Tarja Halonen

Tarja Halonen was the first woman president of Finland and had served as a member of that nation’s Parliament since 1979. In addition to her political career, she had a long and extensive career in trade unions and various non-governmental organizations. Halonen served in the Parliament of Finland for six terms from 1979 to 2000, representing the constituency of Helsinki. She also had a long career in the city council of Helsinki, serving there from 1977 to 1996. She is the current chair of the Council of Women World Leaders.

It’s very true that the conversation about reproductive rights is considered “sensitive.” People say, “We cannot say that, we cannot speak about that part of it, don’t use that word, don’t use this word” – we can’t speak about what is really going on! And this is a fundamental part of who we are, the way we give birth to our children. Such a basic, simple, beautiful thing – and it provokes such sensitivity.

And when people refuse to talk about this issue, they ignore many of the problems that exist in this world. Basic human rights are not respected.

Today more than ever before, the opportunities for doing good are enormous. We have the capacity and we have the knowledge and resources – we only lack delivery. We all are part of the same global community.”

When I was much younger, in the 1960s and 1970s in Finland, the northern part of Europe, the issue of reproductive health was very much taboo, even more than it is today. As a people, we Finns are not too talkative in general, and it was especially so about the subject of reproductive health and sexuality. Mothers would say to their children, “Oh, you will find out about that later on, let’s not talk about it now.”

I was working as a young lawyer, and we had the idea of bringing together the reality of many issues surrounding reproductive health – especially concerning illegal abortions – and the theory that was behind the current legislation. We had the idea of making a book about all of these legal cases that we were seeing, so that people would know what was really going on. We wanted the women to tell what happened to them – before and afterwards – the reality of their situation. And then we started to campaign about this issue, and try to educate people.

We succeeded. After all of our hard work, we got much better legislation, legislation that supported family planning. And now  we are in that lucky position that we have been able to practically eradicate infant and maternal mortality in Finland.

As in other countries, by investing in public health care, sexual and reproductive health services education, and women’s empowerment, we have been able to decrease both mortality and fertility rates. This, in turn, strengthens economic growth and decreases poverty.

We have seen, over the years, that we have to go beyond the health sector – we have to look at the broad development agenda. We have to advance sustainable development that is equitable to girls and boys, women, and men. Poverty prevents access to basic services and deprives women of health choices in their everyday lives. This causes premature deaths of women and infants. Access to reproductive health services is vital in improving maternal, newborn, and child health.

In Finland, we are very fortunate to have maternal welfare clinics, which play an essential role in promoting health and well-being for families. A particularly Finnish form of support is the “maternal kit,” a starter kit for a new life, which is given to expectant parents in the form of goods or money as encouragement to participate in appropriate prenatal health care.

Reproductive health and human rights go hand in hand. Today more than ever before, the opportunities for doing good are enormous. We have the capacity and we have the knowledge and resources – we only lack delivery. We all are part of the same global community. Women – especially minority and immigrant women – are still far too often the first to face the negative impacts of various crises and conflicts. We have to improve the status and rights of women and respect the rights of children. So far our efforts have not been sufficient. We all now share the responsibility for making the common goals come true.

Empowerment should be something normal and daily. It is fundamental in achieving a more just and safe world. At the global level, we need better coherence among different objectives and actions and a common understanding on how to achieve our goals.

Investing in women’s sexual and reproductive health pays off. This has been proven time and time again. We should not tiptoe around this “sensitive” subject. I call on you to be brave. Be pragmatic.

When I was working as a lawyer and we made that book and changed family planning legislation all those years ago, many people predicted that from such change would arise many difficulties; such dire predictions did not come to pass at all. Finland has now a higher birth rate, healthier women. We have healthier children. We have healthier families. That’s why I always want to encourage you that things can change.