Reflections on Women and Peacebuilding: President Tarja Halonen

Reflections on Women and Peacebuilding: President Tarja Halonen
9 May 2017

The presence of Finland’s former President, Tarja Halonen, at the 5th Harri Holkeri Lecture at Queen’s University Belfast, served as a timely reminder of the progress that Northern Ireland has made with peace and reconciliation since the Good Friday Agreement was signed almost 20 years ago.

Tarja Halonen was the eleventh President of the Republic of Finland and its first female head of state, serving two terms from 2000–2012. A prominent figure both at home in Finland and on the international stage for her work and participation in areas such as democracy, human rights and civil society, she has worked to promote issues such as social justice, sustainable development, gender equality and women’s rights, throughout her career.

Following an introduction from the Finnish Ambassador to the United Kingdom, Päivi Luostarinen, Halonen took a moment to acknowledge the strong relationship that Finland has built with the UK and Ireland since it joined the European Union in 1995. It was this relationship that led to the involvement of key figures within Finnish politics making significant contributions to the peace process in Northern Ireland. She emphasised that she hopes this relationship will continue following Brexit.

Sustainable development

Tarja Halonen began by reflecting on the nature of society today and the current political climate both in Europe and further afield. She noted that society has become more divided as the debate around globalisation and its consequences intensifies. While democratic elections are taking place, they are producing unexpected results. An increasing number of politicians around the world are painting a more inward picture for their electorates about the future role of their countries on the world stage. For Halonen globalisation is “here to stay” and while it has its benefits, she agrees that it also has its problems. The only way that the challenges from globalisation (such as climate change, migration and unemployment) can be tackled is for society to embrace more openness and cooperation, she argued.

Gender inequality

For Halonen the key to sustainable development is gender equality, with women playing a greater role locally, nationally and internationally. This however poses a challenge in itself, as stereotypes are preventing women from participating effectively in these issues. Halonen believes that society has underused its human resources, and addressing this is not just a moral obligation but one of smart economics and good development.

In areas of the world where there is civil unrest and war, women and girls are most at risk. According to Halonen, women and girls suffer disproportionately during and after conflict; they are 14 times more likely to die after a civil war or a natural disaster. She cites the current war in Syria as an example, whereby women and girls are more vulnerable as a result of being used as weapons of war, as well as victims of sexual violence and terrorism.

Further challenges exist for women when a society is rebuilding after conflict. While men have been away waging war, it is the women that have been left behind to head up their households, raise their children, partake in community life and find ways to survive. Yet access to services that will assist them are limited, with more women being marginalised from educational, employment and training programmes. For Halonen, women are powerful actors in society when acknowledged.

Women, peacebuilding and security

Having held high profile roles within the United Nations, most notably as Co-Chair of the UN High Level Panel on Global Sustainability, Tarja Halonen argues that there is insufficient representation of women at senior level negotiations, both in national and international politics and at the UN. For Halonen peace operations need women: “If peace was only negotiated by men, the injustices suffered by women would be overlooked.” While UN solidarity campaigns such as HeForShe (which promotes the advancement of women and gender equality) is gathering momentum, women are still underrepresented in peacebuilding and conflict resolution. In 2016, only 3% of UN Peacekeepers around the world were women. Halonon argued that the UN needs to develop more tools for engaging women as well as promoting more training that is gender sensitive, with women at the centre of such operations.

From Halonen’s experience, peace agreements that are more inclusive are more sustainable and less likely to breakdown long term, citing Northern Ireland as an example of where this has been particularly successful.

Halonen finished her talk by reflecting on the role that Finland has played in advancing gender equality over the last 100 years since its independence. While she acknowledges that there are still areas for improvement, much of Finland’s success as a nation is the result of full female participation, equal access to the welfare, healthcare, education, employment and voting rights.

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