The good experiences and practices in women’s political participation in Finland, which is known for gender equality, are followed with an interest in Demo Finland’s programme countries. Demo Finland supports the political participation of women particularly at the local level in Zambia and Sri Lanka. In Zambia, the proportion of women in municipal councils is currently 9 percent, in Sri Lanka their share is almost a quarter after a law adopted in 2017 guaranteed a 25 percent quota for women. The current, predominantly female, Finnish government and the Prime Minister Sanna Marin, who has been prominently featured in the international media, have received amaze and admiration in many countries where the role of women in decision-making is still marginal.
The increase in women’s political influence in Finnish municipal politics has been a slow process. Women in Finland have had equal suffrage and eligibility in municipal elections since 1917 – more than 100 years. Yet, the proportion of women in municipal councils has never been above 40 percent. Currently, 39 percent of councilmembers are women. The share rose in the 2017 elections almost 3 percentage points from the 2012 elections, where the share of women had slightly declined. At the moment, 39 percent of municipal council chairs and 31 percent of municipal board chairs are women. The proportion of women elected to municipal councils varies from one municipality to another. Municipalities with less than 5,000 inhabitants have the lowest share, while in large municipalities with more than 100,000 inhabitants the share is almost half.In the Finnish Parliament the proportion of women rose to above 30 percent in 1983, but in the municipal councils only in 1992. Click To Tweet
In 1956, 7.3 percent of the Finnish councilmembers and 15 percent of members of parliament were women. It was not until the late 1960s that the number of female candidates and elected women began to rise faster. Prior to that it took 50 years for the share to rise five percentage points – in the context of Zambia, a similar development would mean that a significant increase in the proportion of women would take another decade or two. In the Finnish Parliament the proportion of women rose to above 30 percent in 1983, but in the municipal councils only in 1992. Since then, the growth rate has slowed down.
Of Finland’s 300 and more municipalities, 27 have signed the CEMR’s (Council of European Municipalities and Regions) Charter for Equality, which is a voluntary commitment to implement existing legislation and international agreements in municipalities and in regions. In Finland, the Equality Act applies to all activities of municipality, including governance and decision-making. Strong discourse on equality is also repeated in various institutions from the local level to the EU-level.
However, it is clear that we have no reason to show off, even though the share of women among municipal decision-makers in Finland is somewhat above the EU average (32,6% in 2019). In none of the EU countries, was the proportion of women more than half, according to the latest statistics from EIGE (European Institute for Gender Equality).
At least, women’s participation in Finland is not dependent on the turnout. Women’s voter turnout has been greater than men’s in municipality council elections since 2014. Thus, it is important to look at other factors. According to statistics, the proportion of elected women is always several percentage points lower than their share of casted votes. Even though the proportional representation electoral system used in Finland is more favourable for women than, for example, the first-past-the-post system, used in many Demo Finland’s programme countries, even here men are still strong when counting votes.
Nomination of candidates for elections plays a crucial role
Women must be nominated in order to be elected. The proportion of female candidates has increased since the 1950s, although it declined slightly in 2012, which was also reflected in the election results. When the proportion of female candidates in 1956 was 10.8%, in 2008 the proportion of women was 40.4% – slightly more than in the 2017 elections. The proportion of female candidates has stagnated at around 40 percent and slightly below it for over 20 years. Thus, it is not really possible to talk about an actual increase since change is happening at a snail’s pace. The focus is on parties and the recruitment of candidates, which is currently in full swing for the upcoming municipal elections of April 2021. In the 2017 municipal elections, in seven of the eight parliamentary parties, the majority of candidates were men.
Indeed, parties have an excellent opportunity to put emphasis on nominating female candidates and supporting them. Many glass ceilings have been broken in Finnish politics, but women still face specific challenges in political participation. For example, in its recent campaign #vaalitilmanvihaa (elections without hate), NYTKIS, the umbrella organisation for political women’s organisations, draws attention to hate speech targeting female politicians. According to research, women who are involved in the municipal decision-making experience significantly more hate speech than men. Hate speech is often specifically related to their gender. Hate speech against political actors is on the rise especially during the run-up to elections. Not a very attractive environment for women considering candidacy.
Female politicians in Zambia are facing similar challenges, when preparing for the elections during next year. Fear of various insults keeps some women out of political decision-making. In addition, political participation of women is hampered by, for example, high candidate fees and patriarchal attitudes.Both parties and voters have an important role to play in creating a safe space for all arenas, where campaigning and politics take space. Click To Tweet
Both parties and voters have an important role to play in creating a safe space for all arenas, where campaigning and politics take space. Social media, streets and councils must be places, where everyone regardless of their gender, party or background can participate in collective decision-making without the fear of being harassed. In addition to women, persons with disabilities and people belonging to sexual, gender or linguistic minorities are in danger of marginalisation and experiencing harassment. It is our shared responsibility to ensure that their political participation does not depend on whether the environment is safe. Political parties have a special role to play here.
In politics at the municipality level, decisions are made on matters that have very concrete impacts on the daily lives of citizens. According to the Finnish Equality Barometer (2017), almost all Finns agree that active political participation of women is necessary to ensure that political expertise is diverse enough. The nomination of candidates for the 2021 municipal elections will take another four months. Shall the proportion of women in municipal councils rise to above 40% next year?
*Text edited on 24.11.2020: Proportion of women in municipal councils in Sri Lanka corrected.
Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare
European Institute for Gender Equality
Finnish Equality Barometer 2017
The Observatory of the European Charter for Equality of Women and Men in Local Life
Borg & Pirkkala 2017. ”Kuntavaalien trendit.” (“Municipal Election Trends”)
Library of Parliament 2019.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Demo Finland.