Star power at the U.N.


A single mother of three, survivor of prison torture and exile. A pediatrician, linguist and practiced buster of gender barriers as the first female president of Chile. This is the resume that makes Michelle Bachelet an excellent choice to lead the newly created United Nations agency to promote gender equality around the globe, to be called U.N. Women. With her appointment this week, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has brought some badly needed star power to the world organization in general and to women’s issues in particular. Now he must ensure that Bachelet has the money, staff and political support to do the job successfully.

Fifteen years ago, U.N. member states signed a declaration in Beijing dedicating themselves to ending discrimination against women and closing a gender gap in a dozen areas, including education, health, employment, political participation and human rights. Although some progress has been made, it isn’t nearly enough. Women still suffer higher rates of poverty and illiteracy than men and have less access to full-time and high-paying jobs. They face forced marriages, genital mutilation, sexual enslavement and rape as a weapon of war, which the U.N. Security Council has recognized as a crime against humanity.

Take the case of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Last year, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton visited eastern Congo to focus attention on the widespread use of rape in that country’s conflicts and to call for an end to “the sexual and gender-based violence committed by so many.” This year, Ban appointed Margot Wallstrom of Sweden as the U.N.’s first special representative on sexual violence in conflict. Yet rape remains a weapon of choice in Congo. The U.N. reported that about 500 women and girls were raped by rebel groups in July alone; about 15,000 rapes are recorded each year. The U.N. has apologized for the failure of its peacekeepers in Congo to protect the population when the government did not. The problem, according to human rights groups, is impunity. Surely if Congolese men were being gang-raped at gunpoint in such numbers, something would be done about it.

Bachelet won’t be able to solve all of the world’s unfinished gender business, of course, but she is a leader with a strong record in fighting for women’s rights. As president, she named 10 men and 10 women to her Cabinet, legalized alimony payments to divorced women in that Catholic country and spoke out on discrimination against women. She’ll need to be a good bureaucratic combatant as well. Her agency will encompass four others that work on women’s issues, absorbing their staffs and combined budget of about $220 million, with field operations dependent on voluntary contributions from member states. She and Ban must make sure the donors pay up, and fulfill the agenda for gender equality launched in 1995.