Keynote speech by Minister Soini at the American University in Cairo

Keynote speech by Foreign Minister Timo Soini at the American University in Cairo, Egypt. Panel discussion on women’s rights and female empowerment, 8 November 2017.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I am honored to be in the amazing historic city of Cairo, and to take part in this most important dialogue today.

Today, I want to talk about the rights of women and girls. It is sometimes said that these rights can fully be realized only in a post-industrial, advanced society. I come to offer a different perspective.

Finland celebrates 100 years of independence next month. During those 100 years, my country has changed from a poor agrarian backwater into a relatively prosperous, safe and stable place. Maybe the single most important reason behind that success has been the education of girls. The education – and also health care – of every girl and boy has worked for us beyond what anyone could have believed 100 years ago.

The success of Finland as a country is to a great extent linked with improvements in the equality between men and women.

By addressing this inequality we have allowed women to make full use of their potential. This has benefited the whole society. In Finland women have a high level of education. They work mostly full time.

The share of women in political decision-making in Finland is high. Finland was the first in the world to extend universal suffrage and the right to stand for elections to all women and men in 1906 – largely thanks to the tireless efforts by the activists in the women’s rights movement. Almost half of our MP’s today are women.   All the highest political positions in Finland have been held by women. The President of the Supreme Court is a woman. In the private sector, the number of women directors in business and enterprises is among the highest in the world.

Here in Egypt there is a growing recognition of the crucial role that women play in the advancement of a country’s development. President Sisi has declared this year as the year of women, to shed further light on the issue and promote women’s rights. I look forward to hearing more about what concrete actions have resulted from this proclamation.

The Finnish achievements in advancing women’s rights are a result of a long tradition working together with various organisations, including political parties, trade unions and NGOs. In our global work to advance women’s rights we actively support a number of international organizations and national NGOs to promote women’s rights.

One of our key partners is UN Women, and I am honored to share this panel today with Deputy Director Aliko. Since its establishment, UN Women has been a driving force in promoting normative change and advancing women’s rights in the international arena, within the UN system and at the country level.

Organizations such as UN Women are needed because women’s rights are being violated and threatened in every part of the world. My own country, Finland, is no exception. We have tried to eliminate violence against women in my country for decades, with far too little results.

In Egypt the National Strategy to Combat Violence Against Women was adopted in 2015, and the challenge now is to implement it. We need to start by ensuring that men and boys are on board in this struggle.

We also need to begin with the basic message, that a woman is never to blame for violence directed at her. It is the perpetrators of the violence that are guilty, never the victims.

The 2030 Agenda has brought to our attention the gaps that remain in the realization of women’s and girls' rights. We need to focus resources and attention to ensuring these rights are respected everywhere, both in the public and private sphere. The international human rights framework provides the tools for their realization – what is lacking is action.

Distinguished guests,

Human rights are universal. This often repeated phrase implies that governments cannot invoke cultural, religious or historical reasons as an excuse for human rights violations. The notion of universality carries specific importance for women's rights. Governments must not put obstacles to the human rights of female citizens.

The concept of security has evolved. Security is no longer perceived merely in military terms.

The recognition of the indivisibility and universality of human rights, rule of law and a pluralist democracy are cornerstones of this broader security thinking. Only societies where fundamental human rights are respected are in the long run stable societies.

There is a growing awareness of the significant role played by women in countering and assisting in terrorism and violent extremism. Because women are often highly influential in families, communities, and Governments, their proactive participation in counter-terrorism efforts can effect positive change. However, there has also been a steady increase in the radicalization and recruitment of young girls and women by terrorists. Radicalization poses an enormous threat to women and girls, because not only does it limit their aspirations and futures, it also directly limits their daily life. In radicalized communities, women are restricted from moving outside their home and from engaging with their communities.

If we do not show our youth, especially our young women, that there are opportunities available to them to participate socially and politically, for work and education, then they will continue to be drawn into organizations that offer them such opportunities, albeit on false pretenses. If you have nothing, you will take anything that is offered to you, no matter how bad a deal it is.

Discriminating women pushes them into the direction of radicalization as a way for them to assert their identity. Radicalized groups also offer essential social services and protection, which are particularly attractive for women who are divorced or widowed, and are struggling to fend for themselves and their families. To better understand and deal with the dynamics underpinning violent extremism the EU is funding crucial work implemented by UN women to explore a gender sensitive approach to preventing violent extremism.

In an increasingly interlinked world, we are more connected than ever before. Conflicts do not stay within the borders of countries, and we cannot afford to ignore them.  The ones who suffer most from conflicts are women. And when women suffer, the society around them starts to crumble. Since the resolution on women, peace and security, 1325, was adopted almost 20 years ago, there has been a lot of talk about the need to involve women in conflict resolution and peace building. Still, every time we see images from negotiations to solve the major conflicts, what we see is a group of men in suits. Like me! Where are the women? Why are they not at the tables where the decisions are being made?

To get women into the seats around those tables, we need to ensure that women are getting into positions of power at every level of society, so that when the delegations are selected to the peace negotiations, excluding women will simply not be possible. To make real progress on participation it is necessary to see more partnerships between governments and civil society. Civil society is indispensable for Women, peace and security implementation. It also plays a significant monitoring role. That is one of the reasons why Finland is supporting organizations such as the National Council of Women in Egypt who is aiming to increase the participation of women in political processes at all levels.

To achieve sustainable peace and prosperity, we have to be fully committed to it. Full enjoyment of the human rights of women in all fields is what we must strive for. We still have work to do – together, as partners.

Thank you.