Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin speaks at the Generation Equality Forum, which kicked off in Mexico in March and will end in Paris on Friday, on 30 June/Lehtikuva

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Finland has agreed to take on a leadership role in the Generation Equality Forum, currently being held in Paris from 30 June to 2 July, to promote women’s rights and equality. The event, which has been organised with the official support of UN Women, is being co-chaired by France and Mexico.

The Generation Equality Forum is especially significant because it is the first global conference on women’s rights since 1995. It comprises action coalitions—international multi-stakeholder partnerships that include representatives from governments, organisations and the private sector—that will focus on improving women’s status and rights in six key areas. 

Finland, along with Armenia, Chile, Rwanda and Tunisia, will work together with organisations such as UNICEF and Microsoft to promote gender equality in technology and innovation. Prime Minister Sanna Marin, who advocated for the country to join the event, is also participating in the forum. 

“Finland is a great partner to UN women in general,” says Åsa Regnér, Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations and Deputy Executive Director of UN Women. Participating in the forum will enable the country to push for women to be included in key decision making processes in science and technology— sectors that are traditionally male-dominated.  

A major goal of the action coalition is to find solutions that will allow women and girls to benefit from digital services in a way that takes their current needs and situations into account. “In the group of least developed countries, only 14 per cent of women have access to the internet compared to 25 per cent of men,” reveals Regnér, who served as Sweden’s Minister for Children, the Elderly and Gender Equality from 2014 to 2018. 

While the figure is also low for men, the disparity is clear. According to Regnér, the Paris forum will help decide a set of concrete actions to narrow the gender gap that overshadows access to technological solutions and skills.

It also seeks to increase the participation of women while simultaneously encouraging them to take on more leadership roles in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). 

 

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris delivers remarks via video link to the Generation Equality Forum on Wednesday/Lehtikuva

 

Additionally, the action coalition will find ways for women to be included in the development of new technology-based solutions for everyday life, and examine how technology can be used to support gender equality and provide solutions that reinforce women’s independence and wellbeing. “I believe that it’s very important that women are part of research,” says Regnér. “The shaping of artificial intelligence and so on.”

Statistics indicate that currently only 0.5 per cent of girls are interested in becoming ICT professionals, compared to 5 per cent of boys. Moreover, twice as many boys as girls want to become engineers, scientists or architects.

Historically, women’s achievements in STEM fields have been marginalised, while recent controversies such as gamergate indicate that a culture of toxic misogyny and discrimination still prevails in many areas of technology.

“I think this shows that gender equality doesn’t come automatically. It doesn’t change with the new generation,” Regnér muses, while affirming that organisations should take a proactive approach towards bridging the digital gender divide. 

She believes that more concessions should be made for women with families. “Many times, women have been kept out because they are either mothers or are seen as potential mothers, and so far, neither governments nor the private sector have felt it’s their responsibility to support young parents to combine work and care responsibilities.”

Regnér also commends private organisations and corporations for the efforts and measures they have taken to improve diversity and create a more inclusive, safer space for employees.“We are very happy with the contributions from the private sector in terms of engagement and also financially. We have really seen a shift in their sincerity when it comes to this.” 

Apart from gender equality in technology and innovation, the Generation Equality Forum will also cover the areas of gender-based violence; economic justice and rights; bodily autonomy and sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR); feminist action for climate justice; and feminist movements and leadership.

This will be the first time that countries, agencies, organisations and corporations have gathered to discuss gender equality and women’s rights on a global scale since the World Conference on Women held in Beijing in 1995. 

According to Regnér, the changing political landscape has prevented leaders from holding another global event since then “After 1995, the resistance against gender equality has been pretty fierce,” she reflects.

UN Women has been charting the progress made in the field of women’s rights for the past 25 years. Regnér believes that while discussions have become more frequent, not enough action has been taken.

“There is still a big power gap between women and men. When we measured the implementation and developments for the last 25 years, we saw that there have certainly been some gains in gender equality across the world. Some political steps have been taken, but implementation has been lagging due to lack of funds and lack of political will.”

 

Deputy Executive Director of UN Women Åsa Regnér believes the forum has the potential to bring about real change

 

“About a 100 countries improved their legislation on violence against women in the last 10 years, but almost no countries funded that legislation enough or put structures in place to transform the legislation into reality,” she continues. The forum will discuss how to ensure that legislation and other measures are put into practice. “Only then can we change women and girl’s lives,” asserts Regnér. “It will actually lead to monitored action.”

The 1995 conference did not cover concerns related to the digital domain, as the field was restricted and not as wide-ranging then. This year’s forum, which is taking place at the Carrousel du Louvre in Paris, will include the fiercely debated issue of online violence and misogyny, which will be addressed by the action coalition on tech and innovation as well as the coalition on gender-based violence.   

Finland has a dismal track record on domestic violence, and while it has chosen to focus on gender equality in the digital space, its participation in the forum reportedly reflects its support for all the issues covered, including violence against women. 

“Unfortunately, no country has eliminated violence against women, despite it being a global and national goal for a very long time,” says Regnér, who believes that Finland needs to focus more on initiatives that emphasise prevention. 

The Generation Equality Forum—which Regnér says is not a typical UN conference as it will involve discussions and debates between member states who wish to support the cause, rather than negotiations—will also tackle issues related to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.  

“COVID has meant a tremendous setback for gender equality.” reveals Regnér. “Economic gaps between men and women have increased.” She adds that while women have been hit especially hard by the socioeconomic consequences of the pandemic (rising domestic violence and unemployment rates that are higher than that of men, for instance), governments have failed to adequately take their needs into account when responding to the crisis.

“In measures that were presented in the response packages last year, only about 20 per cent of the measures were concretely geared towards women’s situations.”

Another key concern that will likely be covered by the tech and innovation action coalition is the alarming trend of increasing child marriages in developing countries. “Child marriage became what we call a negative coping strategy, when girls had to leave school because they didn’t have access to online education,” Regnér explains. 

While the idea for the Generation Equality Forum was conceived before the COVID-19 crisis hit, Regnér feels that it is “more necessary than ever,” given the far-reaching consequences of the pandemic.

“What we want to achieve with Generation Equality is that governments learn even more from each other. We want to create a systematic platform where countries can learn from the private sector and vice versa, but also from each other,” she says. 

Marin, who spoke at the forum on Wednesday, has affirmed Finland’s commitment to provide more funding and support to further the cause of gender equality. 

 

Tahira Sequeira

Helsinki Times