Two weeks ago, courtesy of the UN Foundation, I had the opportunity to meet the UN’s second in command, Deputy Secretary General Dr. Asha-Rose Migiro. Since today is International Women’s Day, it seems like an excellent excuse to talk about how profoundly moved I was by our meeting. Dr. Migiro is both the highest ranking woman in UN history and the highest ranking woman from the developing world in the UN system. She wears both these facts on her sleeve, and rightly so. Dr. Migiro rose from academia (she has a PHD in Law) to government service in her native Tanzania. Prior to her appointment at the UN, she served as Tanzania’s foreign minister.
Dr. Migiro briefed a small number of press–mostly from women’s interest magazines–about what the United Nations system is going to promote gender equality and women’s rights. Now, any old bureaucrat can simply go through the motions and list all the UN is doing. But what distinguished Dr. Migiro’s presentation was the way that she connected all these issues to her life experience. This truly hit home the fact that issues like maternal mortality, gender pay gaps, and access to education were personal and not just abstract public policy issues. It is not just that she could relate to these issues–she has lived these issues.
At one point, she sat back in her chair and reflected on how frightened she was when she became pregnant with her second child. This was in the late 1990s–many decades, as she said, since Tanzania received its independence. Still, the joy of being pregnant was tempered by the fear that she may die during child birth. She had friends, also urban middle class professionals and lawyers like herself, who succumbed to complications during child birth. Maternal mortality was not just the problem for the rural poor–it was something with which she could directly empathize.
She admits that experiences like this are so central to her identity as a woman of the developing world. Now, she is a top UN official and a champion of causes like maternal health, fighting HIV and AIDS, and expanding access to education that benefit women, girls, vulnerable populations world-wide. Everyone–and I include we, the over-privileged– are lucky she’s there.