Commencement speech by Michelle Bachelet United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health 15 May 2012.
[ Check against delivery ]
Thank you Dean Linda Fried, for your very kind introduction and for bestowing on me the Distinguished Service award. I truly appreciate this honour.
I congratulate you and the faculty for your inspired leadership of this extraordinary institution. I congratulate you the students. Today is your day. 2012 is your year as the graduating class of the Mailman School of Public Health. This is such a wonderful occasion.
I congratulate your families and friends. As parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, and friends, you share in the sense of pride that accomplishment brings.
Today I have just one thing to say to all of you who are graduating: follow your passion. Do what you believe in. If you follow your own path, it is amazing where it will take you.
I know this from my own life. When I was young, I dreamed of being a medical doctor.
I studied medicine in my home country of Chile, and after that during the exile, in Germany. I lived during those years in exile, something that could be called a double life, one private and one collective.
My country, the national project in which we believed, for which we had fought, had been crushed by a dictatorship, my friends killed or disappeared. These were difficult times for many Chilean families like us, who lost a loved one, or were persecuted or exiled.
Returning home after exile, I completed my medical training at the University of Chile, in Santiago. I remember the principle in the Hippocratic Oath: to abstain from harm.
Given my experience with brutality and dictatorship, those words continue to hold special meaning. The principle of Do No Harm applies just as much to the responsibility of political leadership as it does to the discipline of public health and medicine.
After graduating from medical college, I specialized and worked in pediatrics with studies in public health and epidemiology. But I always had the feeling that I wasn’t doing enough. I could improve a child’s cold, pneumonia or diarrhea, but that child would go back to a house without water or sanitation. I could put one, two, three – however many patients I had—pieces of the puzzle together, but the whole picture never came together as a whole. I wanted to take steps forward to improve the health of the public.
The desire to do more led me to civil service, where I worked in the Ministry of Public Health. Eventually and without plans for higher office, this led to me becoming a Minister and then President. And it’s funny the way life is because, of course, when I was a government official, a part of me missed being a pediatrician.
I missed being a doctor because of the personal relationships with children and with their mothers, to be able to heal when they were ill, and see their smile and energy when they were healthy and fine. So I promised myself that I would always maintain a personal touch and never lose the relationship between the policy and the person.
In Germany, I remember the words written across a banner at the University of Berlin. It said: Medicine is a social science, and politics is nothing more than medicine on a large scale. The quote is by the German doctor and politician Rudolf Virchow. He established this relation between medicine and politics.
After all, the human body is much like the body politic. In public health, you look at how the body works and how the society works. You ask, what are the changes that we have to produce to improve the body’s condition and what are those to improve the condition of society.
You know that these issues are interconnected. Just as a healthy society is underpinned by the principles of equality and justice, good leadership is based on the pursuit of human rights and human dignity for all, with government deriving its just powers from the consent of the governed.
This brings me to my second story. Listen to people.
Today as we mark this passage in your lives, the world is changing, new forces are gathering.
The financial crisis that hit in 2008 continues to shake the foundations of the global economy. Geopolitical alliances are shifting, and so is the social contract between people and government and the institutions that were established to represent them. People are rising up– from the women and men demanding change in Arab States to the students, workers and those without jobs calling for an end to personal greed and corruption and for decent work, equal opportunity and security.
We are living in a time of transition and uncertainty and people want to be included and part of the solution. This is especially important as we face climate change, which threatens the Earth’s natural systems on which we rely. We also need to come together to face problems of human rights, war and peace, deep poverty and humanitarian need, from Gaza and Syria to Somalia and Sudan.
At the same time, we are living in a period of incredible technological breakthrough and scientific advancement.
We are living in a new world and we need a new kind of leadership. Leadership that is just and inclusive. Leadership that respects the human being. Leadership that is ethical and derives its legitimacy by protecting the well-being of current and future generations.
As you pursue public health, you will serve yourself and others well by consulting widely and listening well before you take action. Throughout the years, I have learned that listening is a very powerful form of communication and absolutely essential to problem solving and good decision-making.
In Chile, we succeeded in reducing the waiting times in primary care facilities by 82 percent. We reduced the number of Chilean people living in poverty, expanded free access to health care, built daycare centers and preschools that are free of charge for Chile’s poorest families, and extended the provision of pensions for older persons. We achieved these and other goals by going out into the field and talking to all the different stakeholders, by listening to people and taking responsive action. This means believing in people and seeing them not as part of the problem but as part of the solution.
