Michelle Bachelet Has a Mission

Article excerpt

The U.N. tapped Chile's former president to help women. Will politicians let her succeed?

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called July 2, 2010, a "watershed day." That was when the General Assembly approved the creation of the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women--known simply as U.N. Women. Intended to give (in Ban's words) "a much stronger voice for women and for gender equality" around the world, the organization replaced four underfunded and obscure bureaucracies devoted to women with a single entity that would finally give half the world's population the high-profile platform it deserved.

Leading the new organization and charged with boosting its profile would be one of the world's most powerful and inspiring women, Michelle Bachelet, the former president of Chile. Bachelet's accomplishments are rooted in the traumatic experiences of her early adulthood. When Chile's government was overthrown in a coup led by Augusto Pinochet in 1973, Bachelet's father (an Air Force general who backed the deposed Salvador Allende) was arrested and tortured in prison. He came home briefly under house arrest before being thrown back in detention, where he died of a heart attack under suspicious circumstances in 1974 at the age of 51.

In January 1975, state security forces arrested Bachelet herself, then a 23-year-old medical student, and her mother, taped their eyes shut, and jailed them in Villa Grimaldi, a mansion turned into a house of terror where prisoners were routinely beaten, shocked with electricity, raped, and killed. Despite the ordeal, Bachelet refused to break, reportedly singing with other prisoners to keep sane and helping to treat women raped by the guards. Bachelet has never spoken in detail about the period, other than acknowledging that she was beaten, noting instead that she was one of the "lucky ones" who survived before being sent into exile in Australia following the intervention of family members.

Bachelet later studied defense policy and, after Pinochet relinquished power, became Latin America's first female defense minister. An agnostic, divorced, single mother of three in a Catholic country, her overwhelming personal popularity propelled her to Chile's presidency in 2006. Plagued early on by student protests and a scandal surrounding the implementation of a public-transportation system, she eventually righted her administration and reached Chile's highest-ever approval rating, thanks in large part to her deft handling of the country's economy.

Chilean women's rights advocates first approached Bachelet to gauge her interest in the U.N. job while she was still president, and later chanted "Bachelet, U.N. Women!" at a meeting in Brazil shortly after she left office in 2010. (She was constitutionally prevented from running for a second consecutive four-year term.) Though loath to leave the political scene and her family, including grandsons for whom she records Hallmark storybooks, she threw her name into the selection process.

"At the beginning, my feeling was, 'No, I should not go to this. I should stay in my country,'?" Bachelet says. "But at the end what happened is that the majority of my family thought that I should go, I should come here, and that it was a marvelous task.'?"

Both Ban and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are said to have worked hard to persuade Bachelet to accept the new post, pledging their support, convincing her that U.N. Women would be more than the sum of its predecessors, and appealing to her sense of duty to help women. …