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Committee on Teaching About the United Nations
Meet the Women on the Frontlines of Change

Video message from Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

6 June 2021

Dear friends,

I am delighted to participate in this gathering. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak on a topic that has been close to my heart throughout my life.

When I was a young refugee, far from my homeland, struggling to attend medical school in a foreign language.

When I returned to Chile and became a medical doctor in poor neighborhoods, often working with the children of torture victims and people who had been disappeared by the dictatorship.

When I became my country's Minister for Health, Minister for Defence, and when I was honoured to be elected, twice as President of Chile.

Across these decades, I have encountered countless women whose powerful analysis and deep sense of service to others have moved and inspired me.

And yet, still today, despite progress in many fields, women in leadership positions still face resistance, suspicion and hostility based on persistent stereotypes about what supposedly "should" be their inferior and submissive place in society.

From a young age, many girls are taught to doubt themselves, and to defer to boys and men.

It takes extra will-power, strength and courage for women to pursue their aspirations and achieve leadership positions.

And yet women have proven, over and over again, that they are capable of incredible things, in all fields. It has been widely noted that a very disproportionate percentage of countries that have most effectively handled COVID-19 were led by women. Most recently, Australia's Lowy Institute indicated that women head three of the top ten countries and territories in terms of managing the pandemic. Given that women lead just 22 of the UN's 193 Member States, that's quite spectacular. They listened to impartial expert advice; they took decisive action in the public interest; and they were effective and compassionate in communicating with the public.

I want to encourage young people – of all genders – to understand that women and girls are naturally fit to excel, to lead, and to make their own choices about their lives.

This is also the firm position of the United Nations. Women and girls have equal rights as men and boys. Their empowerment is essential to development. And their participation is key to peace and security. Evidence conclusively demonstrates that when women are included, the peace agreements reached are more likely to be durable.

Today, many of us are focused on the urgent crises created by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the need to push back and rebuild our economies and societies.

We need women to help lead that effort.

The injustices and inequalities created by discrimination were a major cause of our economic, social and medical vulnerability to the pandemic. There can be no question of building back the same structures – not just unfair but which also crumbled so easily, causing poverty, pain and death.

To truly recover, and create more resilient nations for the future, the UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, has called for a "new social contract" to "enable young people to live in dignity… ensure women have the same prospects and opportunities as men… and protect the sick, the vulnerable, and minorities of all kinds."

This is work that all of us can advance – within the United Nations, and in our own countries, communities, workplaces and schools.

We need to stand up for change – and for human rights.