What once was a quartet of entities dealing with women’s issues is now one and the pressure is on Michelle Bachelet, former president of Chile and newly minted United Nations Under-Secretary General and Executive Director of the new UN Women to make the case for “The Future of UN Women.”
That was her subject Tuesday night as she appeared before an audience at the wood-paneled Manhattan headquarters of the New York City Bar Association. It was just the latest stop in her recent international travels to clarify the aims of the new organization and elicit support from governments, NGOs and civilians alike.
The very fact that the organization was created, she said, signals the fact that gender equality has risen in importance at the United Nations—on a par with “other broad imperatives” such as poverty. “Now, we need to show that we can live up to these expectations.”
Her top priority overall: “One big word: empowerment.”
Specifically, empowerment in three spheres-- economic, social and political participation-- are key, she said.
An upcoming World Bank report will illustrate the benefits of economic empowerment, she said, noting that 90 percent of a woman’s earnings benefit her family; companies with women CEOs and board members are better performers and “women who earn their own income can challenge the way decisions are made in their households,” making them less likely to become the helpless victims of domestic violence.
Social empowerment is being addressed as efforts are made to draft and/or implement legislation providing rights to women workers—such as a new proposed convention on the rights of domestic workers-- protecting land and inheritance rights; fighting violence against women and girls and ensuring that countries plan and budget for programs promoting gender equality, she said.
UN Women details the status of the world’s women in an upcoming report, “In Pursuit of Justice,” she said.
“The worst gap of all is in political participation,” she said. “That’s the real challenge.”
Bachelet pointed out only 19 women are heads of governments, only 19 percent of the world’s parliamentarians are women and, globally, only 5 percent of government ministries are headed by women.
With the Arab Spring, she said, UN Women is working with women in Egypt and Tunisia to make sure they claim their seats at the political table.
Some of the difficulty can be rooted in traditional attitudes, she said in answer to a question. Asked how to change those attitudes, she laughed and said, “If I had that answer, I think so many problems in the world would be solved—and at least I should have the Nobel Prize.”
Meanwhile, she said she is persistent but pragmatic.
“Don’t ask me to do miracles because I don’t believe in miracles,” she said. “But I will do my best.”