This brings me to my third and final story. Never give up.
As you go out into the world into the field of public health, you will be confronted with inequality, disparities and discrimination in society—conditions that deprive individuals of their right to health.
We see this so clearly when we examine the health of women. Studies show that women’s health status is an indicator of women’s status in society overall. In countries with the highest rates of maternal death and teenage pregnancy, women’s rights and choices are restricted.
Of all health indicators, maternal mortality represents the greatest inequality between rich and poor. Women in some parts of sub-Saharan Africa and Asia face a life-time risk of maternal death one thousand times greater than in some industrialized countries.
Here in the United States, studies find that pregnancy is so much more dangerous for African American women. Research from the Centers for Disease Control shows that for the past five decades African American women have consistently suffered an almost four-times greater risk of death from pregnancy complications than have white women. The higher risks are independent of age, the number of births or the level of education.
Here in New York City, pregnant black women face nearly double the national risk of dying during delivery. Around the world, every day, 1,000 women die from complications of pregnancy and childbirth and the vast majority of these women die in developing countries. Every year such complications leave more than 10 million women with physical and mental disabilities. Today some 215 million women in the world still lack access to effective contraception.
We know that globally, maternal mortality is due to a lack of access to quality health services. We also know that the high rate of maternal mortality, with the vast majority of deaths occurring in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, has root causes in poverty and gender inequality — in low access to education, especially for girls, in early marriage, adolescent pregnancy, and low access to sexual and reproductive health information and services, including for adolescents.
We know that the more that women’s rights are respected, including the right to sexual and reproductive health, the lower the rates of mothers dying during pregnancy and childbirth, the lower the rates of teenage girls getting pregnant, and the lower the rates of abortion.
And yet we hear some voices in this country and others around the world calling for the restriction of women’s choices. At the same time, growing numbers of parents want their sons and daughters to grow up with equal rights and opportunities.
That is why I say, never give up. The quest for social change, for equality and justice, and for public health is a fluid and dynamic process.
Today and every day around the world, individuals and institutions are coming together to advance women’s rights and to advance public health. And these efforts are paying off.
Thanks to an alliance of UN agencies, the private sector, NGOs and philanthropic groups such as the Gates Foundation, we are moving to eliminate deaths from malaria. Polio is close to eradication, like smallpox before it. HIV/AIDS is coming under control, slowly but steadily. The health of women and children is improving. And in every country men and women and young people are mobilizing to end violence and discrimination against girls and women.
It is a pleasure to head the newest United Nations agency UN Women. There is rising awareness that women and girls contribute so much to the health of families and communities, propel economic growth and improve prospects for the next generations. These advances testify to the growing power of global partnership.
And this is where I appeal to you. I urge you to look out upon the world, understand all that still needs to be done and to consider a life in the service of others. You might find yourself in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, working to prevent rape and supporting victims. You might manage a programme in Cambodia providing families and communities with vital health services.
You might be a humanitarian worker in Haiti, or find yourself in a Land Cruiser driving over the deserts of Darfur, delivering food to the hungry and saving lives daily. You might be working right here in the poorer neighborhoods of New York City, or other towns in the United States, providing needed support to under-served communities.
You should be leaders. That is why I urge you to join us in public service. It could be with the United Nations. It might be with your own government, the Red Cross or the Red Crescent. It could be Médecins Sans Frontières, Save the Children, Human Rights Watch, CARE, or any number of national NGOs. The point is to be a part of something larger than yourself and wholeheartedly embrace and engage in our incredible world.
As I said at the beginning of these remarks, I urge you to follow your passion. Seek challenges and adventure. Be generous with your spirit and your time. Be generous with your listening and understanding. Be generous with your curiosity and your compassion.
Be generous in your service to others. As my compatriot, the great Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda, said: La vida te ofrece miles de posibilidades … todo lo que tienes que hacer es tomar una.
Life offers you a thousand chances… all you have to do is take one.
So take the chance to make our world a better one—today and every day in every moment and with every person you encounter. Be generous and, believe me…what you receive in return will exceed your expectations—and also the expectations of those around you!
Good luck! I wish you all the best!