Noeleen Heyzer, who recently completed her term, recalls a piece of advice someone gave her in her early days at the UN Development Fund for Women (Unifem), where she worked from 1994 to 2007: “You come in here thinking you can just change things. But everyone has found a place and method of surviving. What you are trying to do is to throw that method out so people won’t know how to survive. You won’t succeed.”
Not only did she succeed, the 67-year-old transformed the lives of millions of women in over 100 countries in the process. As the first Singaporean to head a UN agency and the first woman outside North America to head Unifem, she spearheaded efforts that led to women participating in peace negotiation and the electoral process, and in shaping their post- conflict societies. Today, more women are entering politics in countries such as Rwanda and Liberia, among other advancements.
Joanne Sandler, former Unifem deputy executive director, recounts Heyzer’s insistence that Unifem build a strong women’s programme in Afghanistan in 2001, when the UN was preparing to enter the tumultuous country. “Many, including those at the highest level, cautioned against it and urged delaying. Noeleen was tenacious at explaining its importance and took big risks to convene Afghan women leaders to make their case. In the end, Unifem was able to support a significant programme and vastly expand support for women’s rights.” Today, women in Afghanistan have full citizenship rights.
Those who have worked with her would describe her as gutsy. In truth, she simply wants to make the world a better place. “Since I was a little girl, I’ve created a dream world where I live by the values I treasure. In a sense, I have created my own internal world,” she says with a chuckle. “I try to make that world a reality for as many people as possible.”
This “world” that she lives in was shaped by a childhood spent in Chinatown which, during the 1950s and 1960s, was a hotbed of colonial resistance.
“The idea of different types of leadership and different types of people working in diverse ways to try to weave our society into a stronger community – that influenced me. I was brought up with a sense of leadership and service, that one has to be the co-creator of a better world.”
“Noeleen has that rare combination of talents: the ability to see what needs to be done and to turn the resistant into allies. The strategies she uses build on the notion of ‘win-win’.”
Joanne Sandler, Former Deputy Executive Director, UNIFEM
In 2007, the Nobel Peace Prize nominee became the highest-ranking Singaporean in the UN when she was named under-secretary-general of Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (Escap), the largest of the UN’s five regional social-and-economic development arms. She was the first woman in Escap’s 60-year history to helm it. Heyzer, who was Her World Woman of the Year 2007, has also been credited for helping to open up isolated Myanmar, after striking an unprecedented development partnership with its leaders in 2009.
She was most recently the UN Secretary-General’s special adviser to Timor-Leste, at the level of under-secretary-general. She stepped down in February after completing her term. Still, there’s no slowing down this dynamic social scientist. Heyzer, who lives in Bangkok but will return permanently to Singapore in January 2016, continues to influence through her participation in seminars and talks as a keynote speaker and moderator.
“I don’t try to be a model for anyone. I just do my work and I can talk only about my experience. I don’t think I’ve done enough, but I hope what I’ve done will inspire enough people to continue the work,” she says.
“Violence continues to tear fragile societies apart, and there are threats to economic and social foundations so one can lose hope. At the same time, there are so many who keep that hope burning, so opting out is not an option.”