Society's norms man-made and can be changed – Gender Equality Adviser is inspired by people’s energy and activity

Senior Adviser for Gender Equality Eppu Mikkonen-Jeanneret was in primary school when she realised that gender-based patterns of behaviour can be ignored. Equality work is needed in the fight against coronavirus, too, because the gendered repercussions will be enormous. In our series entitled ‘Three questions about development cooperation’, we ask specialists about their work.

Priya Härkönen ja Eppu Mikkonen
Eppu Mikkonen (right) and Priya Härkönen, who worked with Minister for Development Policy and Foreign Trade on the UN's International Day of the Girl, 11 October 2019.

1. Why do you want to work to improve gender equality?

I have a clear memory of the time when I first encountered a gendered rule that I considered irrational.  I was in third grade in school, girls did crafts and boys did woodwork. I didn’t like knitting and complained but as I was obedient, I didn’t defy the rule. Instead, my Mum contacted the school and after that, I was allowed to move to do woodwork.

I was not any better in woodwork but I learned two things. Firstly, the right to make one’s own choices allows you to try your own wings. Secondly, gendered behaviour is guided by society’s man-made norms and they can be changed. Looking back, I understand that realising this has been one of the watersheds in my life.

My work history is all about development cooperation and social development, in particular, in the Balkans and Central Asia. Work in areas to do with child protection and policy on ageing showed me repeatedly women’s role as the ones who kept communities and families together, while the majority of this work remained invisible. In my current post as Senior Adviser for Gender Equality at the Foreign Ministry, I am extremely fortunate to be able to bring together my long experience of work in different countries involving both cooperation with local groups at grassroots level and contribution to the preparation of national policy guidelines alongside multilateral organisations.  

Just now we are steering through the coronavirus pandemic. Equality work is needed in the fight against coronavirus, too, because the gendered repercussions of the crisis will be enormous. Lessons learned from previous epidemics tell us that restrictions on movement and quarantines increase intimate partner violence. Women and girls are responsible for the majority of care work in the household and, globally, over 70 per cent of the medical staff are women. Therefore women and girls are in a significantly greater risk of becoming exposed to infection or contracting the disease. 

Eppu Mikkonen (second from right) with her colleagues in Nepal in November 2019.

While not all women are similar and in the same position, it is extremely important to understand how, for example a disability together with the gender affects the realisation of women's and girls’ rights. Women with a disability experience far more discrimination than others in normal circumstances; in crisis situations the risks multiply.

In many countries, women and girls are considered inferior to men. Therefore, when women get ill, they are at risk of being excluded from healthcare services or of being treated too late. Limited work capability and disability weaken women’s opportunities further unless the measures adopted during the coronavirus crisis specifically ensure that all women have access to services and care.

2. Can you mention a gender equality achievement that has made you particularly happy? What brings you down?

I come from Savo and inherited genes that cannot not be easily subdued. However, now that women's rights are facing strong headwind, I’m a bit concerned. It's frustrating to defend existing agreements and achievements rather than to put all energy to pursuing new ideas. If we are not persistent and careful, the equality situation may decline.

I find it particularly encouraging and inspiring when I see people who show what they are capable of achieving and get things done.  A year ago while in Myanmar, I happened to meet girls who had suffered violence as victims of human trafficking, but had managed to escape. They were discussing with a young lawyer and clearly trusted her. The lawyer had decided to dedicate her career to bringing the traffickers to justice for their actions. The situation was extremely difficult but thanks to the girls’ determination and the lawyer’s perseverance, their work had already led to several judgements. 

Women and girls in a similar position can be met everywhere. It is our task to give them a chance to be heard. When this happens, the world will change – literally.

3. What do you want to say to someone who thinks that efforts to promote gender equality is unnecessary?

People who are not affected by discrimination or who do not recognise discrimination often consider equality work unnecessary. The necessity of equality work can be challenged for example by saying that all women do not experience discrimination.

However, discrimination is a deep-rooted structural matter, which is hard to notice: for example, cars are designed for average male dimensions and crash test dummies used in car safety research are modelled as men. Therefore, data on road accidents shows that, in relative terms, women are injured and killed in in accidents more often than men are.

Equality work can also be considered unnecessary if the aim is to uphold the present power structure, because promoting gender equality requires a redistribution of power. However, equality is not a zero-sum game; on the contrary, women’s empowerment supports society as a whole.