Key note speech by President of the Republic of Finland Sauli Niinistö at the HeForShe Second Anniversary Reception on 20 September 2016

I joined HeForShe in the spring of 2015. My decision was spurred by a slight feeling of embarrassment: How come we still live in a world where something self-evident, namely that we are all born equal, is still an issue?

We should not need a movement like this in the 21st century. Yet here we are. A change is clearly still needed and achieving that, ladies and gentlemen, is up to us.

In my country, Finland, gender equality has been a core value for more than a century. In 1906 Finnish women became the first in the world to have unrestricted rights both to vote and to stand for parliament. It was a revolution by law and it led to revolutionary outcomes.

During the past century Finland has achieved independence and risen from poverty to become one of the wealthiest countries in the world. Gender equality has been crucial to our success. Empowering women and girls is of course the right thing to do – but it’s also a simple recipe for success. And it’s not a secret recipe but one that I’m more than happy to share with you!

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Equal access to free, high-quality education has been instrumental in empowering Finnish women. This in turn has facilitated a high full-time female labour force participation. National child and family policies have been crucial for parents’ ability to combine work and family lives.

Also attitudes have changed. There is no longer a clear division of men’s and women’s tasks. Men participate in the household work and set new role models to their sons and daughters.

Finns broke the ultimate glass ceiling in politics at the turn of the millennium when my predecessor Tarja Halonen was elected president of the republic by popular vote. I think she is with us here tonight. During her 12 years in office years children started asking their parents if it was also possible for men to become president in Finland.

I’m proud to say that Finnish women have shattered glass ceilings also at the UN. In 1972 a very well-known Finn called Helvi Sipilä became the first woman to become United Nations Assistant Secretary-General. And today we are seeing big cracks even higher up as many excellent women are running for UN Secretary-General. 

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Finland may have achieved a great deal but a lot of work remains to be done. Finnish women, as do women everywhere, still face challenges. We need equality in wages and more women in leadership positions. 

We also need to eliminate domestic violence. As the Commander-in-Chief of the Finnish Defense Forces, I am proud to announce that all conscripts, mostly young men, undergo training on anger management and prevention of violence in close relationships as part of their military service. I am also committed to the realization of the UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security, as well as to promoting women’s economic leadership especially by combatting gender stereotypes. 

Dear Shes and Hes,

I’m proud to be a HeForShe impact champion and happy to see so many likeminded people here tonight. I applaud the work done by the youth HeForShe advocates gathered here tonight. I encourage you to continue your work. I am honored to stand with all of you and over a billion individuals who have heard the call globally.

Tonight is about celebrating the success and achievements of HeForShe, but also about laying the foundation for future advances. We still have work ahead of us.

I want to end by returning to one of the trailblazers already mentioned, Helvi Sipilä. When she was born in 1915 equal opportunities were but a dream. But she made her dreams come true. I urge you all to follow her example: dream big! Because, as Helvi said: “the impossible can be made possible”.