Articles and Columns, 11/20/2011
Do not leave the women behind
In the past few months, humankind has gained new symbols of hope. Images of the citizens of Arab countries, who have taken their futures in their own hands, have spread throughout the world. Women have been in the forefront of this outburst of popular will, demanding dignity, justice and economic opportunities for themselves and their communities.
Arab women’s political activism is of course not a product of the most recent events in the Middle East and North Africa. Calls for gender equality can be found as far back as the 12th century, when Ibn Rushd argued that women and men were equal in every respect. The modern women’s movement in Europe and North America has had its counterparts in the region. The Tunisian reformer Tahar Haddad was amongst the first Muslim scholars to call, in the early 1930s, for expanded rights for women, which paved the way for the progress of women in present-day Tunisia. Turkey granted women the right to vote in 1930 and the right to stand for election in 1934 – earlier than many European countries. Women have played prominent roles as human rights defenders and democracy activists in recent decades. We have women to thank for much of the work that the civil society has carried out in the Arab World.
Many of the women who have stood up for dignity and justice in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and elsewhere have paid with their health and even with their lives for this bravery. Many have seen their families targeted for oppression and violence. Through their sacrifices, they have more than earned the equal right to have their voices heard in the construction of new, more democratic and equitable societies.
The world community has already recognized some of the many women who have chosen to step forward in opposition to injustice and authoritarianism during the past few months. Among them are Ms. Tawakkul Karman, a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and political leader in Yemen; Ms. Asmaa Mahfouz, a leader of the April 6th youth movement in Egypt and a recipient of the Sakharov Award for 2011; and Ms. Sihem Bensedrine, a prominent Tunisian human rights defender and recipient of the 13th Ibn Rushd Award. These women are important role models for young women and men throughout the Arab World.
The recent political developments in the Arab World resonate in interesting ways with the history of Finland. At the time of independence in 1917, Finnish society was marred by wide-spread unemployment and poverty related to the economic depression created by the First World War, stark economic inequalities, and a deep feeling of political disenfranchisement by a large segment of the population. The result was a cruel and bloody civil war that further divided the nation.
What transformed Finland from a poor, disunited and under-developed country into a stable democracy was to a large extent the social reform programme that was launched after the civil war. Women played prominent roles in exposing the social evils that had to be tackled and in finding the means by which to address them. They were able to bring these issues up for discussion in the media but also as Parliamentarians. Women had gained the right to vote and the right to stand for election in 1906 as first in the world – largely thanks to the tireless efforts by the men and women activists in the women’s rights movement.
The successes of Finnish social history are to a great extent linked with improvements in the status of women and gender equality. Removing the artificial gender-related impediments to personal development – be it in education, health and social services, access to the labor market or opportunities for entrepreneurship – has allowed women to make full use of their potential and enrich the political debate by providing their unique perspectives on topical issues. This has benefited the society as a whole, men included.
Women have by now held all the important political offices in Finland, including President of the Republic, Prime Minister, Speaker of Parliament, Minister for Foreign Affairs, Minister of Finance, and Minister for Defence. In the present Government, 9 out of 19 Ministers are women. In the present Parliament, 85 out of 200 Members are women. In the private sector, the share of women in leading positions has increased more slowly. Further work is needed also to remove inequalities e.g. in the labor market.
Finland is strongly committed to promoting the respect for human rights, democracy and the status of women in its foreign and security policy. We hold in high regard the internationally agreed principles related to gender equality. In addition to their intrinsic value, they also provide some of the most efficient tools for addressing challenges related to development. The participation by women in political decision-making on an equal basis with men is both just and reasonable.
The lessons we have learned from our history in Finland are similar in all the Nordic countries, Denmark, Iceland, Norway and Sweden. Our history and the success of the socalled Nordic model point out that women are able to bring to the fore key questions and perspectives that otherwise would not receive the attention they require. Among the most important are questions related to the setting up of mechanisms that ensure the inclusiveness of economic development and the equality of opportunity for all social groups. Inclusive economic development is one of the cornerstones of social stability.
Equality in political participation goes beyond the right to vote and the allocation of seats in decision-making bodies. It extends to all walks of life and begins in childhood. Women and men should be given equal opportunities to acquire the knowledge and skills that allow them to exercise their rights and duties as citizens. By making education equitable and accessible to all, many countries in the world have ensured that all of the human resources of their populations are being utilized to the fullest extent. As the world has moved from industrial to knowledge-based economies, education has become a major factor in global competitiveness.
The equal participation by women in political decision-making cannot be taken for granted. It is not enough to formally enshrine it in the constitution and electoral law. Making it reality for all women will require particular attention and, in some cases, specific support mechanisms. What is particularly important is that political leaders condemn unequivocally and without delay any attempts to limit women’s social and political activities through gender-based discrimination and violence. Regrettably, this phenomenon continues to exist in every country in the world.
Women’s role in the building of peace has been internationally recognized. Finland is a strong promoter of this role e.g. through the implementation of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security. Women’s unhindered participation in political decision-making is equally important when the basic structures of society are being defined. Women should have equal say in the formulation of constitutions, in the setting up of the division of powers among state organs, in the definition of the division of labor between the private and the public sector, in the adoption of the objectives of social and economic policies, and in the creation of mechanisms that deal with income distribution.
Finland and the other Nordic countries are committed to supporting the reforms strengthening democracy and respect for human rights in the Arab World. There is no lack of ideas, solutions, inspiration and commitment in the region. The keys to a better future are in the hands of the citizens of the North African and Middle Eastern countries themselves. Our role is to listen to the women and men engaged in the reforms, facilitate their work and provide assistance where and when it is asked for.
To mention just one example, the events of the past few months have revealed how skillful young women and men in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab World are in using new communications tools, including social media. The ability to access and use information and communications technology, as well as to produce and distribute content, are increasingly important for political activity. Moreover, they offer innovative solutions that make it easier for women and men to reconcile family life with the demands of the labor market.
In response to the reforms, Finland has decided to double the funding devoted to cooperation with North Africa and the Middle East for the years 2012-2015. Among the priority sectors are supporting the civil society, assisting inclusive economic development, and strengthening democracy and the rule of law. Finland continues to pay particular attention to the status of women, including women’s political participation and economic empowerment. We have a long history of focusing on cooperation with governments and organisations that seek to improve the status of women and the well-being of families.
The Nordic countries have a long history of close cooperation. By pooling our resources and agreeing on a division of labor, we can have a much greater impact than we could as individual countries. We intend to apply this approach also to supporting the transition processes in the Middle East and North Africa. In light of the history and political characteristics of our countries, it comes as no surprise that all Nordic countries are emphasizing the role and status of women in the transition processes. We are currently discussing how to make the most efficient use of the support we offer to our partner countries in the Arab World.
Sihem Bensedrine, Asmaa Mahfouz and Tawakkul Karman and the thousands of women and men like them provide a powerful symbol of the irresistible drive for a more just, a more dignified and a more equitable life. The transformation that began in Tunisia and has continued in Egypt, Libya and elsewhere in the Arab Word is only in the beginning. It will shake the world. The new, democratically elected governments will profoundly affect the dynamics in international fora and strengthen respect for human rights and democracy worldwide.
Finland is committed to cooperation with the people and the governments of the Arab Region. We share a common goal: to ensure that the call for democracy and respect for human rights will indeed provide a brighter future for the region and the entire world.
Minister for Foreign Affairs
The article was published in Al Akhbar al Youm on 20 November 2011