Michelle Bachelet on UN Women
Jim Lindsay, Senior Vice President of the Council on Foreign Relations, recently interviewed Michelle Bachelet. Ms. Bachelet was the first female president of Chile (and the first woman elected to the presidency of a South American country, since Vice President Isabel Perón assumed the presidency of Argentina upon the death of the president) and now she is the Executive Director UN Women.
Established in July 2010, UN Women (http://www.unwomen.org/) is part of the on-going process of reforming the UN. It streamlines the efforts and combines the resources of four other initiatives: Division for the Advancement of Women (DAW), International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women (INSTRAW), Office of the Special Adviser on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women (OSAGI), and United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM). And they have a tough fight ahead of them.
One of the biggest challenges UN Women faces is that sexism is an inherently emotionally-charged issue. Opinions based on rational thoughts processes can be changed with logic and data; beliefs based on ego and emotion cannot. You can create all of the quotas and non-discrimination policies you want, but rule sets do nothing to transform attitudes. And it is the prevailing attitudes in many countries that will challenge UN Women the most.
While there are many issues related to gender equality worldwide, I hope that UN Women will focus on issues of human rights. Specifically, I hope to see UN Women take on these issues:
• The current family planning policy of the Chinese government systematically leads to government-sanctioned forced abortions and femicide;
• human trafficking is modern day slavery, and no country–including the United States–can deny involvement in the sex trade industry;
• female circumcision is more dangerous, more damaging, more dibilitating, and the reasons more condemning than male circumcision; and
• there’s nothing honorable about the injustice of honor killings.
While human rights issues need to be a priority, UN Women should take a strategic approach. If UN Women tackles some less polarizing issues (such as gender wage gaps and educational disparities) first, they might achieve success early enough to provide the momentum–and to generate the support–they need in order to fight the bigger, more complex battles.
As previously mentioned, gender equity is a very emotionally-charged issue. It’s important for us to maintain perspective on the true nature of these issues. In the interview with Ms. Bachelet, Mr. Lindsay pointed out that the US has not yet elected a female to the presidency. However, this does not necessarily have anything to do with sexism; it simply indicates that no female presidential candidate has yet won over the American public. When the “right” woman comes along–and by “right”, I mean the candidate who, regardless of gender, best persuades the American public–popular vernacular in the US, too, will include the term “Madame President.”
I think it’s important to remember that gender equality is a process, not a destination. Gender equity is an inherently liberal ideal, and there are many societies today that pre-date the Enlightenment by a couple of millennia. The United States was founded on liberalism, and we’re still working on it nearly 225 years later, without having a couple thousand years of sexist heritage and tradition to overcome.
It’s really not a matter of ever getting “there”, because “there” is too hard to define. We could develop a checklist of hot items–empower female entrepreneurs, eliminate FGM, elect a female head of state, etc.–and we could still completely miss the point.
UN Women is still a new initiative, and these next two years will set a very important course. It’s wonderful, theoretically. I look forward to seeing how Ms. Bachelet and the rest of those involved in UN Women turn that theory into reality.