Changing the Face of Politics Podcast

Episode 2: Vanessa Nakate interviews Michelle Bachelet


In this second episode of Changing the Face of Politics, Vanessa Nakate, Ugandan climate activist and founder of the Rise Up Climate Movement, interviews former President of Chile and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, about her experience of political leadership and the imperative of women’s participation in democracy.





Introduction: Welcome to the National Democratic Institute’s Changing the Face of Politics podcast series. In these candid conversations recorded from home, politically-active women from around the globe interview each other about the male-dominated world of politics. They're the best examples of why we need to move faster to reach political parity between men and women before the middle of the next century and change the face of politics. In this episode, climate activist, Vanessa Nakate, interviews former President of Chile and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, about her experience of political leadership and her path to becoming the first ever female President of Chile.

Vanessa Nakate: Hello everyone. Welcome to the episode of Changing the Face of Politics podcast series. My name is Vanessa Nakate And I am a climate activist from Uganda. My guest today is President Michelle Bachelet. Michelle Bachelet was the first ever woman President of Chile, serving in office from 2006 to 2010, and again from 2014 to 2018. She currently serves as the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. I am looking forward to this conversation because I have so much to learn from her and you too have a lot to learn from her. Welcome President Michelle Bachelet.

Michelle Bachelet: Thank you, Vanessa. Happy to be here with you, being able to have a wonderful conversation in order to change the face of politics and include much more women on it, because it will be a better politics I'm sure.

Vanessa Nakate: Exactly. I know that a country or an economy cannot fail with women as leaders. This year we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Conference and Platform for Action. What do you think has changed for women in political leadership and decision-making in the last 25 years and what has stubbornly stayed the same?

Michelle Bachelet: Well, at the time of the conference, globally only 10% of the members of legislative bodies and a lower percentage of ministerial positions were held by women. If we look at it 25 years after, we are nearly doubled, because now we have almost 25% - 24.9% of world parliamentarians are female, and 21.2% of all ministerial posts are held by women. But however, if we don't accelerate the pace and we maintain the current pace, it will take another 95 years to close the gender gap in political representation.

You asked me as well, what has stayed the same? Maybe not exactly the same because some little things have changed, but where it remains hard to change, are the deep rooted beliefs about women's role and characteristics. The idea that we women are not suited to rule, that we are too emotional, and that we don't have the attributes that are considered necessary for leadership, such as strength and decisiveness. But I have to tell you, not only on my own experience and many other women that I've met, but we come closer to now, the pandemic has also shown that this is false because women have all it takes and more to lead in a fantastic way.

Vanessa Nakate: So lovely to hear those remarkable answers that you've given. I personally think that now is the time for the public and all the people to move away from comments that try to portray women as the weak people in politics. And as you have stated, we have seen the power of women leadership during this COVID-19 pandemic. I was speaking to a friend who clearly explained how women have shown so much leadership in this period, and we need to continue exterting that. I'm a young woman, and I believe that millions of young women look up to you. But why is having more women and girls engaged in politics important and what impact of their engagements have you seen?

Michelle Bachelet: The first thing that I want to say is that, first of all, I believe politics, good politics should represent the interests and concerns of all humanity - men, women, all people, young people, children, all different, all the diversity of our planet. In order to do that, you need that representation also at the places where you're taking decisions, decisions that impact people's life. Politics is about that. It's about improving. It should be at least, about improving people's lives, improving people's wellbeing. And so I believe that politics without women is like playing a football game only with half of the team. How are you going to win the game if you don't have everyone on board, bringing their strength, their commitment, their stamina, and their creativity?

So I believe that, I have to say there's two things I would like to differentiate, because it's not that women have not been involved in politics in the history of the world. If you look at the South African womens, they were there against apartheid. If you look at the civil movements in the US for the rights of the African American, Rosa Parks is one of the women who started with the movement and really was able to be at the forefront of movement of social change. And when you see the protests against religious fundamentalism in Sudan, were women there. Then you see now what's going up in Belarus, I mean not only there was a female candidate against the President, but you see lots of women leading the social protest in the streets. And I could go with much more examples.

