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Women in local politics: 3 inspirational stories from Northern Europe

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The European Committee of the Regions is an advisory body of the European Union representing local and regional authorities. Among the 350 members of the Committee of the Regions there are many women who constantly bring their experience and competences to Brussels, especially in the field of women empowerment.

We, at the EU-Ukraine Women in Politics project supported by Promote Ukraine and the Institute of Innovative Governance, want to highlight the personal stories of three of them: Marie-Louise Rönnmark, major of Umeå (Sweden), Anne Karjalaien, City councillor of Kerava (Finland) and Yoomi Renström, Member of Ovanåker Municipal Council (Sweden). They come from two Nordic countries, which are considered among the most progressive nations on women empowerment.

Within EU member states women still constitute a minority in local authorities. However, some cities and regions in Finland and Sweden managed to put in place impressive policy changes on gender-equality.

Therefore, we spoke with female politicians who not only have managed to build a successful political career at the local level, but also introduced important women-friendly policies which today serve as example of women empowerment for regional authorities from all over Europe.

Would you consider the countries and cities you represent as gender-equal?

Yoomi Renström: Finland and Sweden were the first countries to raise the issue of gender-equality in politics. Throughout our career we did a lot to achieve gender-equality at the local level, specifically in cities where I and my two colleagues come from.

Yoomi Renström

Even if Sweden is ahead when it comes to gender issues, as a woman you always feel that you need to be a little bit better if you want to compete with men. Therefore, when I am doing politics I constantly and intensively do my best. But I still feel that in Sweden there is a common perception that a woman should take more responsibilities at home. When I started my political career, I used to go to many meetings while my husband stayed at home. Lots of people judged me because I was leaving my children with someone else, even though that someone else was their father. Hence, I spoke to my children and explained to them that I am often away to improve the life of other children, who maybe do not have two parents and all the opportunities we have. My children have always been very supportive of my work and never criticized me for not being home.

Marie-Louise Rönnmark:Umeå, the city I am representing, is the first city in Sweden which established the Gender Board, where we are engaged in gender mainstreaming at all levels. One of our most successful projects was achieving equal education for women and men. Also, we introduced a strong childcare system to allow women to have more time for self-development and work. Currently, I am also a Chair of the National Board of Local and Regional Associations in Sweden. The Board is working on the development of capacities for local and regional authorities in many countries, also in Ukraine.

Anne Karjalainen: Quotas introduced by the Finnish Government in 1990 helped me and other women to come into politics. Quotas helped us the break the system and give a way to girls and women who wanted to influence the decision-making in the country.

What is your personal story? Why did you decide to go into politics and what obstacles did you face?

Anne Karjalainen: I started my political career when I was 22 years old. As I said, I was lucky since at that time Finland already introduced a law on gender parity in politics according to which women should have constituted at least 40% of civil servants and politicians at national and local levels. Also, the values of my family played an important role. My father was always supportive of my choices and my mom became a politician as well, but after me. I also had many mentors in my life who encouraged me to start my political career. They supported me during the most challenging times of my life.

Marie-Louise Rönnmark

Marie-Louise Rönnmark, I started my political career when I was very young. I used to travel  a lot, but two destinations really changed my perception on the role of women in society: Vietnam and Austria. While the countries are situated so far from each other and represent two completely different cultures, I found something in common between them. I saw that women are always on the second place both in families and society. This situation really stroke me since I came from a family where everyone is equal despite their sex. When I came back to Umeå, I was invited to be a Chair of the Social Department of the municipality or chair the schooling system. However, I was interested in the Building and Planning Department of the City Council because there was only one woman there. Thus, I applied to become the Chair in that Department where I saw the severe underrepresentation and many challenges for women.

Yoomi Renström, when I got into politics I was in the middle of my life. My children were supportive of my work so I never felt guilty of not being home. Thanks to their support and the support of people who believe in me I was recently appointed to as President of my Municipal Council. I am the first woman holding this position. Hence, I feel that I have done something for gender-equality myself: I broke some borders. Of course it is not easy for a woman to go into politics and challenge traditional values. But I often say: if no one does it, nothing will change.

What would you recommend to young girls, including those who live outside the EU on how to start a political career? What should they expect from it?

Anne Karjalainen

Anne Karjalainen: I would say that in the first years of your career it very important to be competent in few areas to be able to compete with men. Attend conferences and meetings, read a lot in order to become an expert in a specific field.

Yoomi Renström: In all honesty, you must believe in what you are doing and always try to be the best in what you are doing. As woman you should be aware that that you might be discriminated and men might be more confident than you. But you should continue any good work that empowers women and girls.

Marie-Louise Rönnmark, gender equality is a necessary prerequisite of democracy as well as engaging citizens around different issues at the local level. Therefore, keep in mind that you must accept challenges and be the changemaker in every field you work.

Anna Melenchuk

Anna Melenchuk holds two Master’s degrees in international relations from Kyiv National Taras Shevchenko University and Moscow State Institute of international relations, Master’s degree in the East European studies from the University of Glasgow and Master’s degree in the Baltic Sea Region studies from the University of Tartu. She worked in the Canadian Parliament and British Red Cross as well in the United Nations in Ukraine in the areas of research, advocacy and communications. Her research interests lie in e-democracy and good governance as well as security and resilience studies.

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