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Human Rights Round Table Discussion organized by Ambassadors of Germany and France in Helsinki, 26.9.2022

Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany, Helsinki, 26 September 2022, Terhi Heinilä, Secretary General, National Council of Women of Finland

Distinguished Ambassadors,

Thank you for the kind invitation, it is important to have an opportunity to discuss the human rights of women and girls in this challenging global context!

I would also like to thank you for the excellent Conference Shaping Feminist Foreign Policy organized by the German Federal Foreign Office in Berlin two weeks ago. It is very significant that such a large group of Foreign Ministers were present, led by Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs Annalena Baerbock, as well as that NGOs had the opportunity to participate. And I had an opportunity to meet French Ambassador Delphine O, ambassador-at-large and Secretary General for the Generation Equality Forum (Beijing+25), at the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Both Germany and France are examples of systematic and visible promotion of gender equality and women’s rights.

The Finnish Government has an ambitious gender equality program and several large reforms, such as reforms of the sexual criminal law and family leaves which also have been long-time objectives of the women’s organizations, have been implemented in the past years. However, much remains to be done, particularly in preventing violence and discrimination against women.

Feminist Foreign Policy

The International Advisory Council on Human Rights (IONK) and the National Council of Women of Finland propose that the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland adapts a Feminist Foreign Policy (FFP) to promote gender equality and women’s rights on a human rights-based and intersectional basis. The recommendations were presented to Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr Pekka Haavisto in April. Minister Haavisto will organize a conference on the subject at the House of Estates on 16 November.

The recommendations suggest that the Ministry for Foreign Affairs starts developing a strategy and plan for gender equality in foreign relations, including cross-cutting means to achieve the objectives across the whole foreign service, as well as a monitoring system, indicators, and reporting. The recommendations call for the establishment of an integrative gender policy unit within the Ministry, the inclusion of gender equality and women’s rights in the objectives of the annual plans of the delegations, and the appointment of focal points to ensure the integration of gender equality in their respective departments.

Finland needs to have access to the tables where gender equality and women’s rights are promoted internationally and with a commitment to Feminist Foreign Policy.

The Voice of Women in Afghanistan

Finland – and the European Union – must be bold in raising the profile of women in Afghanistan. This could mean, for example, leading the work on resolutions, setting up thematic and regional special rapporteurs, data collection missions or developing monitoring mechanisms.

The mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Afghanistan should be ongoing, and women’s rights should be a priority in the mandate of the Special Rapporteur.

Afghan women’s own voices must be heard. This has been repeatedly pointed out by Afghan women’s advocates.  Around the world, there are many prominent Afghan women activists in the diaspora who are ready to promote women’s rights in the country.

During the autumn, the National Council of Women of Finland will commission a review that will for the first time highlight the experiences of Afghan women’s rights activists in Finland’s crisis management (including civilian crisis management and support to humanitarian and development organizations) over the past 20 years. In civilian crisis management in Afghanistan, particular attention was paid to human rights and gender issues, but no overview of the situation from the perspective of Afghan women has yet been produced. At the same time, the review, funded by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, explores how women’s rights are being restricted now that the Taliban have been in power for a year.

The review is part of the recommendations of the International Advisory Board on Human Rights, which aims to accelerate the gender equality objectives of Finland’s foreign policy.

The report is based on interviews with Afghan influencers who have worked together with Finns and other Nordic countries. The report also includes Afghan women’s aspirations for the EU and the UN Human Rights Council, of which Finland is a member.

The Voice of Afghan Women will be published and handed over to Minister for Foreign Affairs in early 2023.

The situation in Ukraine and Women, Peace and Security Resolution 1325

The war in Ukraine has made the UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security more topical than ever in Europe. Finland’s strong international work to improve the position of women and girls is particularly needed in the midst of the military conflict in Ukraine.

-Sexual violence has been systematically used as a tool of warfare in Ukraine. These are war crimes and sexual crimes, and Finland must do all it can to support the documentation, investigation, and condemnation of these crimes. Victims of sexual violence need special support, both in terms of health care and psychosocial support. It is particularly important to ensure the sexual and reproductive health and rights of victims of violence, including the right to abortion.

It is important to emphasize the role of women as peacebuilders and negotiators, in line with Resolution 1325.

Women and girls must be taken into account in the targeting of humanitarian aid, and the gender perspective must be mainstreamed into all international aid programs.

A regional action plan (RAP) is needed to address the situation in Ukraine.

