What happens the remaining 364 days…

I am just back from an extremely inspiring visit to the SWPS University in Warsaw. 

First meeting students studying Swedish – there are 100 of them! Then giving a speech on gender equality.

Normally I try to avoid quoting my own speeches but I hope you excuse me if I make an exception. Because what I want to say today is what is said in this speech. So here’s what I said:

Today is International Women’s Day. It’s a day that is often connected to celebrations. Men giving flowers to women. Fine, nothing wrong with that.

But primarily this should be a day devoted to core issues like gender based violence and flawed power relations tilted in favour of men. A pattern we see in all societies – sometimes more, sometimes less.

It should be a day when we mobilise inspiration, energy and political will to make change happen. I had that kind of experience last Thursday when I attended the ceremony of the “okulary równości”-award by Fundacja Izabeli Jarugi-Nowackiej – awarding prominent promoters of gender equality and equal rights.

Preparing this speech I recalled experiences from my previous postings in Tanzania and Vietnam. So let me start there with a more global perspective. Not a Polish context, not a Swedish context. But with realities reflecting the lack of equality around the globe.

I remember my talks with young girls in Zanzibar two years ago. Teenagers telling me about their fear of early marriages, sometimes because of tradition but also sometimes being the end result of sexual abuse.

Additionally I remember us, Sweden and the EU, joining forces with domestic civil society arguing for an end to the practice on Tanzania mainland to expel girls having become pregnant from further education.

And I remember the study presented in Vietnam showing that 34% of all ever-married women report having experienced physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime.

The pattern is firmly rooted: Many women believe that violence within the family is normal or acceptable or at least something you have to suffer through to keep the family together.

A woman from Hanoi was quoted in that study and objected: “I think women who suffered from violence should raise their voice and ask for help or counselling. We should not keep silent. Keeping silent is dying”.

Reading that quote I think of a brave man I met in one of my field trips. He raised his voice against this gender based violence, against the male perpetrators, against the authorities not engaging and acting like they should. Many more men should follow his example.

So there are some very fundamental issues where the lack of gender equality is very apparent, globally. Gender based violence including rape being one of them. A third of all women in the world has sometime been forced to have sex. The deficit of women among decision makers being another. Maternal mortality being a third one. Hundreds of thousands of women die every year when they give birth to children. And that’s a figure where limited progress is visible. Additionally five million women suffer short or long term injuries due to unsafe abortions.

Just imagine if we had a phenomenon called paternal mortality – I am convinced much more would be done around the world.

Gender equality is not a Swedish concept, not a European concept, not a Westernised concept. We have global norms. On human rights in general for obvious reasons – and on gender equality specifically. The convention on the elimination of discrimination against women.

Based on those norms Sweden has spent much effort these last decades to improve, to empower women, to make change happen. We have seen progress but we are certainly far from perfection.

Let me share some reflections from this Swedish perspective. Not because we possess a standard model but because it is my natural point of reference. And I believe we have learned some lessons that could be of interest for others as well.

First of all: Gender equality is smart economics.

Different studies have shown that the GDP of European Union would be between 13 and 25% higher than today if the female rate of employment was equal to the male one. It goes without saying that women are needed on the labour market and among entrepreneurs. So are also men. We cannot afford keeping huge groups of women or men fully or partially outside the labour market. That’s always true. Doing anything else is a terrible waste of human capacity.

These days it’s even more important. Europe is getting older and fewer people are in their active years. If this continues, and it will, the active generation must become even more active. More people need to work and more people need to work more.

We are not fully there in my country, but we have improved during my lifetime. One important step forward was the decision implemented 1971 to tax individuals separately, thus strengthening the incentives for women to enter into the labour market. Another key factor has been the expansion of day care for children during the 70’s and 80’s – more or less covering all demand in the beginning of the 90’s. Which happened to coincide with the birth of my own daughters. So we were lucky.

That takes me to my second reflection: The crucial importance of family policy for a dynamic development of a society as well as for women’s rights.

Different countries have different preconditions – especially in terms of economy. It certainly took some time to develop the kind of system that is in place in Sweden today.

But I believe we have benefitted a lot from a couple of elements in the policy of the last decades.

One is the fact that day care was expanded with the help of subsidies from the national level. Day care is the responsibility of the municipalities. Since the early 90’s even being a legal requirement for them to make sure that the demand is covered. But during the process of expansion the national level offered subsidies to the local level to make sure that expansion took place and to make sure that the fees were affordable for parents.

Additionally I firmly believe that the expansion of kindergarten is greatly benefitting the children – giving them a chance to learn and develop at a stage when they are extremely receptive.

Another important element has been the focus on promoting the active participation by fathers on equal terms with women in the care of the children. In total parents can stay at home 480 days after the birth of a child with almost full salary. 60 of them are individually connected to the father, 60 to the mother and the remaining 360 days could be used by one or the other depending on their decision.

We still have a long way to go. Only 22% of the men use this opportunity. However the ones who do, stay home for a longer period of time.

My third reflection is consequently related to the role of fathers and men.

Gender equality is not a “women’s issue”. We men need to engage to make it happen. We men need to realise that it is a human rights issue that goes to the core of what should be a decent and just society. We men need to realise that it is stupid not to use the full potential of 3,5 billion people on earth. We men need to realise that we benefit as well from equality – as individuals: boys, men, fathers, grand-fathers.

This is necessary to put a stop to gender based violence which also seriously affect children. I am told that 95% of domestic violence in Poland is performed by men and that’s the pattern we see everywhere.

But it is necessary also for us men to realise the human potential that we possess. On a personal level I have just entered the stage in life when children are moving out. And like many other men I ask myself some fundamental questions: Where did these years disappear? Was I there for my children as I should have been? Did I make the right priorities when working overtime rather than changing dipers or playing with lego? Yes, I used the parental leave – but couldn’t I have stayed at home much longer?

We have new research from Sweden showing that staying at home with small children has a positive impact on men’s health. Men who stay at home for some time, take better care of themselves, drink less and have a more healthy life style. Research also shows that women experience a rise in income when their husbands stay at home.

Gender equality is a women’s issue and a men’s issue. We are in this together.

I said at the beginning that we should use this day to give attention to the power relations – now clearly tilted in favour of men. This is a structural phenomenon all over the world. It is visible among decision makers in politics and business and it is interesting to follow the debate here and elsewehere about the need to address the deficit of women in Parliaments as well as company executive boards. At the same time it should be acknowledged that the tilted power relations go deeper. Into the households, into the uneven division of labour among women and men in families, into the minds of individuals. It is wrong, it is changing, but it is often a slow process.

It changes more rapidly when women gradually strengthen their financial independence, when they gain their sexual and reproductive rights including the right to education, to contraceptives and to safe abortions, when they organise to struggle for their rights and when men start to engage for the same values.

We have seen that happen in Sweden. As I said before, there is still a lot to do. I read about the facts presented the other day by Government that women earn 15% less than men in Poland. Well, we have not fully solved that problem in Sweden either.

But progress is possible. And progress is necessary since gender equality also is key to so many other improvements in society.

This insight will probably be expressed many times today March 8th. Good. But what really counts is what happens the remaining 364 days every year.









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