For some, her name might not be as instantly recognizable as Hillary Clinton, Margaret Thatcher, or Aung San Suu Kyi. But, she is a former president in her home country of Chile — and, before that, the first female head of state in Latin America.
And, nowadays, with her position as the United Nations’ Under-Secretary-General and the UN Women Executive Director, Michelle Bachelet may very well be the woman with the most politically influential position in the world.
Under her leadership, UN Women have set three priorities: advancing women’s political participation and leadership, expanding women’s economic opportunities, and ending violence against women and girls.
“Advancing women’s equality and empowerment offers real hope for our shared future. When women enjoy equal opportunity and participation, societies and economies grow healthier and stronger,” Bachelet said.
“Today, women constitute half of the world’s population. Yet, women remain under-represented in positions of leadership. Women constitute just 20 percent of parliamentarians globally and 18 percent of the parliamentarians here in Indonesian,” she said.
Bachelet visited Jakarta for three days earlier this week to give a keynote speech at an Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) ministerial conference on women and development on Tuesday morning.
During her short visit in Jakarta, Bachelet had the opportunity to have discussions with Vice President Boediono, Women Empowerment and Child Protection Minister Linda Amalia Sari, as well as Muslim scholars and members of society.
She also gave a public lecture on women leadership, in which she stressed the importance of women’s equal participation in politics to advance women’s rights and to strengthen global governance.
Born in Santiago, Chile, on Sept. 29, 1951, Bachelet spent the bulk of her childhood years traveling around Chile, moving with her family from one military base to another, as her father, Alberto Bachelet, was a general in the Chilean Air Force.
Although she had considered taking up sociology or economics major in college, she ended up studying medicine at the University of Chile in 1970, as she said it was “a concrete way to relieve people’s pain and improve healthcare in Chile”.
A leader in student political affairs, Bachelet participated in the Socialist Youth movement during the Unidad Popular (Popular Unity) government of then Chilean president Salvador Allende.
In 1972, Gen. Bachelet (Bachelet’s father) was appointed by Allende to head the government’s Price and Supply Committee.
When Gen. Augusto Pinochet came to power in the 1973 coup, Gen. Bachelet, refusing exile, was detained at the Air War Academy under charges of treason. Following months of daily torture at a public prison, General Bachelet suffered a heart attack that resulted in his death on March 12, 1974.
In less than one year, Bachelet and her mother were detained in their apartments by agents from Pinochet regime’s secret police force. Both were then blindfolded and taken to Villa Grimaldi, a notorious torture and detention centre in Santiago.
Thanks to sympathetic connections in the military, Bachelet and her mother were later sent to Australia as exiles. From there, they continued on to East Germany, where Bachelet enrolled at Humboldt University medical school in Berlin.
She later returned to Chile in 1979 and continued her studies in medicine at the University of Chile. She graduated as a surgeon in 1982 and spent the next four years specializing in pediatrics and public health.
Once Pinochet was ousted and democracy was restored in 1990, there was immediately a great need for professionals to help restore Chile’s public health system, which had been massively neglected by the dictatorship.
Bachelet was then hired as an epidemiologist in Santiago and later moved to the National AIDS Commissions. During this time, she also consulted for the Pan-American Health Organization and the World Health Organization.
Her experiences both as a member of a military family and a member of the civilian political sector motivated her to take a military strategy course at the National Academy of Strategic and Political Studies.
In 1997, she qualified for a scholarship to take a continental defense course at the Inter-American Defense College in Washington DC, along with 35 other civilians and members of the military from all over the Americas.
Upon finishing, she returned to Chile and was immediately hired to work in the Defense Ministry.
In 2000, Michelle Bachelet was named health minister in then-president Ricardo Lagos’ administration. Her two main tasks were to increase the quality and coverage of care at the country’s public health clinics and to prepare a major healthcare reform program.
On Jan. 7, 2002, Lagos reshuffled his cabinet and named Bachelet defense minister. She was the first woman both in Chile and in Latin America to hold such a position.
During her tenure as defense minister, Chile’s rules about obligatory military service were modified in key ways. The role of the ministry and the government in military affairs was strengthened and equal-opportunity policies were instituted for women in the military and the police forces.
Bachelet won 53.49 percent of the vote in a run-off presidential election in February 2006 and became the first female president in Chilean history. She held this office for four years, serving her full term, which ended in March 2010, with the greatest approval from people in the history of Chile.
In September 2010, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon appointed her the inaugural executive director of the newly-established UN Women, which started operations in January 2011.
She said that she urged all countries to achieve at least 30 percent of women in parliament, in line with international agreements.
“It is time to remove barriers that hold women and economies back. Today, women’s wages are only between 70 percent and 90 percent of men’s wages in most countries, and women continue to face multiple burdens and discrimination at home and on the job,” she said.
According to her, the UN estimates that limits on women’s participation in the workforce across Asia Pacific cost the economy an estimated US$89 million every year.
“Data from 135 countries in all regions show that empowering women and reducing gender inequality enhances productivity and economic growth,” the mother of three said.
Bachelet admitted that women across the globe are still facing huge challenges to overcome gender inequality and to fight for empowerment. However, she is “positive and optimistic” that there has been much improvement and that things will continue to get better for women in the future.
“If you asked anyone [in Chile] just five years before I was elected, they would have said that no way would a woman be president. Now, nobody would even ask that question. So, I believe that people evolve, cultures evolve, and the world is changing,” she said.
“I truly believe that in the future, investing in women, in the sense of fulfilling their rights and giving them chances and opportunities, will not be an option anymore. It will become a necessity. I am positive about that. It may take long, but we will get there.”