Finland’s first female president Tarja Halonen took part in London’s 9th Women of the World festival (WoW) at Southbank Centre on International Women’s Day.

President Halonen joined a panel discussion hosted by singer and activist Annie Lennox to share her views on global feminism and female empowerment. Other speakers of the international panel were the founder of the festival Jude Kelly, anti-FGM activist Nimco Ali, Malaysian activist and founding member of Sisters in Islam Zainah Anwar and Director of Policy at UN Women Purna Sen. Looking back to her earlier years in politics Halonen spoke about the growing interest in women’s rights.

“Feminism is the most important issue. Finally people are starting to notice half of the world’s population and their need for equal rights. Misconceptions come from fear of what empowered women may do”, Halonen said.

Annie Lennox shared Halonen’s views on the concept of global feminism.

“It is about female empowerment, but not in an exclusive manner. Global feminism is inclusive of all people and genders”, Lennox said to the international audience.

“The growth of feminism means great success for the whole society, not only women”, Halonen added.

Admitting that there is still a lot of work to do, the panelists discussed female genital mutilation (FGM) and violence towards women.

“Local women need support in their efforts to stop FGM”, Ali said.

“From offices to governments every part of the society needs to change its culture in order to tackle violence and harassment towards women”, Sen said.

Zainah Anwar explained to the festival audience that discrimination in the name of religion is wrong and called for equal rights for women.

“For there to be justice, there needs to be equality”, Anwar said.

Reminding that sexual violence is still an issue even in the praised Nordic countries, Halonen highlighted the need for a change in people’s attitudes.

“Sexual violence is a serious issue and needs to be recognised as such. In our society, the word ‘sexual’ somehow makes it seem less punishable and reprehensible”, Halonen said.

“The young boys in our societies need better role models. Who would want to share their life with someone with prehistoric values and ideas?” Halonen concluded and received a big round of applause from the audience.

The WoW foundation is an international, independent charitable organisation and a global movement of annual arts and science festivals.

Text: Essi Miettunen Photo: Aino-Sofia Niklas-Salminen


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