Michelle Bachelet: The importance of completing Chile's beautiful task Print E-mail
 London -- June 27 2006
By Michelle Bachelet

They came from all over Chile on election night in January: from affluent neighbourhoods, marginal areas, middle-class districts; they were students, workers, professionals, housewives; young and old; mothers, grandmothers, daughters and granddaughters. They wore across their chests the presidential sash, made by their own hands the afternoon of the electoral victory or bought from vendors on the street for less than $2. Their message was very clear: with a female elected president leading Chile for the first time, all of them felt that they were part of the government.

Their simple, poignant gesture makes me twice as committed to them and to all the women of Chile. Women worked on my presidential campaign so that I could represent them and protect their interests; because they know that I have lived and continue to live as one of them. But this solidarity was certainly not their only motivation. As with the men who elected me, these women expect inclusive, original, consistent and consensus-based public policies. They also expect a new style of government: demanding yet accessible.

This new style had its inaugural moment with the gender-balanced cabinet I soon designated. This equity has been replicated throughout the state structure, in all possible areas.

Gender balance is a profound principle that is at the same time quite simple. It is the women's demand to share power. It is also their right. Gender balance is a mirror of and an ideal for any society in which equality between men and women is promoted.

Therefore, I hope the gender balance that we have established in the cabinet - as well as in a large part of the government - contributes to the achievement of a greater equality of access to all levels of decision-making, having a symbolic effect on Chilean society and opening new horizons for women in the private sector, in culture, in communications and in civil society.

The growing participation of women in politics will undoubtedly elevate the quality of our democracy and achieve changes in the traditional mindsets of power. Our goal is transforming these mindsets, not adapting to them. That is why I have adopted the saying: "With a few women in politics, women change; with many women in politics, politics change."

Chilean women are increasingly entering the formal job market, which is fundamental for the growth and development of a country. The United Nations' millennium development goals state that without the inclusion of women it is impossible to move out of poverty. We know that in two-parent families where both parents work it is easier to break the cycle of poverty. In the case of Chile, one in every three homes is headed by a woman and therefore women's access to the workplace is not only a condition for progress but also a duty to their loved ones. Behind a poor woman there is gender inequality that worsens her poverty. That is why it is significant that in the early years of the Concertación coalition government the number of households living below the poverty line declined from 38.6 per cent in 1990 to 20.6 per cent 10 years later, while the rate of female participation in the job market rose from 29.6 per cent to 37 per cent. We now face the challenge of increasing the latter, to reach and surpass the Latin American average.

Salaried employment improves women's self-perception and enables them better to resist domestic violence when it occurs. Furthermore, the workplace offers them protection when their peers or superiors support or encourage them to reject such aggression.

Likewise, we should discourage women from accepting abuse in the workplace for fear of losing the autonomy that they have gained by working, or not daring to be promoted to levels of greater responsibility and higher incomes, as indicated in a recent study conducted in Santiago de Chile.

A woman's access to salaried employment should take place under dignified and equal conditions. The obstacles to progressing towards this objective are many and difficult to overcome. But it is possible to resolve them through efficient and well-financed public policies.

We must guarantee that women may leave their small children in competent hands when they go to work. That is why my government intends to establish a child-protection system designed to provide equal development opportunities for children during their first eight years of life, explicitly incorporating the conditions necessary for the entrance of women into the job market.

We should also ensure that women receive adequate healthcare and that society as a whole takes responsibility for job-related illnesses, childcare and the cost of motherhood; and, of course, we must guarantee that women obtain dignified pensions at the end of their professional lives.

The girls and young women who are entering the education system today can aspire to use their abilities and talents in the most varied areas of human activity, because they will no longer read in their textbooks that only men are the protagonists of human development, and because they will have the support of a society that no longer justifies inequalities between men and women.

For them, the citizens of the future, the beautiful task that we have begun must be successfully completed.

The writer is president of Chile

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2006