Referring to the Women's Reservation Bill, she said, "The world is waiting to see the outcome" and "if it becomes law, it could potentially lead to one of the most significant changes in India since independence in 1947."
"It will send a strong message to the women of India and it will send a strong message to the world that India is leading the way for democracy, for women and for equality," said Bachelet, a former president of Chile, who is now with UN Women.
Recalling the success of the move to give quota to women in panchayat institutions, she said, "Just a decade ago, women comprised less than five per cent of elected leaders in village councils. Today more than 40 per cent of seats in local bodies are occupied by women."
"In India quotas have spurred one of the greatest successes globally in women's empowerment and grassroots democracy," she added.
The senior UN official said that a million and a half women had been elected into the panchayats and were administering public services and resolving disputes on matters ranging from violence against women, to marriage and property.
"This dramatic and rapid change is the result of the reservation, and I commend this achievement. This success holds a lesson for the central government's current effort to extend quotas for women to the national level, and the world is waiting to see the outcome," Bachelet said.
"The Women's Reservation Bill would set aside one-third of the elected seats for women in the lower house of the Parliament and in all legislative assemblies. If it becomes law, it could potentially lead to one of the most significant changes in India since independence in 1947," she said.
Bachelet commended "the strong and progressive legislation and schemes that have been put in place here: the Sexual Harassment Bill; the Domestic Violence Act; and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act that guarantees equal pay for equal work for women."
"I urge the government to take robust action for their speedy implementation so that all women at all levels can benefit from them," she said.
Bachelet said that political participation of women has to go hand in hand with economic empowerment and ending violence and discrimination against women.
"Today women's workforce participation is only 22 per cent in India, and with increasing demand on skilled labour for the new economy, unskilled women are being left behind," she said.
"With the global food and financial crises, UN women advocates for greater investments in the agriculture and farm sectors, especially since 79 per cent of rural women workers in India are in agriculture," she said.
Bachelet also said that women's contribution to the economy should be taken in to account. "It is a lot of money, if you were thinking of spending on the kind of work that women do with children, with the elder people, with the disabled. Imagine in a economy where you have to pay for all this. So the unpaid care work of women is essential in the society, but nobody pays for it," said Bachelet.
"And it is unfair, because they do work, they work without salary, that's different. And like in many other countries I suppose women here too have to collect firewood for energy, fresh water etc. Again who is putting that in the national accounts, nobody," she added.
Bachelet said that over the past two years, UN Women had supported 14,000 women from vulnerable groups and marginalised communities in Andhra Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh to get their right to employment with full and equal wages.
"Together with the government and civil society, UN Women is training 65,000 elected women representatives in 16 districts of 5 states to become more effective leaders, and reaching out to half a million women through gram sabhas (public village meetings) so they can voice their concerns to district officials on health, livelihoods, water, and social security," she said.
Image: A women participates in a protest demanding 33 per cent reservation of seats in Indian parliament and state legislatures. | Photograph: Adnan Abidi/Reuters