Irina Bokova, The Possible Deputy UN Secretary General, Has Long Advocated For Women & Girls

Unesco director general Irina Bokova poses at the Unesco headquarters in Paris on November 12, 2015. AFP PHOTO / JACQUES DEMARTHON (Photo credit should read JACQUES DEMARTHON/AFP/Getty Images)
Source: JACQUES DEMARTHON/AFP/Getty Images

Irina Bokova of Bulgaria could have been the first female secretary general of the United Nations, had she won the hard-fought race which ended with António Guterres of Portugal taking the coveted position. Bokova came in fourth in the race, which included 13 candidates. No stranger to breaking gender barriers, she has served as the first female director general of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) since 2009. And she is now one of the leading contenders for the position of deputy secretary general, in which she would play a key role in the UN's operations and serve as secretary general in place of Guterres in his absence.

As part of her work with UNESCO, which has involved everything from promoting the safety of journalists globally to preserving historical sites threatened by terrorist activity, Bokova has given women’s and girls’ empowerment a top spot on her agenda, a focus she hopes the next secretary general will have. Her personal experience, along with her deep knowledge of the obstacles confronting women and girls in various parts of the world, have guided her efforts to move toward gender parity on a global scale.

"When I was in the first grade, my mother and me, we were studying together," Bokova tells Bustle. "It was a great inspirational motivation to me." Both of her grandmothers were illiterate, the result of a culture that didn't think women and girls were worthy of education. Bokova's mother dropped out after primary school in the 1940s, but enrolled in night classes after having children. She went on to become a medical doctor. Bokova herself holds a degree from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations and studied U.S. foreign policy at the University of Maryland. She also completed the Executive Program in Leadership and Economic Development at Harvard University.

"The story of women in my family inspired me and made me really think that gender equality, the empowerment of women, is something that goes so deep and requires so much effort and thought," Bokova says. And she put in that effort and thought as the head of UNESCO when, in 2011, she implemented the UNESCO Global Partnership for Girls’ and Women’s Education, also known as the “Better Life, Better Future” initiative. 

My mother has always told me to work hard and to rely on myself, and... never to give up.

This public-private partnership aims to address two educational disadvantages that disproportionately affect girls: illiteracy and dropout rates beyond the primary education level, just like her grandmothers experienced. Women account for two-thirds of adults who are illiterate, according to a UNESCO report, and as of 2012, there were fewer than 90 girls per 100 boys being educated at the secondary level in at least 19 countries.

The Better Life, Better Future initiative acknowledges the link between dropping out of school and higher rates of early marriage, early pregnancy, and violence against girls, which gives continued education a central role in the effort to empower women. "With every year a girl is kept in school," Bokova tells Bustle, "she will be less likely to be given into early marriage, she will know how to in the future protect herself, she will marry late, she will not be subjected to violence, and will raise healthy kids." 

In a sense, Bokova's efforts can be seen as her way of extending the advice her mother gave to her to girls and women all around the world. "My mother has always told me to work hard and to rely on myself, and... never to give up."

In several countries throughout Africa and the Middle East, the Better Life, Better Future initiative has helped women attain greater self-reliance. In Senegal, for example, in partnership with Proctor & Gamble, the initiative implemented distance learning, tutoring, and teacher training to boost literacy among girls and women. When visiting Pikine, on the outskirts of the nation's capital, Bokova was deeply touched by the results she witnessed. 

"There were probably more than a thousand women that waited for me, young women that had been given a second chance to get literacy, to have some education," Bokova says. "Some of them have already started some small businesses to support their families. Others were telling me that they now have healthy kids, they can read the prescription on the medicine." According to the initiative's website, its literacy program improved the reading skills of 6,500 women in Senegal and was extended to Nigeria in 2014.

Bokova emphasizes that working with traditional and religious leaders of different nations to change attitudes about girls' rights to education has been crucial to the success of Better Life, Better Future programming. She hopes the next U.N. head will do the same. Guterres will be entering office amid the persistence of terrorist violence throughout the Middle East and northern Africa and the resulting migrant crisis. Bokova thinks that the next U.N. head should use his diplomatic and administrative influence to promote peace-building and security, making this issue the focus of his tenure. And she sees a crucial, but currently lacking, seat at the table for women in these efforts. Should she be named Guterres' deputy, she'll be in a position to advance this focus.

Bokova explains that there are two major obstacles for women in terms of peace-building and security. "On one side is, of course, the fact that women and children, but particularly women, during the last conflict were the first victims," a fact that she attributes primarily to "rape becoming an instrument of war." There's an obstacle on the resolution side as well, "because when it comes to peace and when it comes to negotiations ... and trying to find out the future peace and reconciliation, women are absent." Not only do women suffer most from violent conflict, but their voices and perspectives are all-too-often left out of the conversation about how to resolve the conflicts that impact them most.

The paperwork acknowledging the need to address security issues that disproportionately impact women, and the need to get women involved in peace-building efforts, has long existed; in 2000, the U.N. Security Council adopted Resolution 1325, which calls for ameliorating these specific issues. But according to Bokova, the resolution has not been fully implemented, as women are often still absent from peace negotiations, and sexual violence remains a massive problem in conflict areas. She notes the increasing emergence of accusations of sexual violence allegedly committed by U.N. peacekeepers as a stark example of the resolution's current weakness. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's office has denied the accusations against the peacekeepers. 

Bokova says, "We just celebrated [the resolution's] 16th anniversary, but without the full implementation, without looking at contemporary dimensions, I don't believe that any decisions on peace-keeping or peace-building will be sustainable and will be correct and true to what is needed in order to have... security and development."

Though Bokova certainly thinks that the U.N. can and should play a leading role in spurring women's empowerment globally, she also acknowledges the crucial role that civilian groups and movements play on a more local level. As an example, she praises the contributions of women to the new Democratic constitution of Tunisia, which includes provisions for securing women's rights in the country. The Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet was instrumental to the development of the new constitution and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize at the end of 2015; one of the four groups comprising the Quartet, the Tunisian General Labour Union, features a Women's Committee. Bokova encourages women around the world to become active in movements within their nations working toward gender parity.

Guided by the stories of the women in her family, Bokova was able to achieve a prominent leadership position and influence the quality of life of girls and women around the world. She plans to remain with UNESCO if she is not named Guterres' deputy. Whether or not the latter happens, we can expect Bokova to continue to follow, and to pay forward, the advice of her mother: to work hard and never give up.

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