One thing though is that often, even though women are on the front lines to fight for change, they are later excluded from the formal circles of power or they're not included in the books, the history books, that are usually written by men. But anyway, having said that, of course we need much more women involved in politics because history shows the benefit of women in positions of authority. Women tend to resolve national crisis without necessarily resorting to violence. They can allocate budget in very sensible and important issues because women tend to be more embedded in the social tissue with the community in a more horizontal way of relating to others.

I think that the country needs more women in decision-making positions, politics and others, but also politics needs more women. There is this old saying that many people said to me - I used it in a speech a long time ago and people thought I created that. No, I did not. I don't want to give the credit for myself, but I do believe in that. It says that when a woman comes into politics, woman changes. When many women comes into politics, politics changes, but for the best I mean, for the good. So I think we need more women. Because I think on one hand we need that experience that is different because in the world, still in the majority of the world, women's experience is different. There is discrimination. There are the specific situation. We also have our own priorities, concerns, et cetera. Having said that, it's not good to generalize. Not every woman is the same as other, no. But women, we try to be more inclusive. I mean, many women are very competitive and they exclude, but the majority of us, because we have been living for many years in certain levels of not complete inclusion, we tend to include. And when you include, you do much better because you include other people, not only women, other people who have needs. And then whatever comes from your ideas and your policies will be much more comprehensive, much more linked to what really people want, and so on.

That doesn't mean that there are women in politics that have not been my idols. Yes, there are women in politics who have been not good or nasty. But I will say my experience with the majority of women is they tend to build alliances because they understand that they are seeing and look at it with a double lens, if I may say. Is she going to make a mistake? Is she going to be weak? The kind of things that nobody thinks of men, they will also talk about, think about women in politics. Yes, we need much more girls and women in politics.

Vanessa Nakate: What motivated you to get involved politically? Because there are quite a number of young people who would love to know what really inspired you to join politics as a woman.

Michelle Bachelet: Well, I think that it is family in the sense that I grew up with committing to certain ideals and certain values. The ideas of justice, of dignity, of human rights, my whole life, my parents teach me since I was a child, we are all the same. I mean, we're all different. But they meant to say, "We all deserve same rights, same opportunities, and we need to respect everyone." That was how I was raised. On the other hand, I always joke and saying that responsibility was in my milk bottle because I always feel that I have to do something about it.

I mean, why I came into politics and not a philosopher, because of course I want to think about things. I have to understand processes, but I want to do something about it. I want to not only speak and have good speeches, but actions, action that can really change people's lives. I think in a society, you need everything. You need philosopher. You need people who speaks well, but you also need people who really makes reality those ideas and those dreams.

I would say, of course it came in age when at school I started always organizing everything. I mean, I was not from a political party, but if there was the need to organize something, I was there proposing ideas. And then of course I ended make organizing it and so on. I was always the president of the class because I wanted to organize. I mean, for me at that time when I was younger, it was not about politics. It was about doing things, organizing things, doing things for the best for the people. But then so political activism was like, say, a natural result for greater equality and dignity for all. In that sense, I did have an extraordinary role model in my family. They were not politicians, but they were all insisting on caring for the people and trying to do the best for the people, and particularly for the most vulnerable. So I think all the events throughout my life strengthened my conviction and my firm determination to do good, if I may say.

I'm not naive, but I like to define myself as a strategic optimist because I believe that doing good is possible. I believe that with commitment, openness, and dialogue it is possible to move societies to support reforms that can guarantee greater social justice. And I think it's this awareness that continues to motivate me to be active - I'm not young anymore - to be active and caring and looking always at which other kinds of intervention solutions that could really make the difference, that will really work and really make people's lives improve.

