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Q&A: Ban Soon-Taek, Wife of U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, Activist

The mother of three took the leading role at Friday’s first annual March on March 8 event, which aimed to raise awareness about violence against women.

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NEW YORK — Having stood by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s side for 51 years, Ban Soon-Taek took the leading role at Friday’s first annual March on March 8 event.

Before shepherding 200-plus supporters on the half-mile walk that led to a rally at Dag Hammarskjold Park, the mother of three welcomed dignitaries and such VIPs as Susan Sarandon and Christy Turlington Burns at a private reception in the U.N. headquarters. Muna Rihani Al-Nasser, chairwoman of U.N. Women for Peace, said the Madame Secretary General would not consider skipping the walk portion of the event. “When I saw the snow, I told her, ‘You can’t walk’ and she said, ‘No, I must.’”

Soon-Taek was equally forceful outdoors, telling the crowd, “My husband is committed to leading the United Nations to end violence against women. We have seen so much change in our life. We have seen great progress. I know that we can make every country and every community safe for women and girls. With all of you and with all of our sisters and brothers around the world, we can end this terrible violence. Let us create this better future.”

Before stepping outdoors, she spoke with WWD about why she decided to take a more public role, what apparel companies can do to try to keep factory workers safe and how her workaholic husband unwinds when he is not busy trying to rectify the world’s problems. Carrying a compact Goyard handbag and wearing a coral Tory Burch blouse with a navy blazer and pants tucked into her winter boots, Soon-Taek was more than ready for the occasion.

WWD: Why did you feel it was important to do this march now?
Ban Soon-Taek:
Violence against women is very serious these days. We have to act!

WWD: What do you think would be the most effective way of changing things?
B.S.T.:
First, awareness. It’s time to act with legislation. This is very important.

WWD: Is violence against women something that you and your husband speak about regularly?
B.S.T.:
My husband is very much focused on women’s issues. He started the UNiTE campaign to fight violence against women. [Launched in 2008, his UNiTE to End Violence against Women campaign aims to raise public awareness and increase political will and resources to fight the problem.]

WWD: Was there anything from your own upbringing or personal experiences that made you feel so strongly about this cause?
B.S.T.:
I accompany my husband to African countries and South Asian countries. And I have seen many challenges, so I became involved with the campaign.

WWD: What would you tell someone who is sitting in their home or who is not involved with politics that they can do to help?
B.S.T.:
It’s not a onetime thing. We can do something at home, in our communities and in different countries.

WWD: Should companies take a more active role?
B.S.T.:
We need more support from everyone. We cannot do it alone. We need support from grassroots groups and NGOs.

WWD: We hear a lot in the apparel industry about how factory workers struggle to be protected. What might be done to help them?
B.S.T.:
In different countries, the heads of state are really very important — the first ladies, presidents, the prime ministers — their role is very important. They can move. They are waiting for the support of people.

WWD: Many American fashion companies contract production overseas, and they are relying on the management in those factories to keep workers safe. What might they do to ensure that is actually happening?
B.S.T.:
Workers from other countries, [many of whom are] immigrants, need to have their working conditions improved.

WWD: What would people be most surprised to learn about your husband the Secretary General?
B.S.T.:
He is working so hard. He’s a very caring person. At home, public things come first. Day and night he is working very hard. He is a very diligent person.

WWD: How did you and he meet?
B.S.T.:
[We were] in high school. At that time, there were no coed schools. There were all girls’ school or boys’ schools. He was a very tall, slim boy — very smart, very, very smart.

WWD: What does he do for fun when he is not working?
B.S.T.:
If he has time, he plays golf sometimes. And sometimes he goes to the movies. He likes action movies.