Bokova, Irina (Georgieva) (b. July 12, 1952, Sofia, Bulgaria), politician, diplomat and the first female director-general of UNESCO. She received the Semahat Arsel Honorary Award in 2015, its inaugural year. The award was founded by KOÇ-KAM to reward the “women of high international standing and those working in gender and women’s studies”.
Bokova completed her university education in Sofia in 1971 and received a master’s degree from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations in 1976. She continued her studies in the USA at Maryland University and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
She began her career in 1977 in the United Nations office at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Bulgaria, holding posts at a number of levels within the ministry. She served in the National Assembly in 1990-91, joining as a member of the Bulgarian Socialist Party. She served under Jan Videnov’s government from January 1995 to February 1997 as deputy foreign minister, before becoming acting minister. In 2001, she was re-elected to the National Assembly. After leaving the National Assembly in 2005, she served as general secretary at the European Union, as well as Ambassador of Bulgaria to France, Monaco and UNESCO.
She was elected director-general of UNESCO on November 15, 2009. In 2013, Bokova was re-elected and also held the post of executive secretary of the Steering Committee of the UN Secretary-General’s Global Education First Initiative (2011-15). During her time as director, UNESCO priorities were to ensure a quality education for all, promote gender equality and protect the world’s cultural heritage. She led efforts to harness education to increase global awareness of hate speech, discrimination and racism. The safety of journalists and efforts to ensure freedom of expression also gained significance during this period.
In 2015, Bokova received the Semahat Arsel Honorary Award for her “global contribution to gender equality as the first female president of UNESCO”. Bokova has received honorary doctorates from a large number of universities and was awarded the Légion d’honneur by France before ending her tenure at UNESCO in 2017.