Oct. 11 is the U.N.’s day devoted to stopping child marriage, stepping up education and much more. Does the day really help? Experts have a mixed reaction.
This year’s theme, Women in the Changing World of Work, acknowledges a key component to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals: women’s economic empowerment.
In times of war and turmoil, women have mobilized to take the suffering out of their countries. One of these heroes is the first female president of Chile, who led her country back to health after it suffered a rapacious regime. From dictator’s victim to democratic leader, Michelle Bachelet transformed what is possible for all oppressed people to imagine.
On January 15, 2006, hundreds of thousands of Chileans filled the streets of Santiago to celebrate the victory of Chile’s first female president, Michelle Bachelet. She is the first female president in Latin America who is not the wife or relative of male political elites—the first to be elected entirely on her own merits. Furthermore, Michelle is an agnostic, divorced single mother who has one child out of wedlock—a striking deviance from Chile’s historically conservative machismo culture. As Michelle describes herself, “I was a woman, a divorcee, a socialist, an agnostic—all possible sins together” (qtd. in Gutsch). Michelle is living proof that even those on the margins of society can rise to the highest elected office of their country. But the question remains: How did a longtime patriarchal country come to view someone embodying “all possible sins” as a leader?
At her story’s beginning, Michelle was as far from beloved president as she could be—she was a discarded victim of General Augusto Pinochet’s regime. September 11, 1973 marks the beginning of Pinochet’s 17-year dictatorship, 17 years of systematic repression and forced disappearances. Michelle’s family opposed the regime and her father was tortured to death. Michelle recalls, “When I walked down the street, people who had been very close to us crossed to the other side so as not to have to see us” (qtd. in Worth 66-7). In 1975, not long after her father’s death and just 22 years old, Michelle endured a month of detainment and interrogation alongside her mother in what had been a luxurious estate before Pinochet’s takeover. Former detainee Humberto Vergara remembers,
It was like a palace, with marble stairways and an indoor swimming pool. […] In the dark, we could hear screams all day and sobbing all night. It was how I imagined hell would be … The guards would splash in the pool and pass by the cells, saying they were going to kill this one or … that one. (qtd. in Worth 67)
Chilean professor Elizabeth Lira, an expert on the regime, further explains the horrors Michelle would have known:
It was 30 days of total fear. Rape was frequent. Plus the punches, sexual abuse, denigration. They had very long interrogations and the use of electric current was common. You had to listen to others being tortured. (qtd. in Worth 70)
Despite these abuses, Michelle remained strong. A woman who was imprisoned with Michelle recalls,
We could hear the screams from the torture chamber opposite our cell. [Michelle] remained calm and tried to help us with her medical skills, singing with us in the afternoons. […] [The guards] kept telling her that if she didn’t collaborate [and tell them about her political activities] they would kill her mother, but she never broke down. (qtd. in Worth 70)
After a month, Michelle and her mother were forced into exile. In the following years, not only did Michelle organize protests against Pinochet, but she continued her medical studies and later pursued defense policies, becoming the type of person who could nurse a country back to health—and that is exactly what she did.
Shortly after the restoration of democracy in 1990, Michelle became Chile’s Minister of Defense in 2002—the first woman to hold such a position in Latin America. In this role, Michelle captivated Chileans by encouraging the military and human rights advocates to move forward in peace, despite the tragedy Pinochet’s regime had caused her. Before long, Michelle’s political party asked her to run for president.
The campaign revolved around debates over whether a woman could be capable of presidential leadership. Michelle’s main opponent, Sebastián Piñera, drew on a tradition of paternalism in Chilean politics. But Chileans had an appetite for change—for new leaders who would ensure a future of liberty.
Michelle promoted a new style of leadership, “liderazgo femenino” or feminine leadership. As a feminist who raised three children herself, Michelle insisted that women can embrace a style of leadership modeled on motherhood. Michelle earned so much popularity in part because Chileans sought a leader who would give them some sense of nurturing reassurance. John Powers writes, “Bachelet’s soothingly sensible demeanor seems ideal for a country that’s shaking off its old ways. Her style is gentle, almost consciously maternal” (Vogue). Michelle claimed the gendered critiques of her leadership potential as sexist and asserted:
Strength knows no gender, and neither does honesty, conviction or ability. I bring a different kind of leadership, with the perspective of someone who looks at things from a different angle. Let us change our mentality. (qtd. in Thomas 76)
More than anything, Chileans marveled at Michelle’s approach to life—the resilience she mustered from a heart that knew tragedy. Michelle offered up her pain, allowing her tragic past to inform her leadership in a most selfless and necessary way. She explains, “I saw friends disappear, who were jailed or tortured. But I decided to turn my pain into a constructive force—guaranteeing that future generations never have to go through what we went through” (qtd. in Langman and Contreras).
