“I am a woman, a Socialist, divorced and agnostic,” the new defense minister told the generals of her Roman Catholic country. “But we will work together very well.”
Michelle Bachelet, who in 2002 became Chile’s first female defense minister and four years later the country’s first female president, has never shied from challenging the status quo. Now the first head of U.N. Women, the three-month-old U.N. agency for gender equality and female empowerment, Ms. Bachelet is doing it again — this time turning some traditional notions of feminism on their head.
“We need men. We need to obtain big important male champions,” Ms. Bachelet, a 59-year-old daughter of a general and single mother of three, said brightly during a recent interview in Paris.
She hired a man as one of her two deputies — “that wasn’t by chance, I wanted gender equality” — and courts male chief executives to sign up to seven principles for female empowerment. A new three-year gender awareness program for peace negotiators focuses as much on training male mediators about rape in conflict zones as on grooming future female mediators.
U.N. Women is the first high-profile international agency dedicated to gender, turning a long-held ambition of feminist activists across the world into a reality. First floated as a serious proposal in 2006, it took four years of heavy lobbying from the four U.N. units previously dealing with gender advocacy and dogged support from big hitters like Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton before the body went to work in January.
With a $500 million annual budget and some 405 full-time staff members, it is dwarfed by other outfits — Unicef, the agency for children, or the U.N. Development Program each count around 6,000 staff members and budgets of $1.25 billion.
So the woman at the helm of this new agency matters all the more.
While few dispute her star power and track record on advancing women’s rights in Chile, Ms. Bachelet’s conviction that men are indispensable to the next stage of women’s liberation is not universally shared.
Nor was everyone happy with her appointment. Some African women’s organizations grumbled that a woman from a poorer country should have been chosen. Others lament that she is not focusing enough on issues like genital mutilation, H.I.V. and AIDS or maternal mortality, the most neglected of the Millennium Development Goals.
“African women have been a little bit forgotten,” said Fatoumata Siré Diakité, the Malian ambassador to Germany who last week listened to a video message by Ms. Bachelet presented to a women’s conference in Germany. “She was very focused on Europe and America. She didn’t mention Africa at all. But women in Africa and Asia are the majority of women in the world.”
Sure enough, as Ms. Bachelet sat in the salon of the Hotel Lutetia on Paris’s Left Bank, her list of priorities contained no explicit mention of the M.D.G.’s, as they are known in these circles.
Instead, Ms. Bachelet spent nearly half an hour talking about getting more women into politics, into business and into military and peacekeeping roles — if need be with affirmative action. Her main message? Focus on female empowerment, not female victimhood.
“Of course at U.N. Women we are concerned with women in precarious living conditions,” she said, stressing that violence against women was one of her top concerns. “But women will never achieve equal rights if they are not empowered.”
“What we know is that empowerment does not just happen accidentally, or from one generation to another,” she went on to say. “We need some form of affirmative action.”
In the developed world, she said, the fashionable debate about boardroom quotas is important, but “we need to go further.”
In sub-Saharan Africa, meanwhile, she talks about changing inheritance laws that mean women hold only 2 percent of the land rights even though they cultivate 85 percent of the land itself. She notes that of 300-plus peace agreements signed since the Cold War ended, only 18 mention women and only 8 mention sexual violence.
She is lobbying governments across the world to pay more attention to women — and put more money into U.N. Women’s coffers.
“Having been a head of state gives you the possibility of getting into places others can’t go,” she said. This week she is in Latin America. Last week she met French government ministers and top E.U. officials. Before that, she urged the interim leadership in Cairo to give women a real say in post-revolution Egypt and met a number of African leaders in Ethiopia.
In the Paris interview, indignation rose in her voice as she noted that only 28 countries have achieved the target set at the 1995 U.N. women’s conference in Beijing for national parliaments to have at least 30 percent female members. Of those 28, she points out, only 5 have managed without a quota law.
A sigh. Then the determined smile came back. “We need a change in mind-set, a cultural change,” she said.
In her own country, she changed the mind-set for good: After being nicknamed “fatty” in her early months as president, she finished her four-year (nonrenewable) term with record approval ratings of 84 percent.
As health minister, this pediatrician-turned-military strategist reformed Chile’s primary care system for families. As defense minister, she improved access for women to the military and the police force. And as president she appointed a cabinet that was half female, tripled the number of free childcare places for low-income mothers and pushed through a pension overhaul that pays women a bonus for each child.
She is convinced that without her stint as defense minister, surveying flood damage in the Chilean capital perched from an open tank for example, she would never have become president. “Health minister alone wouldn’t have done it — health is a service, it’s too female,” she said.
Breaking the mold is her speciality. Involved in left-wing politics since studying medicine in the 1970s, she also was top of her class in a prestigious defense strategy program two decades later. A survivor of torture and exile under the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship that killed her father, she is seen at once as tough and maternal.
“She was our anti-Thatcher, not adopting all the male-dominated codes of power but transforming them,” wrote Paula Escobar Chavarría, magazines editor of the Chilean daily El Mercurio. “In this small land at the bottom of the world’s maps, little girls now want to be president and no one wonders if it’s possible.”
Changing a country when you are its head of state is one thing. Whether Ms. Bachelet can galvanize many countries, or indeed the world, to alter attitudes toward women from the pulpit of a new U.N. agency remains to be seen.