Finland is known as a stable democracy where the political participation of women has a long history. There is lots of interest in Demo Finland’s programme countries in Finnish political parties’ practices, for example, on multi-party co-operation and the promotion of gender equality. International exchange of experiences and sharing of good practices has been an important part of Demo Finland’s work since the beginning, and Finnish politicians have been able to use their expertise and experiences for democracy support.
Together with the Zambia National Women’s Lobby (ZNWL), Demo Finland has supported the political participation of women especially at the local level in Zambia since 2013. At both local and national levels, the skills of female municipal councillors and women interested in politics have been strengthened, political parties have been supported in drafting gender action plans, parties’ women’s wings have been trained and women’s multi-party co-operation has been facilitated.
Women remain underrepresented in Zambian politics, as only 17% of Members of Parliament and 9% of municipal councillors are women. Electoral system is one of the factors behind the small number of women, but patriarchal attitudes and economic reasons also play a significant role. High candidate fees and campaigning costs are an obstacle to the political careers of many women.
Dialogue platforms provide space for women’s multi-party co-operation
Demo Finland and ZNWL support dialogue platforms at local and national levels. The platforms that bring together representatives of women’s wings from all parties have strengthened the voice of women, as the women’s wings have been able to jointly bring up issues that are important for them. For example, in 2016, they issued a joint statement condemning electoral violence. A statement on sexual harassment is currently being prepared.
In Finland, the Coalition of Finnish Women’s Associations NYTKIS is the umbrella organisation of political women’s organisations. By international standards, it is a unique forum for co-operation, bringing together political parties’ women’s organisations and non-political organisations to advance common goals. As this type of co-operation was new in Zambia and the aim was to consolidate multi-party co-operation, the Executive Committee of the National Women in Politics Platform (NWIP) was interested in hearing more about NYTKIS. The planning of online mentoring meetings started already in 2018 – long before COVID-19 forced Demo Finland’s partners to adopt online tools in their work.
The topic of the first mentoring session held in 2019 was NYTKIS’s operating model in practice. The NYTKIS secretariat presented the organisation’s rules and procedures, and the connection was established between NYTKIS and NWIP. Following meetings were agreed to focus on topics that are relevant for NWIP, with representatives of NYTKIS’s member organisations from different political parties as mentors.
Gender-based violence and COVID-19 restrictions are shared challenges
The second mentoring session was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic, as meeting restrictions prevented the NWIP Executive Committee from gathering at the Finnish Embassy premises in Lusaka as planned. The Finnish Embassy in Zambia has actively supported the mentoring co-operation. Eventually, the meeting took place entirely via Zoom, after the participants had already become familiar with the use of online meeting applications. The meeting tackled violence and harassment against women in politics and practices that political parties have adopted to prevent it. The issue is very topical in Zambia, but also in Finland, where many parties have introduced codes of conduct for preventing harassment, often at the initiative of parties’ women’s organisations. In addition to the codes of conduct, other good practices highlighted by the Finnish participants were the support provided to victims of harassment, such as guides for those who have experienced online hate speech and contact persons in the parties.
The most recent session was held in February 2021, and it focused on the challenges posed by COVID-19 to the activities of parties and their women’s organisations, particularly in terms of mobilizing members and voters. Both Zambia and Finland will have elections this year, so the effects of the pandemic restrictions on campaigning are currently discussed in both countries. Experiences were shared on the effects of restrictions, as well as on good practices that parties and their women’s organisations have had to reach voters and members. In Zambia, for example, some small gatherings have been organised and door-to-door campaigning has been used, with safety measures, such as wearing face masks, in place. In addition, women politicians have raised awareness in communities about the importance of safety measures in preventing the spread of the virus.
In Finland, parties’ women’s organisations have held their meetings and events online, and members have been offered support and assistance in using the new tools. Members have also been reached by phone. As activities and campaigning take place online, there are some new challenges. On one hand, not everyone has the same opportunities or skills to use technology and, on the other hand, online hate speech and harassment has become more common in recent years which affects women and people from various minorities in particular. NYTKIS has grasped the problem with a campaign against hate speech in the elections. The objectives and activities of the campaign were presented at the mentoring session as an example of multi-party co-operation before the elections.
