Michelle Bachelet, the former president of Chile, urged Cornellians to stand up for the empowerment of women at a lecture Tuesday, arguing that, if women are not allowed to occupy positions of power, gender equality cannot be achieved.
Bachelet, the first woman elected president of Chile, led the country in that capacity from 2006 to 2010. She has served as the Chilean minister of defense and as the minister of health. She now works as the first Under-Secretary General and Executive Director of United Nations Women, which advocates gender equality and the empowerment of women in the world.
“The very creation of U.N. Women by the United Nations General Assembly illustrated the crucial, and I would say historic, recognition [of women] from the international community,” Bachelet said.
According to Bachelet, gender equality and women’s empowerment are not only noble goals in their own right, but also serve as fundamental drivers of social, cultural, political and economic development.
“There is rising awareness that we cannot solve the great challenges of our time unless we unleash the potential of full and equal participation of women, whether we’re talking about addressing climate change or reducing poverty,” Bachelet said.
Bachelet pointed to Senegal as an example of progress toward eliminating gender inequality. There, she said, village chiefs and women in more than 5,000 communities are challenging the practice of female genital mutilation.
“Senegal may very well become the first high-privileged country to succeed in ending this horrible centuries-old practice. And the beauty of this impending success and probably also the reason [for it] … is that it’s not imposed from the outside, but comes from within the society, between men and women,” Bachelet said.
She added that education is a stepping stone to self-advancement. Citing her personal experiences, Bachelet said it was her education in medicine while in Chile that allowed her to become a pediatrician and later the Chilean Minister of Health.
Bachelet acknowledged, however, that challenges such as violence against women and a lack of access to contraceptives hinder women’s ability to further their education.
“The historic and persistent marginalization and discrimination is not sustainable. It’s not just hurting women. It’s hurting all of us,” she said. “It is both the right thing and the smart thing to do, to ensure women’s rights, to advance gender equality and women’s empowerment, especially during this time of rising inequality and up and down economies.”
She said women have not always been allowed to be involved in work advancing public policies and laws that can help eliminate the disadvantages they face in society.
“In particular, the right of women to take charge of their own sexual and reproductive rights seems far from secure,” she said, adding that she finds it “incredible” that it is largely men who are the decision-makers on these issues.
According to Bachelet, countries need to level the playing field and strive toward gender equality. Without women in decision-making positions, countries cannot address some of the biggest issues facing women today, Bachelet said.
Bachelet ended her talk with a call to action.
“I urge you to stand up for equality and progress for all … so that the future women want is the future we all share,” she said.