Of course, I decided to study medicine. I'm a medical doctor. I'm a pediatrician. That helps you too to understand sort of more comprehensive way, to try to understand not only health as a lack of disease, but also as the social-economic, and physical and health and even environmental characteristics and conditions that means that some person or some community can be healthy or not. So it also helped me to have a more wide open view that helped in politics to understand all those aspects, to see what the best solution. And finally, being a doctor for me, it was very important when I made all kinds of decision, is to be sure that they were also the best technical. I mean, not to do decisions only because they will bring you more votes, but that you know that that will be bad at the end. But because I had this sort of scientist background, I always tried to ensure that the decisions we were taking or that I was proposing will really be for the better, even if they were not very popular. Because sometimes certain decisions might not be understood by the people and you have to explicate and communicate and so on, that sometimes there's a lot of prejudices and so on. But I thought, no, we have to do the things that need to be done, even though sometimes it makes you lose some popular support if I may say. But many other things were really very, very supportive because people understood how important those things were.

Vanessa Nakate: Well from everything that you've said, I really picked three main things. The first one being organizing, which I find really, really important. Then the next one being education, meaning that education plays a part in shaping the best leaders for the future, the best leaders for planning. You talked about how family in a way helped in pushing you to organize things. How do gender equality and democracy work in your mind?

Michelle Bachelet: Well, completely together. It couldn't be a full, complete democracy if there's no gender equality. Because even though democracy today, I think we need to think a little bit more on that, because I feel when you have seen so many people on the streets last year, 80 countries and still now, is because people are not happy with the way that the political systems are acting because democracy is not delivering what people are expecting from them. But having said that, I'm still convinced that democracy is the best - it's not perfect - but it's the best political regime that we have. We cannot have democracy without gender equality. We cannot hope to achieve the best for the planet if we exclude women from solutions and from decisions. This is true in every single global issue that we can face. I mean, if we're talking about the pandemic, climate change, conflict, the mass movement of people, poverty, inequality, populism. Any issue that we discuss, women are essential, are essentially because we are at least 50% of the planet, because women are in charge of many things every day, they do it, so they can also teach us which are good ways of doing things. Even they could be women without so much education sometimes, but they have their ancestral knowledge that they can provide us with a lot of interesting solutions in environment, that's so. It's also true in everywhere - I mean the gender equality and democracy, it's on workplace and offices, at governmental and local councils, and also true in families, that to have democracy at the house if I may say as well.

So I think that finding the best solution, the best leadership, the best way to deliver quality economic prosperity and all human rights means having, as I said before, because I usually, in my country when I tried to convince people, because in my country they love football I used to a lot... This thing, "Are you going to be able to win the game with half of the player? No, you're not." The same for the country. You need everyone to be involved in the different levels, in the decision-making, at different levels - at the territory with local participation, at the council, at the provincial level, and of course, at the national level. And having been so convinced of that, that in my first government, I did I think the first paritarian government in the history, 50 and 50%, and it was great. And it's so super important because we were talking before why women should get involved in politics. What can make them think this is interesting? It can be of course from rationale, from understanding that we have an opinion, have our voices and we want to be heard. And we want to be not only heard, we want to be taken into consideration on the decisions. And we want to be in the decision-making as well. So that's really important.

But I remember also when I was the Senior Director of UN Women, that we had a panel with young women and one of them said, "Look, I don't want to be invited to the table of discussion. I want to be invited to the decision of the shape of the table to discuss and who is going to be sitting at the table." And I think that's right. I mean, we need more women participating, giving their experiences, their opinions. But also not as guest, but as full participants. And I think otherwise, democracy will not be the one we want because we want democracy not only as a system that people through rotation elect somebody. For me, democracy is much more than that. 

