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UN Women Director Brings Empowerment Message to W. Africa

Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women Michelle Bachelet pictured on Nov. 23, 2010.
Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women Michelle Bachelet pictured on Nov. 23, 2010.
Jennifer Lazuta
The executive director of U.N. Women kicked off a weeklong visit to West Africa on Monday in Senegal, a trip that is focused on ending violence against women and calling for women to take on greater economic, political and peace-building roles. 

Michelle Bachelet was the first female president of Chile and is the current executive director of U.N. Women, an organization created in 2010 to promote gender equality and the empowerment of women.

Speaking to reporters in Dakar Tuesday, she said women’s economic and political participation in a country is vital to its long-term stability, democracy and growth.

“Women’s rights, gender equality and women’s empowerment is essential not only for women, it’s essential for the whole society," said Bachelet. "And we have so much evidence of that in the world.  If you, for example, have 100 people and you’re only using the capacity of the half, you’re losing the other half.  So if we are able to untap and unleash women’s potential, the whole country will benefit from that.”

Bachelet’s trip will include Mali, where a coup last year allowed militants to seize the north and impose a harsh form of Islamic law.  Bachelet says the United Nations sees women as crucial to any long-term solution in Mali and other conflict-ridden societies. 

“In our experience, when women play an important role in the peace-building process, peace is more sustainable.  So we’ve been training women there [in Mali] as mediators, as peace makers, so that women will play a substantive role in the peace building and the reconstruction of society,” she said.

Bachelet notes some countries in Africa have made strides in increasing the participation of women in society.

In Rwanda, for example, women comprise 56 percent of the government - the highest level of female participation in the world.  That achievement came after the government introduced a 30 percent quota for women in its post-genocide constitution.

In 2010, the Senegalese government adopted a law requiring that there be an equal number of male and female candidates in all legislative, regional, municipal and rural elections.  This quota resulted in a doubling of the number of women in the National Assembly in 2012 to 43 percent.

That is why Bachelet is stressing government action to help give women the voice she believes they deserve, not only by creating policies and laws that protect women, but by making sure they are implemented.

“We have a lot countries that have laws in place, countries that outlaw violence against women, countries who outlaw FGM (female genital mutilation), child marriage, or that have defined the age of marriage, but still that [violence] is happening,” she said.

Bachelet continues her tour in Mali on Wednesday and wraps up her tour in Nigeria at the end of the week.

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