicated to securing gender equality and female empowerment, she has an opportunity to ensure that the measures she pioneered at home are extended to women across the world. 

In this exclusive interview, Bachelet explains why an agency like UN Women is needed and discusses the priorities she has set for her team. She laments the lack of progress towards meeting the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), especially those related to female education and maternal health, and the continued persistence of a gender divide in the workplace. But, she believes that with the use of quotas – in both government and the private sector – and the implementation of international conventions, real strides towards equality can be made. 


Global: A male colleague asked me “Why do we need UN Women and why don’t we have UN Men?” What would your response to his question be?

Michelle Bachelet: Gender equality must become a lived reality – that is why UN Women was established. 

Today, between 15 and 76 percent of women are targeted for physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime. Globally, while 125 countries now outlaw domestic violence, 603 million women live in countries where it is still not considered a crime. And, every 90 seconds, a woman dies in pregnancy or due to childbirth-related complications despite us having the knowledge and resources to make birth safe. The lack of economic empowerment of women is also another challenge that women face. With the recent global downturn, women’s economic position has further deteriorated, especially for the 53 percent of working women – 600 million in total – who are in vulnerable jobs. Also, there exists a huge gender pay gap – in practice, women are still paid up to 30 percent less than men in some countries. 

In terms of decision-making, only 28 countries have legislatures where women make up at least 30 percent of the members, which is considered a critical mass for women in parliament. Women also continue to be on the frontlines of wars – even after peace has been declared. From Nepal to Afghanistan to Sudan, war harms women in multiple ways: from mass rapes to mass displacements. In the aftermath, it is women who bring families, homes and communities back together, yet both their roles and rights continue to be overlooked at peace talks. Our studies show that since 1992, less than 10 percent of peace negotiators have been women, and less than 6 percent of reconstruction budgets specifically provide for the needs of women and girls. 

Therefore, the challenges that women face are many, but so are the opportunities. Productivity gains from ensuring equal access to fertilisers, seeds and tools for women could reduce the number of hungry people by between 100 and 150 million. And making maternal and reproductive healthcare services and adequate family planning available could prevent up to 70 percent of maternal deaths. 

What are UN Women’s key priorities and how does the agency intend to address them?

UN Women stands behind women’s equal participation in all aspects of life, but focuses on the following priority areas: to increase women’s leadership and participation in all areas that affect their lives; to increase women’s access to economic empowerment and opportunities, especially for those who are most excluded; to prevent violence against women and girls and expand access to survivor services; to increase women’s leadership in peace and security and humanitarian response; to strengthen the responsiveness of plans and budgets to gender equality at all levels. The sixth goal involves support for a comprehensive set of global norms, policies and standards on gender equality and women’s empowerment that is dynamic, responds to new and emerging issues, and provides a firm basis for action by governments and other stakeholders at all levels. 

We work on these priorities using a multi-pronged approach, from advocacy to supporting programmes on the ground in collaboration with government and NGO partners, to urging governments to advance legislation which addresses the needs of women. For example, for the goal to end violence against women, working with governments and civil society, UN Women supports prevention and protection services at the national level, such as 24-hour emergency hotlines, prompt police protection, shelters and safe housing, free medical and legal aid, etc. 

To advance women’s economic status, UN Women advocates for economic empowerment as a woman’s right, and as an enormous benefit for societies and economies. In 15 countries across Africa, UN Women is working to assist women in informal crossborder trade. And [globally] we are working with the private sector through the Women’s Empowerment Principles – seven principles which commit companies to facilitate more gender-friendly policies. More than 167 CEOs of major corporations have already signed up to the principles [and] we are hopeful that by 2013, an additional 500 companies will adopt them. 

The annual starting budget for UN Women is $500 million – which is small when compared to that of UNICEF ($3.4 billion) and the UN Development Programme ($5 billion). To date, how much money has been pledged and received from UN member governments?

The financial target for annual voluntary contributions amounts are $300 million in 2011, $400 million in 2012 and $500 million in 2013. UN Women’s donor base has widened and deepened since its inception. Spain remains our largest donor for total resources, followed by Norway. The UK recently announced an increase from $4 to $16 million and thus became the second largest core donor. These are very encouraging trends which we hope to see replicated by many member states. Current estimates based on receipts, written and verbal pledges, and indications show as of June 2011 we are at $225 million. 

We are also exploring other sources. UN Women recognises that private philanthropy is on the rise globally. In the past, [we] worked successfully with the Avon Foundation on a global campaign focused on ending violence against women. We recognise that these partnerships offer great potential to address not only societal issues, but that they have the ability to facilitate greater economic opportunity as well. 

You’ve said that meeting Millennium Development Goal 3 – gender equality – “is fundamental to achieving all of the other MDG goals”. How close are we to achieving gender equality across the world?

Progress towards this goal of gender equality has been limited. The early target date of 2005 for eliminating gender disparities in primary and secondary education was not met. Girls are gaining ground when it comes to education, but unequal access persists in many regions. Only three regions – the Caucasus and Central Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, and South-East Asia – have achieved gender parity in primary education. We see a similar mixed picture for secondary and tertiary level education as well. 

Worldwide, on the indicator [relating to] the share of women in non-agricultural paid employment, progress has slowed in recent years due to the financial and economic crisis. A gender division of labour persists, and is reflected in the disproportionate concentration of women in vulnerable forms of work, occupational segregation and wage gaps, and the unequal division of unpaid domestic labour. 

