President Michelle Bachelet of Chile: “Women can, and women can in all fields”

Quezon City, 17 November 2015—On the 17th of November, Her Excellency Michelle Bachelet spoke at a “Women and Youth Dialogue” hosted at the Miriam College in Quezon City, Philippines. The President of Chile was in Manila for the APEC Summit and attended the 4th National Women’s Summit as guest of honour.

In an auditorium packed with representatives from the Philippine government, NGOs, civil society and Miriam College’s female student population, President Bachelet emphasized that economic and human development depends greatly on the role of women. Aptly noting that football is not the country’s favourite, she likened the non-inclusion of women to playing basketball with only half the team participating.

She lauded the Philippines for its progress in advancing equal rights for women. She noted that, in historical accounts, the great feats of men had traditionally overshadowed those of women. However, today, no one doubts the contribution of women to human rights, peace, and progress. She cited the role of women in the Katipunan, a revolutionary organisation in the 1890s that aimed for Philippine independence from the Spaniards, as well as the Katipunera of Miriam College, a group of alumni and employees that marched against the Marcos dictatorship during the revolution in 1986.

The Philippines is Asia and the Pacific’s best performing country in closing gender disparity, according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap 2014 report. It is the only country in Asia and the Pacific that has fully closed both educational attainment and health and survival gender gaps. The report also says that it “is the second best country (just after Norway) on the ability of women to rise to positions of enterprise leadership indicator, and the country with the highest percentage of firms with female participation in ownership (69%).”

Despite this highly commendable progress, Bachelet said, “I can imagine it is not a paradise for women here.” This remark was met with audible concurrence by the participants. Although Chile has a female Senate President and female trade union presidents, “Women have difficulty in accessing credit. We still have violence against women. The face of poverty is still that of women and children,” she continued.

Aside from poverty, she also highlighted illiteracy, wage gaps and disparity in political participation. She insisted for increase in women’s participation so democracy becomes more representative of the population. Societies that exclude women “cannot be seen as democratic.”

She shared the recent initiatives Chile has taken to close the gap in political participation. In January 2015, Chile’s Congress approved a bill reforming the national electoral system which includes a provision requiring all political parties competing in congressional elections to ensure that no more than 60% of candidates on their slate are of either sex. This “gender quota” will mean that at least 40% of congressional candidates will be women. Bachelet also mentioned the “zebra system” list, wherein the names of men and women are alternated in a zebra stripe pattern. This averts the practise of grouping women’s names to the lower and more likely to be ignored end of the list.

Quoting former Senator Leticia Ramos-Shahani at the 4th UN World Conference on Women, Bachelet said, “We must lead, not only follow. We must be the doctor who can heal and cure, and not be just the patient. We must be catalysts and initiators of change, and not just be seekers of the status quo.” Ramos-Shahani had earlier introduced the President of Chile at the start of the program.

During the open forum, Bachelet expounded on the benefits of having women in the military. While recognising the issues women can face, such as discrimination and rape, women have a lot to contribute. To women victims of conflict, the presence of women in peacekeeping operations gives them a sense of empowerment, that “women can.” Victims may also feel more comfortable with them and may even provide them with information vital to peacekeeping operations. It could also encourage women to participate in post-conflict nation building.

Exuding warmth and charm, the President also shared her thoughts on leadership and relationships. “In any field… you have to understand that there is no such thing as a superwoman.” She cautioned against trying to be a lone leader and to instead embrace collective action. Thus, she emphasized the need for women to build networks and to support each other. “Sometimes women can be critical of each other,” she noted. Lastly, “have sense of humour,” she advised. Asked on her thoughts on achieving success, she said that success has many meanings and the first step is “to know what you want, where you want to go.” With regard to happiness, she expressed, “If you do what you think is right, you will be happy.”