UPDATED: Former Chilean President Bachelet to Head New UN Women Agency

Beth Saunders

Four UN agencies that focus on women will be merging into a new entity, called UN Women, and it will be led by the former president of Chile, Michelle Bachelet.

This article was updated at 6:17 pm Tuesday, September 14th to include statements by various organizations and leaders on the appointment of President Bachelet to head the combined agency, UN Women.

Four United Nations agencies that focus on women and gender equity will be merging, and the new entity will be lead by the former president of Chile, Michelle Bachelet, UN News Centre reports.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon today appointed former Chilean president Michelle Bachelet to head United Nations Women (UN Women), a newly created entity to oversee all of the world body’s programmes aimed at promoting women’s rights and full participation in global affairs.

The new body – which will become operational next January – will merge four UN agencies and offices: the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), the Division for the Advancement of Women (DAW), the Office of the Special Adviser on Gender Issues, and the UN International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women (UN-INSTRAW).

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Ms. Bachelet, Chile’s first female president who prioritized women’s issues throughout her tenure and since leaving office has been working with UNIFEM to advocate for the needs of Haitian women following January’s devastating earthquake, was chosen over two other candidates.

The new entity is set to have an annual budget of at least $500 million, double the current combined resources of the four agencies it comprises.

Top priorities for UN Women will be to advance the Commission on the Status of Women, help UN member countries implement standards for achieving gender equity, and ensure that the UN itself holds true to commitments of gender equality.

Praise for Bachelet was widespread, even among detractors of the process that led to her appointment.

Former Senator Tim Wirth, President of the United Nations Foundation, hailed both the creation of the new agency, and the appointment of Bachelet to head it.

“The appointment of Chile’s former president Michelle Bachelet as the head of UN Women—the United Nations’ new entity for women and girls—is proof that the UN is making smart moves to improve its operations and the lives of people around the globe,” said Wirth. “As UN Foundation Founder and Chairman Ted Turner said in a letter to Bachelet, the decision ‘sends a clear signal to the world that women’s issues and rights will have both a strong voice and skilled ear on the global stage.’”

And, Wirth continued:

Bachelet, who ended her service as her country’s first female president in March 2010, has distinguished herself as a champion for those who do not always have a voice. She was instrumental in pushing for a stronger network of social protections for Chile’s poorest and advocating for laws dealing with violence against women. In her new role, Bachelet will be responsible for elevating the rights and needs of women and girls across the globe, including the 330 million women who comprise the world’s working poor.

Bachelet’s appointment, said Wirth, is “a critical move in helping move us closer to achieving the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which include such global issues as gender equality (MDG 3), reducing child mortality (MDG 4) and improving maternal health (MDG 5).” 

Planned Parenthood Federation of America also praised the appointment. “By selecting a leader of Dr. Bachelet’s caliber, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon sends a clear message to the global community that women’s rights and equality will be considered at the highest level of deliberation on international human rights,” said Mary-Jane Wagle, Planned Parenthood Federation of America vice president for international programs.

“Planned Parenthood and our international partners look forward to working with Dr. Bachelet and UN Women to improve the health and rights of women and girls around the world, starting in the places where they are most marginalized.”

AIDS-Free World, an international advocacy organization that works to promote more urgent and effective global responses to HIV/AIDS and the leader in efforts to establish UN Women, both strongly praised Bachelet and as strongly criticized the UN process through which she was selected. 

AIDS-Free World “welcomes the appointment of former Chilean President, Dr. Michelle Bachelet, to head the United Nations’ first full-fledged agency for women, said a statement.

We are enthusiastic and relieved following today’s announcement that the newly formed “UN Women” will open its doors in January 2011 with an eminently qualified, effective and respected leader at its helm. Dr. Bachelet has an unimpeachable record of feminist advocacy in support of women’s rights and social justice, and we expect that she will imbue her role, the new agency – and the UN system overall — with the principles, energy and focus that have been lacking in the United Nations system’s response to the women of the world.

But, the statement continued:

Dr. Bachelet’s appointment is a rarity at the UN: an excellent outcome emanating from a fundamentally corrupt selection process. The search for a strong Under Secretary-General to lead UN Women was cloaked in furtive secrecy, marred by backroom wheeling and dealing and thoroughly dishonest in its claims of being a ‘fair, open and transparent’ process with the meaningful involvement of civil society.  We are delighted that the strength of Dr. Bachelet’s candidacy transcended a fraudulent system, and resulted in the appointment of a leader with no allegiance to the antiquated unwritten rules that govern the UN and have proven so prejudicial to women everywhere.  Acutely aware that Dr. Bachelet is the exception, not the rule, we remain committed to reforming the shady selection processes that continue to plague the UN and place unqualified individuals in critical positions.

“Michelle Bachelet embodies the most important characteristics that AIDS-Free World’s co-directors have advocated since 2006, when we first proposed that the UN’s largely ineffective “gender architecture” be replaced by a UN agency equal to others.”

AIDS-Free World further underscored the most pressing and immediate three challenges to be faced by Bachelet:

First, she must corral initial funding of $1 billion to begin replacing empty ‘gender talk’ with action and expertise.  Second, she must wade past a tidal wave of mediocrity and entitlement as UN staff jockey to land positions, and be unafraid to staff the new agency with outside experts who, like herself, are respected for their accomplishments rather than for successfully working the UN system. Finally, Dr. Bachelet will have to resist ongoing internal efforts to limit UN Women’s strength, and establish the operational capacity on the ground that is indispensable if UN Women hopes to change the lives of women all over the world.

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