It's not only about the election day. For me, democracy is how people participate in decision-making every day with every decision that is important and that will impact their life. It's not that we're going to be all based in a national assembly of all the population - it's not that. But that people through different levels, so different moments through different instances can be participating, can be listen, can be considered, because I'm also convinced that that makes best policies. This is good, this is for men and women the same, but for women in particular because usually they are left behind in this kind of discussions. But I'm sure, I'm so convinced that policies are much better when they are really rooted in the real situation of the people. I always used to say, "People should not adapt to policies. Policies should be done adapted to people because you cannot, in your capital, define in your office a policy that will be applied to people who will be in the rural area, who maybe don't have a good path. They don't have water, et cetera, et cetera." This is so clear. We see it with COVID now. One of the biggest messages, wash your hands. And how many millions of people don't have clean water? So you have to think with the reality, and I think that's why it's so important to be in touch with the reality, first of all, to be in touch with the grassroots organization. And in grassroots organization, there's plenty of women, plenty. So we need us to support all those organizations so they can really continue doing their job in the best possible way.

Vanessa Nakate: I completely agree with you, and there is no democracy without gender equality. And we need full embrace of diversity and full representation of women in this conversation. I have heard that politics is not a bed of roses. What challenges have you faced as a woman in political leadership?

Michelle Bachelet: Well, I've faced all the challenges that all women face. [Laughter]. People believing that maybe I was not the person. But you know what, let me share with you, Vanessa, an interesting story. There was this President who appointed me Minister, first of all, of Health and it was a very difficult job, I did it as better as possible. But nobody thought of me as a possible candidate for the Presidency. But I have done in the past, because I come from a military family. My father died in prison while the dictatorship of Pinochet, and so on. So I thought I needed to understand better the military, why they have done the coup. So I decided to study being a doctor at the same time certain military studies. So I was prepared when my candidate, this President and he was elected. I prepare with other colleagues the defense program for him and so on. So he appointed me Minister of Health. But then after two years, he appointed me Minister of Defense. And why I'm telling you this, because I think that women in politics needs to speak about women's rights, but we need to talk about international policy, economic policy, defense policy. Sometimes I fear that women only speak about women's issues and they're not taken seriously by others. And I remember in my party, when I was a member of the Congress of the party, so the Vice Minister for women would start speaking about women, women, women, women. The guys who were sitting next to me said, "Oh, here she comes again." And they started sort of looking at their cell phones and so on. Because we women have opinions on everything, on environmental issues like you who is an environmental activist, on many things. One of the things that I understood when I was... There was this flooring in my... We asked the conscription to go to help cleaning the houses, the streets. I went to see how they were working. It's a funny story, but I tell you because to try to understand what makes people look at women in a different way. So they said, "You cannot go by car because the car is too, I mean there's too much water. So you have to go in a mower. Mower is like a tank, but with wheels. So there I was, with, not a uniform, but something like that because it was raining, on a tank outside with other militaries, and there was this picture appear in all the newspapers. Suddenly people were starting to think, "Oh, she can do it with the militaries. She can manage with the militaries and nothing is happening. We're not in war. The country is not in danger, so she can.” What I mean to say is that, if women also need to show, not to show - unfortunately, we need to show because it's not taken for granted, that we are strong. But there are some symbolism that is also important. This has not happened to me, but in other cases it can be a strong speech, a strong action, a strong intervention. It doesn't need to have a more work. But it was funny because afterwards many friends of mine were telling me who wanted to be candidate, "Can you lend me that thing please?" No, but what I meant to say is that I think people need to see women in all kinds of issues, having an opinion, giving good ideas in all kinds of issues. And I think that's one of the challenges.

But women has a lot of obstacles and they face a lot of obstacles in the journey of the political leadership. For example - so that's why I do believe that affirmative action is required. That's why I do believe that quotas are required when you want to go into parliament or council, because this is an acute discussion with some people who don't believe in quotas. And they say, "Why are you going to do that? You have to be elected because you're good." I said to them, "Yeah, but men too, why you don't ask yourself the same question when it's a man? You think that he's entitled to win the election." Well, because if we are treated the same, we're going to be excluded. Because it's true that if you give the same to somebody who's here as somebody who is 500 meters behind, it will never come here. When he comes here, the other person will be here. So, that's why in my second Presidential mandate, we introduced a quota for 40% of all candidates to be women. I really wanted 40% of the elected, but my coalition did not support it. That led to an increase in their representation of the House and the Senate, and I'm proud of that. 

