Nigeria Power Women Conference, organized by the Centre for Economic and Leadership Development, held its opening plenary session in Abuja at the Sheraton Hotel on Tuesday 26 April 2016. The event brought together an impressive group of Nigerian women, including Senators and other decision makers.
Ambassador Pirjo Suomela-Chowdhury was the keynote speaker at the event. Her speech in full is below:
Firstly, let me express my gratitude for the opportunity to be here today. I am privileged and humbled to have been invited to speak in front of this distinguished and indeed a very inspiring audience.
The Centre for Economic and Leadership Development, and its Executive Director Mrs Furo Giami, do commendable work to empower women. By supporting and encouraging women to become change agents, the Centre plays an important role in the development of societies. Already I can also see that they have succeeded in putting together a fantastic event today, with a wonderful atmosphere.
'Nigeria Power Women Conference' – that title for me celebrates all the powerful women here, and all the women in Nigeria. It also reminds us not to shy away from power. Power means influence, and the ability to promote those things in society and life that you find important and worthwhile. Among other things, the Conference highlights 'The confident Nigerian Woman.' Certainly, there will be no shortage of role models in that area. In my couple of years in this country now, I have come across incredible women, whose confidence and talent we in Finland would have a lot to learn from.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Gender issues are universal. That makes them such a wonderful subject to discuss across borders, and between people from different backgrounds. Whether we talk about violence against women, about career progression, or gender roles in the family – the similarities are striking. That means we have a lot in common, and a lot to learn from each other, even if those phenomena can sometimes exist to very differing degrees in different societies.
I am always very pleased to have the opportunity to talk about gender. We must keep up the noise – for the sake of individual women, and society as a whole. For me, gender equality and the empowerment of women, in addition to being an important priority for the government that I represent, is also a personal mission.
Today, I will say a few brief words about gender and Finland – because that is the country that I represent, and the context that I know best. I recognize, of course, that Finland in many ways is a very different society from Nigeria. Whether, and to what extent, the experiences in Finland are relevant in Nigeria, remains for you to consider. In any case, I strongly believe that it is always useful and fruitful to exchange ideas, and to compare notes.
In Finland, we like to think that we have accomplished a fair deal in the area of gender equality. Women in Finland got the right to vote and stand as candidates in elections more than a hundred years ago, in 1906. We were pioneers then. Women are highly educated, and for a long time have been an important part of the labour force. Women are active in politics, have been presidents of major political parties, and hold important ministerial positions. They are well represented at different levels in the civil service. We had a woman president for twelve years. You can say that women are in charge of their lives, and – along with men – in charge of the country.
At the same time, the reality is that women in Finland often find themselves pondering about the exact same things as many women seem to do in Nigeria: the difficulty of combining work and family responsibilities, career progression and the famous 'glass ceiling', equal pay, and even violence against women. The severity of those challenges can be different, but the issues are the same.
While challenges still exist, there are certain important features in the Finnish society that are quite effective in providing women with the kind of enabling environment where they can flourish. Our former president used to say that 'welfare state is a girl's best friend' (as opposed to the diamonds Marilyn Monroe sang about). I guess she meant that effective social security and well-functioning institutions provide a reliable safety net that supports a woman when and where she needs it. As a single or low-income mother for instance, you will not have to worry about child care, schooling or health care. You have your statutory maternity leave and other rights, and the necessary help from society. The government will not shower you with money, but will provide enough for you to manage.
In the world or work, legislation protects against discrimination, and employers strive to have transparent and fair recruitment systems. My own employer - the Ministry for Foreign Affairs – has already for decades used a well-structured competitive system in recruiting new diplomats. Half of Finnish ambassadors are now women. Three of my predecessors here in Nigeria have been women. For many years now, we have recruited more women than men to the diplomatic service. This is because there have been more women applicants, and because women have done well in the competitive recruitment process. The Ministry is now actually trying to see how the intake of men could be increased.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Education is absolutely fundamental. Women can only be in control of their lives and use their potential fully if they are educated. In Finland, over many decades, we have put a lot of effort and resources into developing the school system. High quality education is available for all, from primary school to university. There is a very strong emphasis on education in the society in general. Girls in Finland have been told already for decades that they must first get an education and a job before thinking about marriage. I remember that mantra from my own youth – it was a very strong message to girls, to first secure an education and a job, and only then start thinking about a family.
I then come back to what this Conference is about: bringing women together, networking among women, exchanging information, and supporting and promoting each other. We should do much more of that, everywhere in the world: put in a good word for another woman, share a piece of useful information with her, coach a colleague, or just give emotional support when it is needed. In Finland we always keep saying that we women do not network with each other enough. There is certainly room for improvement. Here in Abuja, I have sometimes hosted women's networking events, and have found them extremely useful, as well as thoroughly enjoyable.
Support from other women is crucial, when (in addition to external barriers to equality) we try to tackle the barriers inside our own head that can hold us back. This might actually be the hardest part, not least because a lot of it might be unconscious. We should try to identify those self-imposed limitations and psychological hindrances, and make sure that we are not the ones stopping ourselves. And here I am certainly advising myself as much as anyone else. I have sometimes felt uncomfortable going for a job that I believed I was very unlikely to get – but have made myself go through the process - so that at least I would never have to look back, and blame myself for something I wanted but did not achieve.
Another very important thing in opening our minds to opportunities, is the power of example. Seeing other women, or somebody you can relate to, in an important position can do wonders to how you see the limits of your own possibilities, or the possibilities of other women. After we had our first woman president in Finland, it became just as easy to imagine a woman or a man in that position. Once again, I want to commend the Centre for Economic and Leadership Development. The Centre does important work in highlighting accomplished women and their achievements. Those women can act as important role models.
And where, then, are the men in all this? They actually have a crucially important place in the equation. A prominent Nigerian woman once said to me with great conviction: "Behind every successful woman, there is a confident man". I have repeated that phrase countless times since. True equality cannot become reality until boys and men see its value and benefit, and feel comfortable with it, until men are ready to take more responsibility in the family sphere, and allow for some flexibility in their masculine role. In Finland, men are assuming more responsibility for family, for instance taking paternity and parental leave. Sometimes they might stay at home with a sick child when their wife goes to work. But there is still a long way to go in my country, too.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
To conclude: Our message should be, that gender equality is a good thing for all - men and women, girls and boys. It allows a society to benefit from the talent and contribution of the whole population. It means more prosperity and better life for all. It allows individuals to live their lives to the full, and to realize their potential. It allows unleashing that vast pool of talent that the female half of the humankind holds. That talent must not go to waste, but into building a great future for the women themselves, and for their societies.
Thank you again for you attention, and for this opportunity to speak to you. My appreciation also goes to the media present here today. They have an important role in spreading the important messages of this Conference further.