Michelle won her country’s vote as a symbol of Chile’s new era of democracy. To an exuberant crowd on the night of her victory, Michelle beautifully conveyed in just one line why she ran for president: “Because I was a victim of hate, I’ve dedicated my life to turning hate into understanding, tolerance, and — why not say it? — love” (qtd. in Powers).
As president, Michelle maintained a cabinet of ministers with 50/50 gender parity—one of only few examples in the entire world. She also prioritized initiatives targeted towards women, including:
- A non-discrimination and good labor practices code for the public sector, with voluntary adoption for the private sector
- An end to discrimination against women of childbearing age in private healthcare plans
- A bill to ensure that family welfare benefits and subsidies are paid to mothers
- Stricter laws against domestic abuse along with more shelters for victims
- And her star initiative—a program to provide free public day-care for all working parents
Constitutionally prohibited from serving a second consecutive term, Michelle left office in March 2010 with record-high approval ratings.
She then pioneered the United Nations’ gender equality agenda as the Executive Director of the newly-established UN-Women. But in March 2013, Michelle resigned in order to campaign for a second term as president of Chile. Upon learning of her resignation, Secretary General Ban Ki Moon stated,
Her visionary leadership gave UN-Women the dynamic start it needed. Her fearlessness in advocating for women’s rights raised the global profile of this key issue. Her drive and compassion enabled her to mobilize and make a difference for millions of people across the world. […] This is a stellar legacy, and I am determined to build on it. (“Secretary-General”)
Back in Chile, Michelle once again became president on March 11, 2014, having come so far since the young victim of detention, interrogation, and exile she once was. In comparing her two campaigns, there is one remarkable difference. In the first election, Michelle had to assert women’s leadership potential against an overtly patriarchal man. In the second, Michelle’s main opponent was in fact another woman. This campaign is made even more phenomenal by the intertwining fates of Michelle Bachelet and Evelyn Matthei. They are both the daughters of generals. However, Matthei’s father was a member of Pinochet’s regime, the same regime that caused Michelle so much tragedy. Defeating Matthei in the election, Michelle’s story came full circle.
Her story demonstrates that women can gain respect for a special kind of feminine leadership—a nurturing, moral, and reconciliatory approach. Upon winning her first election, Michelle pondered,
Maybe history will tell what happened and why I came here because there are so many interpretations. Some people said it’s because people need on one hand, authority, but also need somebody to protect them. So some people said, ‘You are the big mother of everybody.’ (qtd. in Women, Power and Politics)
In a 2013 interview with the Journal of International Affairs, Michelle discussed the importance of women in leadership. She noted that in 2013, after years of patriarchal dictators, Latin America emerged as the leading region in terms of women parliamentarians—the legacy of countless women who fought against corrupt regimes. Michelle emphasized that the lessons from Latin America should be expanded worldwide:
The participation of women in politics is firstly, a matter of justice; secondly, a democratic necessity; and thirdly, efficient, because improving deliberative representation can lead to better policies that will have a positive impact on society as a whole.
In the manner of a true visionary, Michelle ended with this call to action: “If we are serious about the importance of increasing the involvement of women in politics, then we need to move towards a critical mass of female political leaders.”
One can only marvel at what Michelle will accomplish in her two remaining years this presidential term, and what wonders Michelle will contribute to history in all the years of her life yet to come. One thing is certain—we are all living in a truly remarkable world where a story like this can be the work of real life.
Bachelet, Michelle. Interview. “Making Gender Rights Visible.” Journal of International Affairs 66.2 (2013): 145-50.ProQuest. Web. 01 Apr. 2016.
Gutsch, Bonnie. “Michelle Bachelet.” Ffrf.org. Web. 14 Dec. 2015.
Langman, Jimmy, and Joseph Contreras. “An Unlikely Pioneer; Michelle Bachelet: The first woman to be elected to lead a major Latin American nation could well be an agnostic, socialist, single mother. but that’s just what Chileans like about her.” Newsweek Dec 26 2005: 66. ProQuest. Web. 01 Apr. 2016.
Powers, John. “A Woman of the People.” Vogue 05 2006: 268-271+. ProQuest. Web. 01 Apr. 2016.
