May 19, 2009

Anne S. Walker

Helvi Sipila died on Friday 15 May 2009 in Helsinki, Finland, at the age of 94. Known as Minister Helvi Sipila in Finland, for women worldwide, Helvi’s death marks the passing of a great star in the firmament of women’s human rights and one who will be long-remembered for all that she achieved in her remarkable lifetime.


Born Helvi Maukola in 1915 Helvi Sipila seemed destined for prominence from the very beginning. The midwife at the hospital where Helvi was born told her mother, “Your child will be a leader. When she begins to cry, all the other babies cry and when she stops, they do too.” (Helvi Sipila, Woman at the Top of the World, edited by Irma Kuntuu, Keuruu, Finland (1979).


Helvi quickly fulfilled the midwife’s prophecy by becoming at age 27 only the 38th woman in Finland to be a lawyer. She then embarked on a distinguished career, also finding time to marry and have four children. She ran her own lawyers’ firm 1943-1972. Between 1954 and 1956, Helvi was Chairwoman of the National Federation of Women Lawyers. She subsequently became President of the International Federation of Women Lawyers. In addition to her work with women lawyers groups, Helvi was a founder of the Finnish refugee council, President of Zonta International 1968-1970, President of the National Council of Women of Finland (NCWF) 1967-1972, Vice-President of International Council of Women 1970-1972, a member of the International Committee of World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts (WAGGGS), the Finland YWCA and several other NGOs.


In the 1960’s, Helvi began to use her skills and talents on an international level. She was Finland’s delegate to the UN Commission on the Status of Women 1960-1968 and again in 1971.  She served as vice-chair 1963-66 and in 1967 she became chair of the commission. She was also the UN’s Special Ambassador for Family Planning and the Status of Women. Helvi was a member of the Finnish delegation to the UN General Assembly 1966-67. In 1972, she achieved her highest post when she was appointed an Assistant Secretary General of the United Nations, the first woman to hold this post. In 1975 she was appointed Secretary-General of both the UN International Women’s Year (IWY) and the IWY World Conference in Mexico City. This was the first of four Women’s World Conferences to be held by the United Nations, the next three in Copenhagen (1980), Nairobi (1985) and Beijing (1995).


It was at the IWY World Conference in Mexico City 1975 that the UN Voluntary Fund for the Advancement of Women was born, later to be known as the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM). Helvi continued to work as a consultant for the UN until 1981 in order to promote UNIFEM and to put into effect the World Action Plan adopted at the 1975 World Conference. For IWY 1975 and the Decade for Women (1976-1985) that followed, the UN had commissioned a symbol that would represent the three goals of IWY and the Decade –Equality, Development and Peace. This symbol, affectionately known worldwide as the ‘women’s bird symbol’, also became the symbol for UNIFEM and Helvi saw that it was legally copyrighted so that any use of it for commercial purposes would raise funds for UNIFEM. Helvi founded the Finnish UNIFEM National Committee in 1981, the first in the world, which grew to become the largest of all UNIFEM National Committees worldwide with over 60 branches within Finland.


In 1982, Helvi contested for the office of the President of Finland and made history as the first woman to stand for office. She did not win, but she paved the way for others who followed in her footsteps, including the first woman president of Finland, Tarja Halonen.


On March 2, 2006 at the 50th Session of Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), the first Helvi Sipila Seminar was held entitled: ‘Power in her hands,’ to discuss women in leadership. The seminar was started in honor of Helvi’s work and her contribution to the CSW and other international and national women’s organizations. At this initial seminar, Carolyn Hannan, Director of the UN Division for the Advancement of Women, said: “Helvi Sipila is a legend in the women’s movement and the epitome of women’s leadership. She remains a model and inspiration for many women at the UN today’’. The Helvi Sipila seminars continue to be a featured part of the CSW.


The International Women’s Tribune Centre (IWTC), an organization born out of the IWY World Conference in Mexico City has followed the pioneering path of Helvi Sipila for three decades. We concur with the words of Carolyn Hannan, spoken at the first Helvi Sipila Seminar to honor her work. We extend our deepest sympathy to Helvi’s family and friends and wish to express our heartfelt gratitude for a life well spent in the service of women worldwide.


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