The Secretary General tapped former Chilean president Michelle Bachelet to be the first head of UN WOMEN.   This is a new UN agency to that the UN hopes will raise the profile of gender and women’s issues at the UN. It will oversee four UN entities: the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), the UN Division for the Advancement of Women, The Office for the Special Advisor on Gender Issues, and the International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women. Back in March I wrote a pretty thorough account of the significance of this reform:

To the outsider, this may seem like obtuse bureaucratic reshuffling. But many in the NGO community are hopeful that it could lead to tangible improvements in the lives of women around the world. “The gender architecture of the UN is very fragmented,” says Colette Tamko of the NGO Women’s Environment and Development Organization. “There has been only limited resources to work on gender programs.” Limited resources has translated into limited global progress on gender-specific issues, like the Millennium Development Goals of reducing maternal mortality and increasing girls’ access to primary education.  “There is too much of a disconnect between lofty goals of the UN and a capacity to see them through,” says Kathy Hall of the UN Foundation. (Disclosure)

The proposed new UN body, currently reffered to as the “Composite Gender Entity” is meant to bridge the gap between what UN member states say are priorities for gender equality and the UN secretariat’s ability to deliver. According to NGO officials with whom I spoke, this means significantly ramping up technical assistance to help developing world countries improve womens’ access to health care, education, and economic opportunity

Bachelet is a smart pick to run this new organization. She is exactly the kind of global figure who can draw attention to these issues by her very presence, and is also someone capable of bridging the north-south divide that so-often hiders the work of the UN.   She was initially considered a front runner for the spot, but for reasons I never fully understood, rumors swirled that she was no longer considering the appointment.

Bachelet becomes the second former head of state to take up a leadership position under Ban Ki Moon at the UN. Former New Zealand PM and current UNDP Chief Helene Clark is the other.

Here is Ban making the announcement this morning.

SG: Good morning Ladies and Gentlemen

Thank you for coming at such short notice.

Today, I am delighted to announce the appointment of Ms. Michelle Bachelet, former President of Chile, as the head of UN Women, the newly created UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, established on 2 July by the General Assembly Resolution.

As you know, the creation of UN Women is the culmination of almost four years effort and today’s announcement has been made possible thanks to the hard work of the Member States and the many partners who share our commitment to this agenda.

This has been a top and very personal priority of mine and I therefore take special satisfaction in this appointment. Nearly four years ago, I took office determined to see the merging of the four separate gender entities into one powerful, dynamic and effective entity. UN Women will promote the interests of women and girls across the globe.

Ms. Bachelet brings to this critical position a history of dynamic global leadership, highly honed political skills and uncommon ability to create consensus and focus among UN Agencies and many partners in both the public and private sector.

I am confident that under her strong leadership, we can improve the lives of millions of women and girls throughout the world.

Next week, we will host a special summit on the Millennium Development Goals. Women and children will be at the very core of our final push to realise the goals by the deadline of 2015.

Thank you very much.

Q: Mr. Secretary-General, can you tell us more about the process leading up to the appointment of Michelle Bachelet? There were some rumours that she didn’t want the position, and then changed her mind. And then also, can you talk a little bit more about what you hope she can accomplish in the immediate term?

SG: First of all, this process started as soon as the General Assembly adopted the Resolution, asking me to appoint the head and establish this organization.

We opened this process to the Member States and all NGOs and the civil community. We have received 26 distinguished candidates from all around the world. We have constituted a selection panel headed by the Deputy Secretary-General, Dr. [Asha Rose] Migiro, and also composed of senior advisors – Under-Secretaries-General, and also outside panel members. The process has been very transparent, and very objective, and fair.

As a result of this selection process, I was recommended to interview myself three finalist candidates, whose names I am not going to announce for their privacy. I have interviewed them personally last week, and I decided with the unanimous consent of all the panel members. I am very pleased that former President Michelle Bachelet will bring a wealth of experience, global leadership, and global stature, in first of all establishing this new UN Women entity, and bring to it a real force to meet the expectation of many women and girls and children around the world. I am sure that under her strong leadership we will have a very strong new UN Women entity.

The General Assembly asked me that this new agency should be fully operational by 1 January 2011, next year. We have a little more than three and a half months. I will discuss this Sunday, when I appoint her formally, how we can make the process very speedy, so that we can appoint and recruit staff and we have to have our agendas. Basically we have all these structures in place. Now it is a matter of how we can speedily implement these structures and policy and visions.

I will do my best, working closely with Ms. Bachelet, to make this entity fully operational as soon as possible, meeting the expectation of so many millions and millions of women and girls around the world. I ask all the Member States and civil community leaders, and governments, and business communities, to render their full support and cooperation.

Thank you very much.

UPDATE: UN Foundation Chief Tim Wirth’s statement on the appointment:

Washington, D.C. (September 14, 2010) – United Nations Foundation President Senator Timothy E. Wirth issued the following statement on the appointment of the new head of UN Women:

“The appointment of Chile’s former president Michelle Bachelet as the head of UN Women—the United Nations’ new entity for women and girls—is proof that the UN is making smart moves to improve its operations and the lives of people around the globe. As UN Foundation Founder and Chairman Ted Turner said in a letter to Bachelet, the decision ‘sends a clear signal to the world that women’s issues and rights will have both a strong voice and skilled ear on the global stage.’

“Bachelet, who ended her service as her country’s first female president in March 2010, has distinguished herself as a champion for those who do not always have a voice. She was instrumental in pushing for a stronger network of social protections for Chile’s poorest and advocating for laws dealing with violence against women. In her new role, Bachelet will be responsible for elevating the rights and needs of women and girls across the globe, including the 330 million women who comprise the world’s working poor.

“By harnessing the United Nations’ collective impact and reach to advance the rights and needs of women and girls under one entity and the strong leadership of a skilled manager, UN Women will greatly strengthen the UN’s work in the area of gender equality and women’s empowerment. It will ensure that women’s issues are included in all aspects of the UN’s work. The creation of UN Women will improve programs that directly address the human rights violations and challenges to individual, community, and national development that result from gender inequality.

“We applaud Bachelet’s appointment as a critical move in helping move us closer to achieving the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which include such global issues as gender equality (MDG 3), reducing child mortality (MDG 4) and improving maternal health (MDG 5). Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon’s choice will ensure that the important UN conventions regarding women’s rights fulfill their maximum potential and help focus the UN’s ongoing work on behalf of women and girls. We look forward to working with Bachelet and UN Women to ensure that the voices of all women and girls are heard and that improving their lives is at the center of global efforts to create a better world.”

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