Former MP Arja Alho offers lessons from a pioneer of political gender equality
Despite making up just over half Thailand’s population, women have almost disappeared entirely from political decision-making under the junta. When the military ousted the country’s first female prime minister in 2014, women occupied 15.8 per cent of seats in Parliament. Now female lawmakers account for less than 5 per cent of seats in the National Assembly, the lowest in Asia and one of the lowest in the world.
On a recent visit to Thailand, former Finland MP Arja Alho offered lessons on how to boost gender equality in politics from a country where women occupy over 40 per cent of parliament. Alho, a 64-year-old political veteran, talked to The Nation’s Kornrawee Panyasuppakun.
How did you get into politics?
I graduated as a nurse and ran the organisation of student nurses. This led to my being nominated as a candidate for parliament and I was elected in 1983. At 28, I was considered a young MP at that time. I think the reason I was elected was that students were on my side – so were the nurses. They wanted their voices to be heard.
After three decades in politics, how do you see women’s political participation in Finland?
Just now we have slightly over 40 per cent female parliamentarians. When I was elected it was below 30. The reason [for the rise] is that political parties noticed it is an advantage to have women as candidates. Half of the population are women and young women want to vote for someone who know what it is like to be a student or a young person. So, if you are a female politician, then of course you get support from the women.
So has equality been achieved in Finland?
The stereotype [of women] still exists in Finland. It is very difficult for a woman to be considered a serious politician who really knows what she is talking about and has the capacity to lead. People expect women in parliament to cast votes but then sit still and let the men take care of things.
Also women are expected to be the moral ones because every female parliamentarian is representing both her gender and herself. It is a double burden because you have to be hard-working, moral, beautiful, a mother, and have a career. You have to be everything, and it is not possible. And you do also make mistakes. But I don’t say you should not try, but you have to be ready to forgive yourself.
What advice would you give to any woman who lacks the self-confidence to get into politics?
I think it is important that you start training in a smaller circle, like a school board, NGO, civil society activism, or municipal [politics]. What really helped me was being elected to the Helsinki city council. There I could see how decisions are made and what is it like to be a politician, and that gives you self-confidence. You also get a network and contacts. This is the process.
Are gender quotas a good idea?
Finland has a Gender Equality Act which says that in every committee or municipality, you need at least 40 per cent women.
[Of course] it is up to people whom they vote for. But in practice, the 40 per cent recommendation is effective in that political parties have to select more women candidates.
In fact, some parties have a majority of candidates as women but there are also very male-dominated parties who don’t follow this recommendation. If you want to change the attitude and the system fast, quotas are excellent. It is often said that it’s impossible to find many women who are competent, but it is not. In many countries Thailand included, women are resources that are utilised very little. With more women in power, you win because you get more expertise, more variety of views. Finland has a network called the Coalition of Finnish Women Association in parliament.
What about Thailand? What challenges and what potential do we have, in your view?
I think Thailand has huge potential. I know that tradition is very strong here because you value family life highly, but it is not your husband’s right to decide on your career or whom you vote for. The choice is yours. [But] Thailand has a problem with democracy. In a democracy, everyone has the right to vote and no one is excluded. Equality in making political choices also favours women. If you don’t have a democratic system, those in power will very often make decisions on whom they accept, and then there is a discrepancy.
Why do we need female politicians in the first place?
For society, women have enormous resources of expertise and talent. It is crazy to exclude those resources. And for women it is important that legislation is fair and understanding of the lives of women and children. Birth control is one example. [Or] think about women in the police force. I know that in Thailand women will no longer be accepted into the police academy. This is terrible because women realise what is it to be treated violently, and can support the victims. That’s why it is important that there are different kinds of people in the police force.
Any advice for young women who want a political career?
It is a question of self-confidence. Don’t think you don’t have the capacity. When you are in demanding posts, then you grow with them. It takes a lot but it gives more. I would say you just have to stand up for your rights.