Helvi Sipilä was the first woman in the world to hold the rank of Assistant Secretary-General at the United Nations. She was an inspirational leader with a strong life-long commitment to gender equality.
Helvi Sipilä (1915 – 2009) was a Finnish lawyer and diplomat. Her profession in law was exceptional at the time. When she announced the opening of her own law firm in 1943, she became the second woman in the Finnish history to practice law. She ran her own firm for 30 years.
Private entrepreneurship enabled Sipilä to engage in extensive social activities, including service as a member of governmental missions. She also held leadership position in several associations, including the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts, International Federation of Women Lawyers and the International Council of Women.
Helvi Sipilä’s profession and leadership positions in international organizations, together with the governmental duties, were merits on the basis of which – as the first woman in the world – she was appointed Assistant Secretary-General of the UN in 1972. She held this post until her retirement in 1980.
While Assistant Secretary-General, she was appointed Secretary-General of the UN World Conference on Women in Mexico in 1975. In her opening statement she noted that the World Conference on Women was the first intergovernmental meeting where women formed part of virtually all delegations, and she expressed her hope that it would set a precedent for equal representation of women and men in all future international meetings, whether on political or economic affairs, on disarmament, trade or human settlement.
She continued to work as a consultant for the UN until 1981, in order to promote the UN Voluntary Fund for the Advancement of Women, later known as UNIFEM. Sipilä used her leadership position in the United Nations effectively to advocate for gender equality and the empowerment of women. Sipilä remained active after retiring from the United Nations. She was the first woman in Finland to run for president in 1982.
The first International Helvi Sipilä Seminar was organized in 2006 by the Finnish Federation of University Women (FFUW) in collaboration with four other Finnish Women’s organizations to honor the work of Minister Helvi Sipilä. The International Helvi Sipilä seminar -series addresses challenging issues that affect women and their lives locally and globally in the 21st century. This year the 12th seminar was held on 16 March.
Improving the position and rights of girls and women is among the key goals of Finland’s development policy. UN Women is one of Finland’s principal strategic partners in the promotion of gender equality. With its core funding of EUR 10 million in 2016, Finland is one of the largest contributors among UN Women member states.
Finland’s four actions strive to promote :
- women and girls are better educated and have better skills
- women and children have better access to high-quality basic services
- women and girls are included in political decision-making and in economic activities
- more women and girls enjoy the right to make decisions which affect their lives – and fewer fall victims of violence
“Girls across the world deserve to have the same opportunities to attend school and to embark on a good career as all boys of the world. Girls with education are less likely to marry as a child or get pregnant in their teens, and this also reflects in the productivity of work and economic growth,” says Minister Mykkänen.