Finnish women return to their roots

By Vishnu Makhijani


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Helsinki : In a country where 83 of the 200 parliamentarians are females, it is hardly surprising that there are very few Finnish women who do not work – or that many are even returning to their roots to pay back their communities.

"It's a legacy of the war (World War II). We have been brought up on stories of how hard our grandmothers had to work while the men were away fighting the Soviet army. When we hear those stories, we feel we are not doing enough today," explained Tuika Sulkinoja, who is responsible for marketing the Kuusamo Lapland region of northern Finland as a tourist and skiing destination.

In 1920, a mere 10 percent of married women worked. There number has risen to 80 percent in the new century.

Among mothers with one child or two, more than 80 percent work outside the home. This includes mothers with children below school age.

Among women in the 20-30 year age group, 70 percent are in the work force, largely because the younger ones are still studying.

Among women in the 30-55-year bracket, more than 80 percent earn a living outside the home.

The 50 something Sulkinoja in fact typifies a new breed of Finnish women who have consciously chosen to give up lucrative careers to return to their roots.

She once ran a hugely successful international travel agency that even had an office in Dubai and which she has now left in the hands of an associate to return to her native Lapland to promote it globally.

Even then, she doesn't live in the region's principal city Kuusamo but in the countryside 600 km away where she and her husband, a major in the Finnish Air Force, maintain a villa that they rent out to tourists.

Sulkinoja performs the journey up to three times a week, but she certainly isn't complaining.

"Most women in Finland work eight to 10 hours outside the house and then we come back to cook and clean the house. Still, we feel we are not doing enough, when we remember how hard our grandmothers had to work," Sulkinoja maintained.

Even so, why does she have to commute so much?

"In Finland, it's only the very, very rich who can afford to hire help. We all do our own work, from cooking and cleaning to taking out the garbage. And in today's Internet world, it is easy to work from home. But for someone in a job like mine, it's necessary to be seen in the office as often as possible," said Sulkinoja.

Sulkinoja's is but one of many similar stories but it's also important to consider one more major factor that has led to women enjoying an exalted status in Finnish society.

In 1906, Finnish women became the first in the world to gain full political rights. Thus, from a moderate 19 in the first unicameral elections in 1907, the number of women in parliament rose to 77 in 2001 and to the current 83 in the last elections held in 2003.

When the first woman minister was appointed in Finland, she was made responsible for social affairs.

"Miina Sillanpää's career, from factory worker and maidservant via the working class women's movement to the position of minister, was often cited as proof of the opportunities active women had of achieving influential positions in society," explains Merja Manninen, who has researched the history of Finnish women.

Of the 17 ministers in the present government, eight are women. They hold the portfolios of foreign trade and development, education, finance, labour, culture, social affairs and health, social services, and transport and communications.

Finland broke new ground in 2000 by becoming the first Western nation to elect a woman president – as distinct from Margaret Thatcher who was Britain's head of government.

Tarja Halonen, then the country's foreign minister, won the 2000 election in a field that included three other women and three men. Such is her high approval rating among the Finnish public, across party boundaries, that she was re-elected for a second six-year term in 2006.

Thus, it's little wonder that women like Sulkinoja – and multitudes of others – continue to thrive in this Land of the Midnight Sun.

After all, if the sun never sets, so is a woman's work never complete!