Tuesday, 7 March 2017

International Women’s Day

Women and equality are two of my favourite things. International Women’s Day combines them, so I’ve decided to write something about this day.

Around 5 years ago, I joined the ONE Campaign, an international campaigning organisation that fights extreme poverty. The ONE Campaign has more than 7 million members worldwide, including over 5,000 members in Finland. ONE's 'Poverty is Sexist' campaign is seeking to start a conversation on the links between gender inequality and extreme poverty and actually start to change policy. 130 million girls globally are out of school right now. If they were their own country, it would be the world’s 10th largest – bigger than Japan or Germany. Half a billion women can’t read and 155 countries still have laws that discriminate against women. All children deserve a good education, but in the poorest countries girls are less likely than their brothers to go to school. Girls’ education is really about empowering them to lift themselves out of poverty. It’s not about hand-outs. For girls, the consequences of no schooling mean even more than a lack of education. If a girl is in school, she is less likely to be vulnerable to sexual predation, and consequently diseases like HIV. Girls account for 74% of all new HIV infections among adolescents in Africa. Girls who complete secondary education are 6 times less likely to be married early as child brides, and give birth and have children younger and have more of them. If we invest overseas in fragile and unstable communities, it helps create stability and a more secure and safer world.

ONE wants to increase its visibility in Finland, and I was asked to set up meetings with Members of Parliament (MPs) before International Women’s Day (today, March 8th) to talk about what they can do to help us make an impact. ONE is organising worldwide events to lobby on behalf of every girl denied an education. Add your name to the letter, and ONE will deliver it in person to leaders across the globe today on International Women's Day.

I started by contacting all the 19 MPs of the Pirkanmaa region. I wasn’t sure how successful I would be, not only because getting in contact with my MPs had been challenging back in the UK, but because I’m not (yet?) a citizen of Finland. However, I can vote in the municipal elections on 9th April as I am an EU citizen and have lived in Finland for longer than 51 days (non-EU citizens need to have lived in Finland for at least 2 years). Two years ago, during my Bachelor’s degree, I conducted research in Jyväskylä for my ‘European Project’, which explores the integration of students with immigrant backgrounds into Finnish education. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to set up an interview with any MP. I remember that one MP for the Perussuomalaiset (the True Finns) Party said that they won’t speak any other language than Finnish, and at that time my Finnish only consisted of a few words, mostly related to food.

However, in this circumstance I was pleasantly surprised when I received three responses within one day. Perhaps this is because Finnish people tend to be quite fast when responding to emails, and the population is much smaller than the British population so maybe they have less demand for meetings. My girlfriend was surprised that I was able to set up two meetings with two MPs, but I don’t think it should be considered such an extravagant thing because MPs are people who are elected to represent us, and whilst I’m not a citizen, I am still a resident of Finland.

Even more surprising were the parties that were and weren’t interested. The first response was a rejection from an MP for Vasemmistoliitto (the Left Alliance), the second an acceptance from an MP for the True Finns Party, and the third an acceptance from an MP for Keskusta (the Centre Party). One week later I received a phone call request from an MP for Kansallinen Kokoomus (the National Coalition Party), although nothing ever came of this.

Update: The day after International Women’s Day, I was received an acceptance from an MP for Vihreät (the Green Party), and organised a meeting for the end of March, as I thought it’s still worthwhile.

First I met MP for the True Finns, and during our discussion of the campaign they said that they had raised some of the facts that I had emailed to them (mentioned above) during a plenary session in parliament. They said they would like me to provide some more information that they could raise in parliament in the future. Two weeks later I met the MP for the Centre Party, who showed some support towards the campaign and told me a bit about their history and involvement in international development.

I also used the opportunity to discuss marriage equality, which is a current topic in Finland because it became legal in Finland on 1st March. A bill for its legalisation was approved by the parliament in 2014 and signed by the President in 2015. However, a citizens' initiative was started aiming to cancel the new marriage law. The initiative collected almost 110,000 signatures and was presented to the Parliament in 2016. Last month, the committee recommended that the parliament reject the bill. On 17th February, the parliament voted against the committee's recommendation 120-48, and thus the legalisation of marriage equality came into force on 1st March. According to the MP for the True Finns Party, the party had said that any of their members who vote to legalise marriage equality will be punished. They voted for it regardless, and thus await their ‘punishment’.

Initially I wasn't going to contact the right-wing parties because I thought I would just be wasting my time, but now I have to say that I'm glad I did. Perhaps there's a motive behind them meeting me and maybe they really need to boost their support, but I was surprised nonetheless. I really was expecting some support from the left-wing parties, but I didn't get it. Perhaps I simply didn't manage to get through to them, as they're probably just busy.

This experience reminded me that we can’t always make assumptions about people based on labels they identify with or groups that they are a part of. I used to think I was a good judge of character but I’ve often been proven wrong, and had both positive and negative surprises. For a while I’ve wondered about the effectiveness of the basic political party system that most countries conform to. It’s interesting to imagine a political system in which all candidates would be independent, but which would probably lead to organised chaos. I can’t really envision any effective alternative. We create these labels and groups to better organise ourselves and understand the world, and that’s ok as long as we don’t let ourselves be totally dominated by them. Whether we like it or not, we have to conform to the ways of this world to some extent. If not then we may as well remove ourselves from civilisation and go to live in the forest, or board the next spaceship to Mars.

It’s easy for us to be cynical about every person and organisation with which they work. The truth is that we all have flaws, and every person and organisation has negative aspects and is corrupt to some extent. Whilst criticising these flaws can be beneficial in that it draws attention to problems that need to be solved, I do wonder how useful it is to sit on our backsides doing this when we could be out and trying to get involved in these organisations to try to make changes and actually solve the problems that we criticise. How much good does it really do to take the moral high ground and avoid these organisations? It just seems like an excuse to be inactive, and we appear to have given up and accepted things as they are.

It’s probably true that I mostly surround myself with left-wing liberals who criticise and blame the right-wing, who probably criticise the left-wing in the same way. It seems more and more hypocritical when we criticise the True Finns party, the UK Independence Party (UKIP) or Donald Trump for criticising others. How can I criticise the people I don’t agree with for shutting me out if I do the same myself? I can’t say I have much sympathy for them (except maybe the media’s constant analysis of Melania Trump) because I don’t agree with them. I do, however, have sympathy for those who suffer because someone, without even meeting the person in question, decides that this person is the personification of the problems that we face, despite accepting these problems in our passivism.

Perhaps I’m a hypocrite sitting here on my backside and writing about activism. On the other hand, we are all hypocrites in our own way whether we want to admit it or not, none of us are perfect, and we can only try to make a difference in our own way and on our own terms. What works for one person might not work for another. But is there a limit to how much one person can really do? Will my interest fade with age? This International Woman’s Day, I’d like to keep in mind Anita Roddick, who’s interest never seemed to fade with age, who never seemed that bothered by what anybody else thought of her, and who has recently turned out to be a source of inspiration for me. She was the founder of The Body Shop, a cosmetics company which was one of the first to prohibit the use of ingredients tested on animals and to promote fair trade with ‘third world’ countries. She emphasised the positive role of business in international development, and actually challenged the notion of the ‘third’ or ‘developing’ world, often alternatively referring to it as the ‘majority’ world. Perhaps I’m biased because I've been bribed by winning a trip to one of The Body Shop's Community Trade and Bio-Bridge projects and a £100 gift voucher. However, I don’t mind marketing the Body Shop because I do like the business values it was established on, and I hope this experience will provide new opportunities for me.

Later today I’ll be attending a Women’s Day march, and I also encourage others to consider getting involved in events near them.

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