“Secretary-General Praises ‘Visionary’ Leadership of Michelle Bachelet, Following Announcement by UN-Women Chief of Departure.” Targeted News Service Mar. 15 2013. ProQuest. Web. 01 Apr. 2016.
Thomas, Gwynn. “Michelle Bachelet’s Liderazgo Femenino (Feminine Leadership).” International Feminist Journal of Politics. 13.1 (2011): 63-82. Print.
Women, Power and Politics. Dir. Mary Olive Smith. Supervising Prod. & Writ. Maria Hinojosa. Senior Ed. & Writ. David Brancaccio. JumpStart Productions, 2008. Film. <http://www.pbs.org/now/shows/437/index.html>.
Worth, Richard. Modern World Leaders: Michelle Bachelet. New York, NY: Chelsea House, 2008. Print.
When it comes to women’s equality in the U.S., “we regret to observe a gap between rhetoric and reality,” says UN Working Group
“While the current administration has consistently expressed its unconditional support for the cause of women’s equality, we regret to observe a gap between rhetoric and reality,” the UN Working Group wrote in a statement issued by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
What’s more, the group warned, the “extreme polarization of politics” on Capitol Hill and across the country is profoundly affecting the U.S. government’s ability to ratify the global women’s anti-discrimination treaty known as CEDAW and more generally to guarantee women’s human rights. “We understand the complexity of federalism but this cannot be regarded as a justification for failure to secure these rights,” the group said.
“While all women are the victims of these missing rights,” the statement continues, “women who are poor, belong to Native American, Afro-American and Hispanic ethnic minorities, migrant women, LBTQ women, women with disabilities, and older women are disparately vulnerable.”
Over the course of their visit to the U.S., which took place between November 30-December 11, human rights experts Eleonora Zielinska, Alda Facio, and Frances Raday specifically observed:
- “ever increasing barriers” to reproductive healthcare, including abortion;
- a low level of representation for women in elected political posts, which the authors attribute in part to “the greater difficulties women face in fundraising for campaigns;”
- cuts to critical social safety net programs, which have “a disproportionately negative impact on minority women and single mothers;” and
- a 21 percent gender wage gap, “affecting women’s income throughout their lives, increasing women’s pension poverty.”
The UN Working Group also said it was “shocked” by the lack of mandatory standards for workplace accommodation for pregnant women, post-natal mothers, and persons with care responsibilities, which it noted “are required in international human rights law.”
“International human rights law requires the establishment of social protection floors for core economic and social needs, provision for paid maternity leave, and the taking of all appropriate measures to produce de facto equality between all women and men in the labor market and in women-owned businesses,” the statement reads.
“It is not for our group to suggest how these minimum standards should be achieved,” it continues, “but only to point out how the United States, as economic leader of the world, lags behind in providing a safety net and a decent life for those of its women who do not have access to independent wealth, high salaries or economic support from a partner or family.”
Noting that the experts visited the Rio Grande Valley in Texas—where they met with and toured Whole Woman’s Health, the last remaining abortion clinic in the area—the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR) on Tuesday said the UN Working Group’s findings affirm that women in Texas are facing a “reproductive healthcare crisis.”
Said Nancy Northup, CRR president and CEO: “It is simply unacceptable that Texas women are facing a reproductive rights crisis so dire that the global community is calling attention to it as a human rights violation.”
September 25, 2015 1:36 PM ET
July 17, 2014 by Simone Lieban Levine and Bethan Saunders
Known as the “women’s treaty,” the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women—CEDAW—was signed by the United States 34 years ago today. The United Nations had adopted the treaty, pledging to give women equal rights in all aspects of their lives, on December 18, 1979, and at a special ceremony during the Copenhagen Conference the U.S. and 63 other countries signed on.
But that was only part of the process necessary for putting CEDAW into action. Countries also need to ratify the treaty—and 34 years later, the U.S. still hasn’t. That puts this country in what could hardly be called good company, with Iran, Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia, Palau and Tonga. Hardly a roll call of great democracies and world leaders. Meanwhile, 188 other countries and regions have ratified the treaty.
In the countries that have ratified CEDAW, it has shown success in protecting women and promoting their rights. In Kuwait, CEDAW led to extending the right to vote to women. In Cameroon, under the influence of CEDAW, traditional leaders changed local customs that subjected women to second-class status. And in Nepal, CEDAW helps prevent women and girls from being trafficked. Generally, the treaty expands women’s access to employment, economic resources and political engagement. It addresses ending child marriage, ensuring the right to vote, reducing sex trafficking and increasing access to education and economic opportunities for women, as well as a host of other crucial rights.
