Michelle Bachelet celebrates IWD centennial in Liberia
When Michelle Bachelet, former president of Chile and now chief of the newly formed UN organisation, UN Women, was asked why she had chosen to spend International Women’s Day in Liberia her answer was straightforward: Liberia is an excellent example of what can be achieved for women when they are empowered to take leadership roles in forging a new society after conflict.
After almost two decades of civil war the country had a legacy of scars, she said, but the involvement of women in peace-making and peace-keeping had led to greater gender equality in Liberia.
The country that had chosen Africa’s first democratically-elected female president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, was therefore an appropriate place to mark the centennial of International Women’s Day.
Bachelet argued that ‘women are very important agents of peace and change’ but must be empowered to take leadership roles in peace talks and negotiations.
In transition periods after strife and conflict, it is often women who offer the best opportunity for reshaping society, she said.
UN Women is working hard to change the situation in which women are ‘never heads of negotiating teams’ and to bring women to the centre of peace talks wherever they may be held.
The organisation now has teams in Egypt and Tunisia and hopes to be working in Libya soon, though the main focus there is still on humanitarian relief.
These teams help to ensure a presence for women on national commissions and conflict resolution committees and a role in rebuilding the state on a more equal footing, in order to bring about ‘a better use of half the population.’
UN Women has an annual budget of $500 million, and currently works in eighty countries to ‘ strengthen the UN’s ability to provide coherent, timely and demand-driven support to UN member states… in their efforts to realize equality for all women and girls.’ (www.unwomen.org)
Behind all this rhetoric there lies some genuine hope that Bachelet may be able to deliver on some of the promises she is making: years of advocacy by grassroots activists in the women’s movement were instrumental in the creation of UN Women and their input is clearly important to her.
Just last week she said that ‘funding the organizational strength of women’s associations is a sound investment in inclusive peace’ (at the Phyllis Kossoff Annual Lecture).
Given the importance of local women’s groups, of NGOs and those small voluntary support groups based around churches, schools or clinics – often in rural areas away from the limelight – to creating real change in women’s lives, such a commitment will be vital in ensuring that all the speeches and planning documents really do translate into genuine social change for women.
Bachelet said this morning that she is ‘full of hope, energy and commitment” – let us share in that hope, at least for today, and wish everyone a ‘Happy International Women’s Day!’