Peer support and experience sharing are much appreciated
There are many differences in the political context of the two countries, but this has not been a problem in the mentoring sessions. According to Saboi Imboela, Chair of the NWIP Executive Committee, the difference does not affect the discussions: “The Finnish experiences are very relevant to us and they show us that certain things can be done. They also show us the benefits and advantages of women’s political participation”, Imboela says. NYTKIS’s Coordinator Katariina Hyvärinen has also noticed that despite different contexts, many challenges are common to both Zambian and Finnish women politicians. “Experiences of hate speech and harassment in particular have been common, but so is the will to strengthen the role of women in politics and to create co-operation across party lines,” Hyvärinen says.
Roosa Pöyhönen, Executive Director of Social Democratic Women, who has participated in two mentoring sessions, also feels that there are similar challenges, especially in relation to violence against women and hate speech. “In the meetings we have been able to exchange ideas on ways to combat these problems and have got peer support.” Gender equality is promoted together both in the participants’ home countries and globally.
According also to ZNWL’s Executive Director Juliet Kaira Chibuta, the experiences of women politicians are in many respects similar. She says that the Zambian politicians have been surprised that women in Finland have also experienced harassment and violence in their political careers. Discussions have been useful. “Zambian participants have really appreciated the sessions, especially the one on violence against women in politics. According to the feedback, they found the information shared by the Finnish politicians very useful, as they learnt ways to address violence within and outside their political parties,” says Chibuta.
Although Finnish political women’s organisations receive funding from the state, especially new candidates often find it difficult to raise funds for campaigning. This, too, was new information for Zambian politicians, and Chibuta says participants got new ideas for how to find resources for campaigning. The outcomes of the sessions have been new knowledge on how to address violence within and outside political parties and learning on innovative ways of campaigning during the COVID-19 period. The ideas will also be put into practice in Zambia. “We have learnt the importance of adjusting our campaign strategies and use everything at our disposal, like social media, to campaign”, says Saboi Imboela.
According to Roosa Pöyhönen, the mentoring sessions have had an encouraging atmosphere, and the experience sharing has been fruitful. Finnish politicians have been able to give concrete examples of, among other things, ways of supporting those who have encountered hate speech and how co-operation across party lines can help promote common issues. The meetings have also been useful for both sides: “I have noticed the importance of a political will to promote gender equality. For example, many Zambian politicians pointed out how difficult it is to be a first-time candidate. Funding also plays a role here. Permanent structures and support are really important for the promotion of gender equality. It is also a good reminder to us here in Finland how fragile democracy can be and how important it is to stick to the common ground rules”, Pöyhönen adds.
Katariina Hyvärinen says that the feedback from the representatives of NYTKIS has been positive, and they have found the meetings interesting. Although NYTKIS has good networks internationally, for example in its umbrella organisation European Women’s Lobby and at the Nordic level in the Nordic Feminist Network, it has not previously had the same type of mentoring activities as with NWIP.
Sharing good practices of politics strengthens democracy
Multi-party co-operation of Finnish parties to promote common goals is an encouraging example in countries where co-operation across party lines is new or the political situation is tense. The operating model of NYTKIS, founded in 1988, and the experiences of its member organisations are interesting to NWIP, which was founded only a few years ago.
NWIP, as well as the local dialogue platforms have worked in good co-operation despite the tensions between political parties, providing women politicians with a neutral space to share experiences and promote issues that are easily left in the margins of political decision-making. Saboi Imboela describes the importance of the platform: “The NWIP platform is very important as it fosters unity between the women politicians from different political parties. It also shows the nation that people from different political parties can communicate without being violent and most importantly, the network helps the women speak with one voice. Changing policies is not easy, but when women speak with one voice they have more impact than when they speak as individuals.”
Demo Finland’s most important resource is the expertise and experience of Finnish political parties and their members. The mentoring co-operation between Zambian and Finnish women politicians is a concrete example of this. With international experience sharing, good practices of the political system can be introduced in new contexts to promote democracy, and at best peer learning can help Finnish politicians see the strengths and weaknesses of our own democratic system. No travel and face-to-face meetings can take place during the COVID-19 restrictions, but the digital leap that it has forced us to take will make international peer support easier also in the future.