Feminists have never stopped trying to get the U.S. government to ratify the treaty. Just a few weeks ago, on June 24, the Senate Subcommittee on International Operations and Organizations, Human Rights, Democracy and Global Women’s Issues held a hearing on “Combating Violence and Discrimination Against Women: A Global Call to Action,” which included important testimony on the status of CEDAW. Hearings are great, but CEDAW remains in limbo, a long way from the Senate floor.
Even though American women enjoy a much more privileged status than most women in the world, it is clear that progress is needed in certain areas, such as ending domestic violence and closing the pay gap. CEDAW would hold the U.S. accountable by international standards to require transparency and action by the government to further the status of women within our borders.While it would not change any U.S. laws, CEDAW provides guidelines and blueprints for national action to end discrimination and elevate the status of women.
On this anniversary, we hope that lawmakers will reflect on the positive impact CEDAW has had in the places where it has been ratified. Hopefully, the U.S. will be the next country to ratify this critical international women’s treaty. Join the fight to ratify CEDAW here.
Photo of U.S. senators during the June 24 hearing on the ratification of CEDAW and the International Violence Against Women Act, courtesy of the Feminist Majority Foundation.
(CNN) — From the 50th anniversary this
year of Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine
Mystique” to the recent PBS documentary
“Makers: Women Who Make America” that featured Gloria Steinem and scores more women, it’s easy to
assume that the United States is at the forefront of women’s rights.
But we’re not. Even as the rest of the world celebrates International Women’s Day on Friday — not much
of a holiday here — the United States will also stand out as one of the few countries yet to ratify a major
United Nations treaty designed to bring equality to women everywhere.
Critics of the U.N.’s Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, known as
CEDAW, say it doesn’t reflect American values enough. Here’s what they are missing: The treaty takes
American values of equality and women’s rights and makes them global norms.
Of the 194 U.N. member nations, 187 countries have ratified CEDAW. The United States is among seven
countries that have not — along with the Pacific island nations of Tonga and Palua; Iran, Somalia, South
Sudan and Sudan — not the first countries that come to mind when discussing women’s rights.
President Carter sent CEDAW to the U.S. Senate for advice and consent in 1980. It remains in the Senate
Committee on Foreign Relations. The Senate has held hearings on CEDAW five times in the past 25
years but failed each time to bring the treaty to a vote on the floor. Why?
Conservative organizations, such as the Home School Legal Defense Association and Concerned Women
for America, vehemently oppose the ratification of all human rights treaties. They insist that human rights
treaties violate American sovereignty. Thirty-eight Republican senators demonstrated this last December,
when they refused to join their more moderate colleagues in ratifying the Convention on the Rights of
Persons with Disabilities.
CEDAW establishes the moral, civic and political equality of women and protects women’s right to be free
from discrimination and violence. Thanks to CEDAW, these values have diffused around the world.
Conservative critics are wrong when they claim that CEDAW
reflects radical feminist views. In fact, a Republican woman,
Nixon appointee Patricia Hutar, persuaded the United Nations
to draft CEDAW. On January 30, 1974, President Nixon called
for the U.S. government to commemorate International
Women’s Year at all levels.
Nixon’s announcement won international accolades and
prompted government officials from around the world to follow
suit. In 1976, President Ford sent a bipartisan delegation comprising many accomplished American
women to Geneva to draft the initial text of CEDAW. Hutar’s skill as a negotiator proved critical in
persuading Communist countries to approve the text of the treaty.
The efforts of those American women paid off. CEDAW works. It has empowered civil society
organizations to demand that governments respect women’s human rights and to adopt policies to limit
sex trafficking, domestic violence, child marriage and discrimination in the workplace.
Opponents have a point when they note that ratifying this document has not prevented some countries
from being the most egregious violators of women’s rights. When the most powerful country in the world
does not support women’s rights, it gives permission for other countries to dismiss their commitment to
improving the status of women. With the United States behind it, CEDAW would have even more clout
than it does.
The United States once led the world in rights for women. In the 1970s, the Democratic and Republican
parties supported a wide array of women’s rights policies, including an Equal Rights Amendment to the
U.S. Constitution, publicly funded child care and equal pay for women.
These efforts weakened once the Republican Party stopped supporting women’s rights. I still believe the
United States is one of the best places in the world to be a woman. I would like to see my country once
again assert global leadership on women’s rights. Ratification of CEDAW is an essential first step.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Lisa Baldez.