Speech by President of the Republic of Finland Sauli Niinistö in the opening ceremony of the seminar “A Girl’s Right to an Education” on International Girls’ Day on 11th October  2016

It is a privilege to open this seminar today. For Finland, the right to education for girls is very dear thing. An interesting historical detail is that the first university in Finland, the Academy of Turku, was founded in 1640 by a woman, the Swedish Queen Christina. The sad irony of history is that women were allowed to study there only more than 200 years later.

By then the university had been transferred to Helsinki. In fact, we are gathered in its premises today. The first female student that completed a degree was Emma Irene Åström who began her studies in 1872. She has probably stood in this very room, perhaps when receiving her MA in 1882.

Ms Åström said something about her childhood in her memoirs that still applies to millions of girls today:  “The only thing missing in my life was that I wasn’t allowed to learn anything. I would have liked to learn more about everything that I saw, but I wasn’t given the opportunity. My father didn’t understand my thirst for knowledge at all.´”

It is worth pointing out that her trailblazing act did not translate into instant improvements for women. For a generation women still had to ask for a separate permit to study in the university, in effect asking for a permission exempting them from their gender. In 1901 both sexes were freely allowed to study in the university and in 1916 the academic positions were opened for women.

Since then we have seen a massive improvement in the lot of women in higher education and in the workforce in Finland. In 1921 both girls and boys were guaranteed the right to attend school when the law on universal and compulsory education entered into force.

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Gender equality is a cause we strongly believe in Finland. Access to education on all levels is an important building bloc in achieving full equality.

The right to education is a fundamental human right. It is the responsibility of all countries to guarantee the access to education to every child. The good news is that great progress in ensuring this right has taken place. The increase particularly in girls’ school attendance is one of the biggest success stories of the past fifteen years.

Yet at the same time education remains inaccessible for millions of children, especially girls, around the world. Girls often get to attend primary school but in the higher levels there are much fewer girls that get the chance. It is striking that two-thirds of the people who cannot read or write are female.

The root cause is often poverty. In poor families it is usually the girls that are denied the right of education. Often the families are afraid to send their daughters to school because of long distances or other risks involved. In conflict situations access to education is often difficult, even impossible. This will result in long-lasting wounds on top of the acute human suffering caused by the conflicts.

I am personally involved in the work of the UN Women HeforShe Movement. As one of the HeforShe Impact Champions I have learned that one of the biggest obstacles to increasing girls’ school attendance is indeed violence against women and girls. Gender based discrimination and violence, including sexual violence, and child marriages take place with the underlying premise that girls would be less valuable than boys. For too many girls the doors to school are closed early and often for good.

This is wrong and it must be resisted. It is encouraging that girls’ right to education is emphasized in the Agenda 2030. But we need to turn this aspiration into a reality. 

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The Finnish school system is based on the idea that every child, regardless of the wealth of their family, religion or mother tongue, must have an assured access to high-quality education. This is not only the right thing to do but it also makes eminent economic sense. As a small nation it has been our own best interest to ensure that every individual is able to reach their full potential.

This is a recipe that will work for all nations. Gender equality in education brings notable advantages. Creativity of all people, both girls and boys, is mobilized. According to many studies, investing in girls’ education is especially advantageous. Educated girls learn not only to read and write but they get to take command of their lives. They become women and mothers that raise their families up from poverty. For their turn their children are usually empowered to make further progress. Equal access to education is a positive tide that will raise everybody’s boats in a society.

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I would like to thank the French Cultural Institute, and especially Madam Jeannette Bougrab, and other organizers for this seminar. I wish you all a successful and productive afternoon. My congratulations in advance to the person or the organization that will be awarded today, for the good work done in favor of girls’ and women’s rights. We must all keep up this important work.