Progress on the third indicator – the proportion of seats held by women in national parliaments – has also been very modest. Gains are not spread evenly across regions, and regional aggregates mask the large number of countries where women have little presence in national decision-making. 

Directly linked to the goal on gender equality is that of reducing maternal mortality, which also remains a great challenge. The commitment to improve maternal health (MDG5) is the goal that most depends on improving women’s status and access to public services. It is also the most off-track and least likely to be achieved. The number of maternal deaths has decreased by 2.3 percent per year since 1990, far below the 5.5 percent needed to reduce maternal deaths by three quarters by 2015. On current trends only 14 countries will meet the target. 

While MDG3 is specifically on gender equality, it is increasingly recognised that equality and the empowerment of women and girls are essential for the achievement of all the MDGs. We cannot eliminate poverty and hunger (MDG1) if women and girls continue to face the greatest burdens of extreme poverty and hunger. I am specifically concerned about the least-developed countries that are lagging behind. It is also of concern that rural areas lag behind urban areas in almost all of the MDGs. 

The UN Women’s justice report, published in July, shows a very mixed pattern of female participation in national politics. How do you think increased women’s leadership is best promoted?

The use of temporary measures such as quotas is an effective and appropriate mechanism for achieving gender equality, including boosting women’s [political] representation. The impressive strides of some of the world’s poorest countries – including those emerging from conflict – show that progress depends on political will more than level of development. In a number of countries, including Costa Rica, the Republic of Macedonia and Rwanda, increases in women’s representation in parliament have coincided with significant legal reform on women’s rights. In Sub-Saharan Africa, many of the countries with more than 30 percent women’s representation in parliament have come out of conflicts, including Angola, Burundi, Mozambique, Rwanda, South Africa and Uganda. In all cases, temporary special measures including quotas have been used to increase women’s representation in parliament. 

Why is it important that women are engaged in economic activity at all levels? What needs to be done to shake the apparent hold of men over the levers of power in the business world?

Women’s engagement in economic activity at all levels is not only a rights issue, but is also smart economics. Women’s economic empowerment has positive multiplier effects for a range of key development goals, including poverty reduction and the welfare of children. 

UN Women has been working closely with the private sector, mostly in Latin America and more recently in Egypt, in promoting a ‘Gender Equality Seal’, which is a certification process verifying whether a company meets standards that promote workplace equality between women and men. [We are] also working with the private sector in enabling women to participate in their global value chains. We also need to address the constraints women face in accessing decision-making positions. The difficulty of reconciling work and family responsibilities constitutes a significant obstacle for women’s engagement in economic activities at all levels, and family-friendly policies and measures must be put in place to ensure that men, as well as women, participate fully in family life and share care-giving responsibilities more equally. 

Even in the private sector and on corporate boards, women are often invisible – only 13 women head Fortune 500 companies. Recent efforts have focused on using quotas in the private sector to address the under-representation of women in economic decision-making roles. Some countries have implemented proactive policies to boost female participation at the board level of private companies – Norway requires at least 40 percent representation of each sex on their boards, and Spain also has a mandated quota. 

Networks of women leaders can contribute to enhancing women’s visibility and voice in decision-making, and provide an opportunity to share experiences. Business leaders, teachers and journalists can play a key role in promoting positive role models for women leaders and girls. 

Do you think that putting more women in responsible positions – in politics and business alike – might change the prevailing culture behind the processes of globalisation?

Women’s engagement and participation in decision-making is a cornerstone for healthy and sustainable societies. Available evidence suggests that greater diversity and inclusiveness in decision-making leads to better outcomes, and that women’s needs and priorities get better reflected in these decisions. Greater participation of women in government positions can ensure that women benefit fully from public services and that gender equality issues are addressed across sectors, in legislation and judicial systems as well as in planning and budgeting processes. 

What effect do international agreements like CEDAW (the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women) have on the upholding of the rights of women and girls?

CEDAW is often referred to as the women’s bill of rights, defining what constitutes discrimination against women and setting up an agenda for national action to end such discrimination. The Convention has had near-universal ratification. Over the past 10 to 15 years, national constitutions have been changed, laws and policies have been amended, and courts are drawing on CEDAW more and more. CEDAW continues to be international human rights law, but it’s not just international law any more. One of CEDAW’s greatest successes is the extent to which it is being embraced not just as an international standard, but as a national standard – which is actionable, and is actually being acted upon, in many countries. 

The very active engagement of so many countries with CEDAW reporting – as a vehicle for regularly assessing the status of women – is also very important. One of the obligations under the Convention is for states parties to submit reports every four years to the CEDAW Committee, assessing their progress on eliminating discrimination against women. State compliance with this obligation has improved dramatically in recent years. The records of the CEDAW sessions contain a remarkable clearing house of what is concretely working and what is not working, globally, in efforts to achieve gender equality. 

At the same time, women’s NGOs from around the world have become more and more involved – there are NGO shadow reports being submitted for virtually every country in the world [currently] being considered by CEDAW. The fact that CEDAW is now regularly stimulating this sort of engagement with women’s rights issues in countries across the world is itself a pretty significant achievement.

About the author:

Michelle Bachelet is Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women


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November 15, 2011 8:26 pm

Bachelet is an amazing role model for women, especially in government. She has shown what a success having women in the cabinet can be. In my opinion UN Women is an important part of implementing change. Around the world there is such a wide range of differences in the rights women have and the success of Bachelet shows just how important women having equal opportunities is. Anyone will agree that the facts and figures about why women need this organisation speak for themselves.

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