The situation of Iran

Mahsa Amini, 22-year-old Iranian woman, died on Friday 16 September after being detained by morality police enforcing strict hijab rules. Videos posted on social media have shown cases of what appeared to be heavy-handed action by morality police units against women who had removed their hijab. Aminis death sparked wide protests in western Iran and is a dangerous example of restricting women’s rights all over the world, even the right to life.

The situation of the Uighurs

The World Uyghur Conference and its Women’s Committee have toured Europe highlighting human rights violations and sexual violence reported by women.

Finland’s membership of the UN Human Rights Council brings an added responsibility to draw attention to the plight of the Uyghurs. It is important to keep the situation of the Uyghurs on the agenda in all international forum.

Three million Uyghurs are in resettlement camps on the basis of their ethnic and religious background. Uyghurs are constantly facing forced marriages, forced sterilisation, rape and torture.

The threat of anti-gender

The anti-gender movement also has an impact in Finland by opposing human rights-based policies, women’s rights, gender equality and the rights of sexual and gender minorities. The anti-gender threat is best met by consistent support for the rights of women, sexual and gender minorities, and other minorities. Reforms of abortion, trans and sexual offences laws are therefore even more important.

Safeguarding sexual and reproductive health and rights has been a long-standing foreign policy objective for Finland and it should be that even inside the country. According to a study comparing abortion laws in Europe, Finland has one of the strictest abortion laws in Europe. The requirement of two doctors’ opinions has been the main problem with the current law, and we are very pleased that the Parliament’s Committee on Social Affairs and Health has taken up the issue and proposes that the requirement is to be removed.

Violence against women

According to the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE), 47% of women over 15 in Finland have experienced physical and/or sexual violence (14% more than the EU average). Women in Finland are the second most exposed to intimate partner violence in the EU. Women with disabilities and immigrant women experience violence 2-3 times more than women in the general population.

Multidisciplinary work to prevent intimate partner violence against women needs to be stepped up, as well as monitoring and evaluating the need for further development of the mandate of the Violence against Women Reporter and the adequacy of funding. Although the number of shelters has increased, more than half of the number (500) required by the Istanbul Convention is still missing.

The reform of the sexual offences legislation is much needed, but it does not fully meet the obligations of the Istanbul Convention. Challenges remain in identifying abuse of power and vulnerability and in incorporating the aggravating circumstances required by the Istanbul Convention.

The use of mediation in cases of intimate partner violence underestimates the seriousness of intimate partner violence and compromises the human rights of the victim. We have long called for the abolition of mediation in intimate partner violence and for legislation to limit the use of mediation.

We need a national operating model for anti-FGM work, resources for its implementation and appropriate legislation.

The length of legal proceedings and legal certainty are also problems. Investigations into sexual offences and intimate partner violence can take years, even though these are serious crimes against life and health.

The application for a restraining order should be made free of charge, and restraining orders should also be issued more actively on the initiative of the authorities.

Harassment and sexual violence against girls, especially children and young people belonging to minorities, and the increased abuse of girls in general must be considered as a human rights issue. Finland must ratify the ILO Violence and Harassment Convention, 2019 (No. 190) so that the measures required by the Convention are implemented.

Hate speech is clearly a gendered phenomenon: women are more than five times more likely to experience hate speech than men, and it often includes threats of sexual violence. Hate speech and hate crimes reduce opportunities for participation and freedom of expression and speech for all those who experience hate speech, especially women. We have advocated the inclusion of gender in the Penal Code as an aggravating circumstance, so that gender identity and gender expression are also mentioned in the article.

Human trafficking is a gendered phenomenon. The number of victims of trafficking of minors has more than doubled. The fight against trafficking in human beings must be stepped up, its gender impact assessed and the position and support of victims of trafficking in human beings improved.

These are also the observations of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women on the seventh periodic report of Finland.


Discrimination in working life is currently a major problem. Especially women with disabilities, Roma women and immigrant women, especially those of African background, experience a significant level of discrimination. There are several difficulties in the Sámi Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the reform of the Sámi District Act. Victims’ legal protection against sexual harassment and discrimination at work needs to be strengthened.

Pay gap

The gender pay gap has narrowed very slowly, almost to a standstill at 16%.  European Committee of Social Rights, that oversees the implementation of the European Social Charter, found Finland to be in violation of the charter:  the pay gap is narrowing too slowly. Finland has a legal obligation to invest more in this within its resources. Less than 10% of employees work in occupations with at least 40% women and 40% men. New, more effective ways of closing the pay gap are needed. The narrowing of the unjustified pay gap must be accelerated by implementing a more effective and restructured equal pay program.

26 September 2022

Terhi Heinilä, Secretary General National Council of Women of Finland

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