Former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, the first head of the newly created UN Women, chose to celebrate the 100th International Women’s Day in Liberia on 8 March. In an exclusive interview with Editor Mathew Elavanalthoduka, the first female president of Chile speaks about her vision for women’s empowerment, the challenges facing world’s female population, how her own trials and tribulations shaped her destiny, and asserts that “women can do it”. Excerpts:
UN FOCUS: Liberia is excited about your visit, this being your first official visit to a country after your appointment as head of UN Women. Why did you choose Liberia for your first visit, and also to celebrate the International Day of Women in Liberia?
Michelle Bachelet: It is my first visit after the launch of UN Women. I thought tomorrow, 8 March, will be a very special day. It is not just any International Women’s Day. It is also to commemorate 100 years of international Women’s Day celebration. Even though there are still so many challenges, women have progressed a lot. The first time it was commemorated only in just two countries! Women can now vote and it is almost universal. So there is lot of progress.
Why Liberia? I believe that African women are very capable but, still in many places, because of conflict or because of poverty and underdevelopment, women are still facing terrible challenges. It is said that 70% of the world’s poor are women and girls. In some countries in Africa, women make up 85% of the labour force in agriculture but only 2% of women have land rights. Women many places face high rate of maternal mortality, in some places still high rates of infant mortality. When you look at the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Africa you see it has the face of a woman or a child, so there are many reasons why for me Africa is a priority. But on the other hand this is a country that has the first democratically elected female President in Africa. She has done a lot in terms of making progress for women in Liberia and the country won last year’s award for MDG3. The first peacekeeping unit made of only females was deployed here. So there are a lot of reasons why I came to Liberia. It is a good example of women can excel and do much more. So it is a very good place to commemorate a century of International Women’s Day.
You described the launch of UN Women as the first of many important milestones in the global pursuit of gender equality. What can and should UN Women achieve in your view? What is your vision for UN Women?
My vision is a world where women and girls and men and boys have equal opportunities and they can develop their capacities, their talents, their merits, and together we can build a better world for all. The most important priorities are linked to the empowerment of women. Real gender equality can be achieved only if women are empowered. If women are empowered, they can stand up to confront violence against women and gender based violence. In countries in conflict and post-conflict countries, we have seen women playing a major role in bringing about peace. Yet, once peace is achieved, women are forgotten. So we need women empowerment in terms of building constituencies through which women’s voices can be heard during the conflict and while we shape and rebuild societies after the conflict. Empowering at the political level in national government, parliament, local government, trade unions, rights organizations. We have a lot of women everywhere but often they are not so much in important positions. Only 19% of the parliamentarians of the world are females and only 19 are heads of state from the 192 heads of state in the world. So we need to expand women’s voices, enhance their capacities in terms of leadership and participation. The other important empowerment is economic. I’m convinced that if women have economic autonomy, they can deal better with all kinds of problems, feed the families, help the communities. We are talking about two different issues, one is to help rural women, improve their capacities to add value to their products, improve their livelihoods. We are also talking about gender parity at the corporate sector not only about what the public sector can do with poor women but also how we can improve their entrepreneurial capacities. The rest of the areas are very important, health, education, HIV/AIDS. We are making partnerships with other agencies which are already in the lead in those areas. So UN Women will focus on four major areas: political empowerment, economic empowerment, ending violence against women, and peace and security.
UN Women envisions the end of the worldwide phenomenon of violence against women. How hard a task could this be, considering that this is an age-old phenomenon -- domestic violence as well as violence against women especially during war and civilian conflicts? Homer in the Iliad describes how Trojan women were treated as war prizes during the Trojan war….
For so many years it was like something natural and the important thing is that the international community is convinced that it is nothing natural, not even in a war. It is a crime, and in war, it is a war crime. We understand that in conflict and post-conflict situations armed groups use violence against women and rape as weapons of war. This is a worldwide problem, you can find it in developed countries and in developing countries. We are working a lot on changing the mindset of the men and boys. We need to involve men and women, boys and girls, to understand that violence against women is not natural. We need to embark on a very strong campaign against violence, against rape and female genital mutilation and all the other kinds of violence. There is the Secretary-General’s campaign, UNite to End Violence Against Women, to bring top leaders from different fields to talk to other men and boys to create awareness and commitment against violence. We also need to ensure that in post conflict-countries women can have justice. In many places they don’t have access to justice. There has to be no impunity. People will have to really understand that violence against women is a crime.
In the world there are 132 countries that have already passed bills and have laws against violence against women, but there is still a problem of implementation due to lack of resources, human and finance. We have countries in Africa that have made important changes, passing of laws, and carried out campaign activities. In Liberia there is campaign against sexual violence. We visited Totota, where WIPNET is working with women, communities, traditional chiefs, to campaign against violence. In the UN there is a strong policy on zero tolerance for any peacekeeping member to commit any of these crimes.
You have said that your own experiences have taught you that there is no limit to what women can do. Did your experiences -- death of your father in jail under Pinochet, your own detention and torture, and your having had to flee the country – all make you more determined to succeed?
I think what they made me was first of all to realize that in the world we have heroes and villains. I want to live in a world that gives respect and dignity to everyone and opportunity to children because if you protect children at the beginning you can prevent many other things -- they won’t be future abusers. It also teaches me that in a country that is not able to solve its own problems in civil ways you can get into issues like what happened to us -- the dictatorship, the violations of human rights. My conviction was that I can do things to be able to have good relationships. Understanding our diversities is something good for the country, not the contrary. I started to build bridges, meeting people who were enemies in the past. I think that made me stronger. I never ever looked into being a minister or a president but I always tried to work hard on what I believe and do it as best as I could. People knew me as a minister and they wanted me as president of the country because they knew I was working for them, I was putting them at the center of public policy.
In Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is the first female President in the whole of Africa. You were the first female President of Chile. Two highly inspiring icons women worldwide can look up to. What is your message to Liberian women AND men?
I remember I was almost in the second round of my campaigning when I read she was elected the first female President in Africa. That was wonderful, and very soon I was elected too.
I think the Liberian people know from experience that they have very strong women. And I think men and women in Liberia want to continue building a country where opportunities are fair for all -- for women and for men. And I am so convinced that when men support that they will also be better and happier, because when women are better the whole society is better. My message is “women can do it.” And men have to walk side by side with women to have a just society.
Thank you very much.