Lecture delivered by Mrs. Eeva Ahtisaari at the International Women's Day Celebration at the University of Helsinki on 6.3.1998

The Helvi Sipilä Lecture

"Without faith in a better world, one will never come into being"

Distinguished Helvi Sipilä, our International Lady,

Esteemed Guests

Questions about who we are, whence we have come and where we are going are a pronounced feature of our time. Recent months have seen the spotlight of attention turned on several actors who were instrumental in shaping our national culture, from Zakarias Topelius, who did much to advance the cause of women in the last century, to Alvar Aalto in our own time. Today, the Finnish language, our national history, the message of the Kalevala and Finnish mythology are the subjects of a livelier discourse than has been witnessed for a long. I am sincerely delighted at the situation. Knowledge of our own culture and history makes it easier for us to be abroad in the world.

Jubilee years in which Finnish culture and independence have been celebrated have demonstrated our success in shaping our own distinctive cultural tradition by successfully absorbing outside influences. That is why a future in a globalising world does not seem threatening, but rather inspiring and challenging. The world will never have completed its process of changing. On this International Women's Day we must courageously and fresh-mindedly ponder questions relating to the lives of women. The attention that this day of celebration has attracted shows that promoting the status of women has become a natural and important part of both national and international cooperation in most spheres of life.

The influence of women on society and politics has been prominently highlighted in recent years as we celebrated the 90-year history of women's suffrage in this country. Through the parliamentarian and teacher Hilda Käkikoski, I have studied the importance of women in various phases of our history. The idea of educating women evoked a positive response 100 years ago, and one of the effects of that was to hasten progress towards women being admitted to study at the institution where we are now gathered. The best forces available - and irrespective of gender - were needed to build up our national Finland. Women's contributions to projects to build and develop Finnish society at various times have been considerable. In women we have had a talent potential, the use of which has been the foundation of our present prosperity.

On International Women's Day it is appropriate to reflect on the factors that have promoted solidarity among women here and elsewhere. In the past 50 years our country has opened up and radically changed. Today, multiculturalism gives Finnish everyday reality its distinctive stamp. Neither as a nation nor as individuals can we live behind closed doors relative to the rest of Europe, the rest of the world. I believe strongly that there are more factors that unite us than separate us.

We must have faith in a better future. I should like to formulate the matter in Maria Jotuni's wise words: "Without faith in a better world, one will never come into being." Each and every one of us can influence things. Small deeds can set a great force for change in motion.

Personally speaking, I strongly sensed the force of global women's solidarity in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania in 1975, when I celebrated International Women's Day for the first time. I still have warm and inspiring memories of the celebrations, which took place at the Najomoja field in the centre of the capital. People turned up by the hundreds and the chairs that had been provided were nowhere near enough. It was known that President Julius Nyerere had promised to speak at the event.

The atmosphere was dignified and expectant. The women in their colourful kitengi were a handsome sight on the field, where the only shade was provided by Najimoja, one palm. First there was music. Then the Prime Minister's wife Mrs. Kawawa stepped onto the platform. She was a modest village woman, hardly ever seen at gatherings of the diplomatic corps in Dar es Salaam. She spoke Swahili and, although I could not understood her, I knew from the fervent way that the audience was listening that her message was getting across. She spoke as a woman to women. I got the feeling that I had understood. The next speaker was President Nyerere, the nation's beloved leader and mentor. He had a captivating presence and charmed his audience. The President promised to play his own part in promoting the cause of women.

I experienced another equally remarkable International Women's Day in Namibia. Elections had just taken place in the country, but independence had not yet been achieved. The whole concept "International Women's Day" was new and unknown in Namibia, because the country had been, as part of South Africa, isolated and without international contacts. The initiative to mark the day with celebrations came from women members of the UN forces. Local women's organisations immediately gave the idea an enthusiastic response. Namibia's first woman minister, Dr. Libertine Appolus-Amathila, agreed to speak at the event.