But let me tell you three other things that I think are important. What can work? Paritarian governments. I mean, insist on parity because people needs to see women in important positions because I'm sure they're going to do it well, but usually they don't give them the opportunity. And this is so interesting because when I was Minister of Health, and I went to a health facility. Little girls around that would tell me, "I'm a Minister when I'm be grown up. I want to be a doctor." When I was the President, they would come and say, "Oh, when I'm grown up, I want to be President like you," because it's like role models. You show role models and they see, "Okay, it is possible. It is possible and I can aspire to that." When I was young, I would have never think of being a President of the Republic. It was not in what I saw. That's one thing, good role models.

Mentoring. If they are good politician, woman politician, mentor younger ones. Help them because politics is hard. It's not easy and it's getting pretty nasty many times. So many people sometimes don’t want to go over that bad situations where they're not well-treated, et cetera. The other is incentive to parties to include more women candidates and so on. They can be different incentives. Some countries use financial incentives. Some other use other kinds of incentives. And in my country, we did the quota. But also we said that parties who did not include the 40% of women, female candidates could not inscribe the list. They have to get out of the election. And second, if they show us if more women were elected, they would receive an economic incentive. And that really help.

And the other one is programs of education, political education in the parties for younger women and for women so they feel better prepared because sometimes we women want to do things so well that many times we don't feel completely prepared. We say, "No, no, no, maybe there's other that's better than me." So we need to support all the women we want to. The last thing, but more difficult, is for women when they have children, because societies punish women, culturally speaking, socially speaking. Because when a man goes into politics and have children, nobody will tell him, "You are abandoning your children." When a woman goes to politics and have children, they will tell you that.

I was divorced, so when I was interviewed by a journalist, female journalist, she said to me, "You didn't have a husband?" "No." "How will you be able to be a President? How are you going to cope with the problems?" And I said, "As I've always done it. With friends and with colleagues and other people." So there's so much prejudice, but that means that some people, some women sometimes get a little bit insecure and scared. How we can also provide the enabling conditions, much more kindergarten, much more... It depends on the country, on the possibilities. A women's group who can support the other womens, I think that is really important, solidarity among womens as well.

Vanessa Nakate: Thank you so much, Madame President. I have really learnt a lot from you, related to the last points that you've given. I've never been someone who is so directly involved in politics. But some of the issues that I've picked from everything that you've said is the issue of having more women in appointed positions because these younger women, the younger girls, those in schools, they need role models. They need people like you to motivate them, to make them think that “yes, I can be a President of a country one day.”

And then you also talked about mentoring. I believe it's very important for those young people, for the young women to be educated, to be told about politics. Because you may have a passion for politics, but then mentoring, does a very important job to keep you pushing towards your goals. You talked about education, and then you talked about solidarity. In a society that has so much negativity towards women leadership, we need some of these things to move forward so that we can have the representation of women that we need in political leadership. 

So I would like to thank you very much, Madame President, for joining us in this episode. There was a lot to learn from you and you were really, really inspiring. Thank you very much and good luck with the work that you're doing.

Michelle Bachelet: Thank you, Vanessa. Good luck in your endeavors as well and on all this initiative of changing politics for the better. We are sure that that means women. Bye-bye, all the best, and I hope we see each other in some minute in presence after all this COVID situation.

Vanessa Nakate: Yes, definitely. Bye.

Michelle Bachelet: Bye.

Closing: Thank you for tuning in to this episode of the Changing the Face of Politics podcast series. To learn more about the series and NDI’s initiative, please go to NDIs website at

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