United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-mooncalled July 2, 2010, a “watershed day.” That was when the General Assembly approved the creation of the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women—known simply as U.N. Women. Intended to give (in Ban’s words) “a much stronger voice for women and for gender equality” around the world, the organization replaced four underfunded and obscure bureaucracies devoted to women with a single entity that would finally give half the world’s population the high-profile platform it deserved.
Leading the new organization and charged with boosting its profile would be one of the world’s most powerful and inspiring women, Michelle Bachelet, the former president of Chile. Bachelet’s accomplishments are rooted in the traumatic experiences of her early adulthood. When Chile’s government was overthrown in a coup led by Augusto Pinochet in 1973, Bachelet’s father (an Air Force general who backed the deposed Salvador Allende) was arrested and tortured in prison. He came home briefly under house arrest before being thrown back in detention, where he died of a heart attack under suspicious circumstances in 1974 at the age of 51.
In January 1975, state security forces arrested Bachelet herself, then a 23-year-old medical student, and her mother, taped their eyes shut, and jailed them in Villa Grimaldi, a mansion turned into a house of terror where prisoners were routinely beaten, shocked with electricity, raped, and killed. Despite the ordeal, Bachelet refused to break, reportedly singing with other prisoners to keep sane and helping to treat women raped by the guards. Bachelet has never spoken in detail about the period, other than acknowledging that she was beaten, noting instead that she was one of the “lucky ones” who survived before being sent into exile in Australia following the intervention of family members.
Bachelet later studied defense policy and, after Pinochet relinquished power, became Latin America’s first female defense minister. An agnostic, divorced, single mother of three in a Catholic country, her overwhelming personal popularity propelled her to Chile’s presidency in 2006. Plagued early on by student protests and a scandal surrounding the implementation of a public-transportation system, she eventually righted her administration and reached Chile’s highest-ever approval rating, thanks in large part to her deft handling of the country’s economy.
Chilean women’s rights advocates first approached Bachelet to gauge her interest in the U.N. job while she was still president, and later chanted “Bachelet, U.N. Women!” at a meeting in Brazil shortly after she left office in 2010. (She was constitutionally prevented from running for a second consecutive four-year term.) Though loath to leave the political scene and her family, including grandsons for whom she records Hallmark storybooks, she threw her name into the selection process.
“At the beginning, my feeling was, ‘No, I should not go to this. I should stay in my country,’?” Bachelet says. “But at the end what happened is that the majority of my family thought that I should go, I should come here, and that it was a marvelous task.’?”
Both Ban and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are said to have worked hard to persuade Bachelet to accept the new post, pledging their support, convincing her that U.N. Women would be more than the sum of its predecessors, and appealing to her sense of duty to help women.
And yet from the beginning of Bachelet’s tenure there have been problems. To begin with, U.N. Women was not accorded the power of a full agency, a distinction that matters at the United Nations. It is the product of four years of negotiations that nearly ended in gridlock after member states split on the organization’s mission. What emerged was an entity with an operational responsibility to run programs on the ground when countries want them, and a policymaking arm to ensure women sit at the center of the U.N.’s work.
All that costs real money, which points to the more fundamental problem: the financial resources critical to U.N. Women’s success have failed to materialize. While countless U.N. speeches have eloquently emphasized the importance of improving the lot of women and girls, contributions to the fledgling organization haven’t lived up to the rhetoric.
So far, U.N. Women has received roughly $200 million in funds, which falls drastically short of the $1 billion women’s groups hoped would be available, and short even of the $500 million Ban outlined in January 2010 as the “total funding requirements for the startup phase.”
The United States has come in for particular criticism after giving a mere $6 million in 2011. The State Department, whose budget covers U.N. funds, asked Congress for $8 million for U.N. Women for fiscal year 2012, quite a bit less than what many observers had expected, given the key role America played in lobbying for U.N. Women. Women’s activists have called the amount “shameful,” but State Department officials say they are doing the best they can given the fiscal crunch and congressional realities.
The shortfall is especially frustrating with the challenges confronting women around the world at the present moment. The Arab Spring and its impact on women has been an early focus for Bachelet. She has directed U.N. Women to work quietly and closely with women in Egypt, supporting at their request a group of organizations that is fighting for women’s presence in the government they helped create.
Bachelet insists she is not discouraged, though she admits to underestimating the time required for fundraising. “I am not disappointed. I am not frustrated,” she says. “I would just love to be able to progress much faster than we can.”
Fortunately, Bachelet’s background prepared her for struggle and endurance. Her experience with torture and imprisonment as a young woman “was a personal earthquake,” she says, leading her to be moved by and called to “noble causes.” “You have to be doing things that matter—responsibility, but also responsibility with epic and beautiful and noble tasks.”
Right now the task before Bachelet is building U.N. Women with the limited resources she has and scoring results impressive enough to win more backers. Her term lasts four years, but Chilean observers predict she will return home sooner, in time for the 2013 presidential election (in which she is legally permitted to compete).
Bachelet insists she has made no decisions and says she is focused on the “urgency” of improving the lives of women around the world. As she faces a fall filled with travel—including to Brazil, Canada, Uruguay, Italy, and the Nordic countries—she says that meeting women’s expectations will be impossible given the size of the challenge, but that doesn’t mean she won’t try. If anyone can overcome the obstacles, Bachelet can.
Lemmon, a NEWSWEEK/Daily Beast Contributing Editor at Large, is the author of The Dressmaker of Khair Khana.