On 8 March 1990, a couple of hundred women gathered in the parish hall attached to the Khomasdali Church in Windhoek. Invitations had been sent out and hastily-printed pamphlets distributed around the city. Busy professional women sacrificed their lunch hour to get to the meeting. The space reserved proved far too small and as we perspired in unpleasantly cramped conditions during the speech of welcome, Libertine - who had a reputation as a practical person - suggested that we take our chairs out into the yard. There we sat in a circle around the minister, just as is done at an African village assembly. The mood was one of enthusiasm and fun. The message emphasised was that women had to maintain mutual contact.

The new world order and its economic and social consequences have been the focus of widespread attention in the present decade. Massive globalisation of the economy, more effective use of new technology, large-scale migratory flows and transnationalisation of culture have changed the local conditions of women's lives everywhere in the world. In this situation we need people and organisations who can work both nationally and world-wide.

Promoting the status of women has become a feature of everyday international cooperation since the 1970s. Back then, plans and programmes for action were adopted at major world conferences in Mexico City and Copenhagen. Women's affairs were no longer treated merely as being social or humanitarian in character, but also as economic, educational and political questions. The Decade of Women was given further impetus when a convention banning all forms of discrimination against women was drafted. It was signed by 50 countries in Copenhagen.

The first government programme to promote equality between men and women was drafted in Finland during the Decade of Women. The work of the United Nations in women's issues has concentrated on several different sectors. The spirit and goals of the time have been evident. The so-called Nairobi Strategy was adopted at the women's world conference in the Kenyan capital in 1985. Its three main themes were equality, development and peace. The importance of improving employment, health care, education and literacy was emphasised at the conference.

In the past ten years, the world organisation's 185 members have agreed which questions are central for a humane future and sustainable development. The present decade has been a time of major UN global conferences. They have deliberated, quite extensively and thoroughly, the economy, the environment, the ability of human communities to function, social issues and human rights in our societies. That is how the United Nations' global operational plan has taken shape.

Women's issues have come up in one way or another at all of the conferences. In the early 1990s a conference on the rights of children was held in New York. It issued a call to improve children's health conditions and educational opportunities, reduce child labour and combat poverty. The conference on the environment and development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 launched a process of deliberation of responsible, rational and sustainable use of natural resources. At the Vienna human rights conference in 1993, agreement was reached on the universality of human rights and the linkage between them and development issues. The Cairo population conference the following year unanimously produced definitions of "reproductive health" and "reproductive rights", both of which are included in family planning and sexual health.

We have seen an awesome number of conferences that have brought together the world's political leaders, but also a very active contribution and participation on the part of civic organisations. The world's electronic media and the Internet have been dealing with matters of shared interest to us in the present decade. The 1995 Copenhagen summit on social development highlighted, in a refreshingly new way, the importance of civil society as a development-sustaining social and economic force.

The Beijing women's conference in 1995 was a truly global event, on which a great many expectations were focused. Many persons present here now were in Beijing as members of official delegations or representatives of civic organisations and experienced the strong political will that led to concrete goals to improve the situation of women in the world. As we remember, it was in the Beijing programme for action that the right of women freely to control their own sexuality was first recognised as being part of general human rights. A goal shared by all was that of eliminating violence against women.

A lack of equality is not just a women's problem - it is a problem that affects the whole world and its future. Only men and women together can solve this problem. That became obvious at the two latest meetings on themes that related quite clearly to improving the conditions of women's lives. Habitat II - a Global Conference of Cities - took place in Istanbul in 1996. Arranging decent housing for everyone and ensuring sustainable development of human communities in an urbanising world emerged as its goals. Growing urbanisation is causing serious problems and great suffering both in cities and in rural areas. That was the reason for the arrangement in Rome in 1996 of the food conference, which produced resolutions and calls for action, emphasising that security of nutrition was everyone's basic human right.

A question that needs to be asked today is whether the influence of these global conferences has reached the remotest corners of our globe, touched the women and men who live there and engaged them in the process of development. How successful have we been in promoting women's opportunities to participate in planning and implementing development in their own countries? World Bank President James Wolfensohn has brought up a new theme, which he calls "The Challenge of Inclusion", in his speeches. He sees one of the most important challenges of our times as being to ensure that people are guaranteed the same opportunities to participate in the development process irrespective of nationality, race or gender. No one should be excluded. Only in that way can equality be promoted.


The UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) has been a trail-blazer in this work. UNIFEM was founded in 1977 and since 1985 has been an independent UN agency. Its importance in raising the profile of women's affairs world-wide has been great. Many of you here have experience of UNIFEM's work. The UNIFEM operational principle has spread from continent to continent and from country to country. I recently read with great interest a UN-commissioned evaluation of UNIFEM's work. It praised the work done by the fund and expressed the hope that UNIFEM would continue its efforts on the global and national levels. It gives me particular pleasure that we in Finland have so many active UNIFEM chapters. We Finns have embraced action on behalf of women and support for girls' and women's educational programmes as matters close to our hearts.

In this context I wish to express my warm greetings to all of the persons in many parts of Finland who have worked to advance the goals of UNIFEM. Without voluntary work and active inputs at the grass roots level a good cause will not make progress. I wish also to thank UNIFEM Finland's executive director Eila Alanko, whose long experience and tireless enthusiasm have been invaluable. Without our "international lady" Helvi Sipilä, UNIFEM and work for women would not be what they are today. As a Deputy Secretary-General, she put women's affairs onto the UN agenda. Through her own example she has encouraged us women to work for a better future.

Eliminating poverty and improving the status of women and human rights are central goals in Finland's development cooperation strategy. Although optimism is the characteristic feature of decision-making on every level, there is today a need to analyse how far we have actually gotten. UNIFEM is such a special factor of influence that its actions reach right down to the level of the individual. The fund has an important and flexible role as a mediator between governments and organisations in different countries. UNIFEM brings the feelings of the field into the international discourse.

A lot of mistakes have been made in development aid work, but people have also learned from them. Today there is a need for courageous people who know how to ask the right questions. The right solutions will be found by examining local needs. By channelling resources into education, health care, just administration and economic development, distortions of living standards and quality of life can be remedied everywhere. Unless women are involved, development will not make progress. The quiet everyday work done by women often remains marginal in political decision-making. Exclusion and poverty go hand-in-hand.

We must think in a new way. Opportunities must be created for people to act and exert influence to improve their prospects of a better life. Participation, interaction and instruments of influence must be increased on all levels. We must think globally, but act locally. Women in developing countries have the optimism and will to become involved and work together. The goal now is to take part, together and as individuals, in building a better future.

The African concept ubuntu refers to the unity of life. People are what they are, because they are part of a community. Women want to create, with their own hands, the roots from which a better life can grow on the terms of their local, familiar cultures. A new kind of comradeship and new kinds of women's communities are in the process of emerging. There could be a challenge for UNIFEM in this. Women on all levels should be given training in how to perform tasks within organisations. That could be a new field of work for UNIFEM.


Last spring, after a break of 20 years, I had the opportunity to visit Tanzania again. At first I was afraid that I would find no development had taken place, that everything in Tanzania would be the same as it had been 20 years earlier. But that was not the case. I understood quite soon that there had been development and that women were up and on the move. It was on that trip that I also experienced one of the most unforgettable high points of my life. My friends of years ago had wanted to arrange a Tanzanian evening in my honour. There were also others present, young women that I did not know and who were bound together by their charitable work to help handicapped children. The members of the group were very diverse. They included the country's First Lady Anna Mkapa. There were also other prominent public figures, businesswomen, teachers and influential persons from many other walks of life. There was a woman who ran a fitness centre, another who had a florist's, and the wife of a former government minister. They were all working together to promote the cause of one of the most disadvantaged groups of all, handicapped children.

This group of women arranged a social evening at which all of the senses, intellectual and emotional, were amply nourished. We began with a round table discussion, where I reported on the status of women in Finland. The women had arranged an African buffet in the garden of my friend Rahma Bomani. The fare on it was abundant, colourful and delicious. The bright colours of the women's costumes, their African poise, the beauty of their minds and bodies made a great impression on me. The atmosphere was one of mutual respect and caring and spontaneous joie de vivre. To conclude, all of us women danced. No words are adequate to describe the mood. It was unforgettable!

It is with those African memories in mind that I greet you today and wish you success in your national and international work to improve the status of women.