Excellencies, Distinguished Cedaw Committee Members, Afghan National 1325 Steering Committee members, Ladies and Gentlemen,
The past year has put women’s rights into the spotlight in many places. We have seen how women’s role and defending women’s rights have become highly visible in political transition and post-conflict situations also in countries where women’s participation in decision making processes has not traditionally been so strong.
One example comes from North Africa. Women have been in the forefront of the outburst of popular calls for reform in the Arab world. Side by side with men, women have demanded dignity, justice and economic opportunities for themselves and their communities. However, in doing so, women have faced violence and even death. After the wave of democratic transformation has moved from the streets to meeting rooms and voting booths, women seem to have more or less disappeared from the picture.
Experiences from the recent visit to North Africa
During my visit to North Africa at the end of November, I met with a number of women human rights defenders, representatives of organizations promoting the rights and status of women, and women political activists. The interlocutors, representing a wide range of political, social and religious backgrounds, all gave very similar reasons for the virtual absence of women from the political scene. Among the most important reasons given was the lack of capacity of organizations focusing on the status of women. All too often, they have consisted of a few activists educated in the West and with a limited popular base especially outside the urban middle class.
In an election, political parties seek to maximize their support and choose candidates that they think have the best chance of winning. Promoting the rights of women has not been a priority for most political groups. This together with conservative attitudes towards women’s role in public life has led to a situation where there are very few women in influential positions within the new political parties. In other words, the negative attitude towards women in public life makes them a risky investment and parties reluctant to give them a high profile.
The harassment and outright violence directed against female candidates also makes women reluctant to step forward. There is a real danger that democratic transitions will by-pass women, at least in the short term. Not only is this discriminatory and a violation of human rights but it is also wasteful. Half of the human potential in a society is put to the side. In the present world where intellectual agility and innovation are the keys to success, no country can afford this.
At the root of the problem lies education. Today, what girls and boys learn at school about gender roles tends often to be very stereotypical: men are the bread-winners, the active participants in public life. Women are the home-makers, passive, focused on the private sphere. Investing in the education of boys is generally considered being more valuable than educating girls. The media often strengthens these stereotypes.
Finland strongly supports women’s participation in all areas of society – but what can we do to support positive developments and women’s active participation in the society and decision making, for example in the Arab world and in other regions in political transition?
It is clear that the change in the Arab societies and everywhere else has to come from within. The advice that the women I met in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya gave to me was to be patient. Help building up the capacity of local actors. Engage in dialogue with everyone – including and especially those whose vision differs from what we consider to be “universal norms”. Do not be too militant. Adopt a broad approach –promote women’s political rights by addressing poverty. When aiming at ensuring women’ sexual and reproductive rights, discuss health services for all. Promote the economic empowerment of people in general.
And above all, listen. Women have a lot to contribute – not only to their own societies but also to the international women’s rights agenda.
As I have noted earlier, the political and social developments in a number of countries in North Africa and the Middle East, and reconciliation elsewhere, like in countries such as Afghanistan, call for the fullest possible participation of women in the society. Among all the pressing challenges at hand, we should bear in mind the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325; Women, Peace and Security, and its crucial guidance.
It is vital that the implementation of the Women, Peace and Security agenda takes place in areas suffering and reviving from conflicts. Promoting women’s rights and the agenda of Women, Peace and Security are among Finland’s foreign policy priorities. Through our National Action Plan Finland has further deepened its efforts to fully implement the 1325. Finland developed the National Action Plan as a joint effort between several Ministries, the Office of the President, academia and civil society. Through this collaboration we created a comprehensive and coherent plan. The Ministry for Foreign Affairs is currently chairing a Follow-up Group which coordinates and monitors the implementation of the Action Plan. At the moment the Group is preparing a second Action Plan.
The Finnish National Action Plan, among other things, advocates that women should be actors and decision makers in all societal issues. Without women’s involvement there will be no sustainable peace. Funding and support for women’s roles in peace processes is an investment that pays itself back.
Since November 2010 Finland and Afghanistan have been cooperating in the field of Women, Peace and Security to build a solid, inclusive and transparent coordination among the relevant ministries and eventually to prepare an Afghan National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security that will incorporate the existing policies and activities and address the gaps. The Afghan National 1325 Steering Committee is in a study tour to Finland this week. I hope the visit will be useful and will give the committee new ideas on how to ensure the implementation of UN Security Council Resolutions on Women, Peace and Security in Afghanistan.
As an initiative by Finland and Turkey, the Friends of Mediation group at the UN negotiated the first General Assembly resolution on mediation, which was adopted by consensus last summer. It highlights “the importance of the full and effective participation of women at all levels, at all stages and in all aspects of the peaceful settlement of disputes, conflict prevention and resolution, as well as the provision of adequate gender expertise for all mediators and their teams, noting that further efforts are necessary to address the lack of women as chief or lead mediators”.
The importance of women’s role in mediation has been recognized also in Finland’s Action Plan on Mediation. Finland promotes the participation of women in mediation, for example by organizing training, research and facilitation. Finland is also taking into account the participation of women in project funding and international activities related to peace processes.
The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women
is a significant international agreement, not least because it has been ratified by 187 countries that are committed to the convention’s principles and obligations to protect respect and fulfill women´s human rights.
Finland has just finalized its 7th periodic report to the CEDAW Committee. The dialogue between Finland and the Committee has always been open and constructive.
Finland has done its best to follow the concluding observations including the recommendations given by the Committee. In the previous hearing in New York all parties stated and agreed that violence against women, especially domestic violence, is a serious issue in Finland and that the situation has not been improving. Therefore there is still a clear need for significant measures to be taken in order to improve the present situation.
In addition to this it is also important to implement the Committee’s general recommendations. Part of this work also needs to be strengthened in Finland and the will to do so exists. This seminar serves as a good example of such promotion and awareness raising work, including the general recommendation on the protection of women´s human rights in a conflict and post-conflict context. Therefore, I look forward to a fruitful and constructive discussion today.