Tale holdt under møte om "Urbanisation: Catalyst or impediment for women's empowerment" under UN-Habitat Governing Council konferanse i Nairobi, 16. april 2013

Honourable participants, dear all,

Thank you for the introduction and for giving me this opportunity to share experiences and reflections from my local community regarding gender equality.

I am mayor of a municipality of nearly 60 000 inhabitants just outside the Norwegian capital Oslo. We are a small country in this context, a privileged society with the best welfare system in the world. This I must confirm after visiting a slum area here in Nairobi.

I consider our democracy threatened by the fact that only 50% of first time voters, girls in particular, take part in the elections.

In this perspective I reflect on that one of our challenges when it comes to democracy and gender equality could be that we take our rights and privileges for granted. A threat for us can actually be people getting indifferent.

I will now give you a brief overview of a milestone in our local political history, an important event illustrating the power of determination and mobilisation.
This year, Norway is celebrating 100 years of women’s right to vote.
Norwegian women have had political RIGHTS for one hundred years, but it has been a long struggle to gain real political POWER and influence for women in politics.

Even though a female Member of the Norwegian Parliament was elected already in 1911 – and the first female mayor was elected in 1926, these women were exceptions. Men made decisions regarding political issues of developing society, men decided which topics held importance and they dominated the public debate. They held all the political positions.

A major shift of political power happened in Norway in 1971, and the accomplishments of a group of clever and brave women in my municipality, Asker, became a national event.
Women wanted to tribute to achieve higher standard of living for the families, and increase the family income. They needed kindergartens and preschools to be able to work outside home.
In 1970 these kinds of questions were not on the men’s agenda. Women therefore needed political power and influence they needed to get into political positions.

The story is about how they made this happen, using the electoral system.

In preparation for the local elections in 1971, women in several parts of Norway mobilised.
Norwegian election rules allow cumulating, which mean that voters can move any candidate from the bottom of a party ballot to the top. You can even put a name from another political party´s list on your own political party´s list, to give a person an extra vote.
Working on a grass roots level, women exploited this rule in the same way men had for decades. Joining political parties, women got their names on ballots and mobilized the female population to cumulate them and to support each other also across political parties. And they did.
Women in Asker succeeded particularly well with this strategy and gained majority of seats in the local council.

What is called “the female coup of Asker in 1971” is now referred to as an important event in the national women’s history.
By exploiting the possibilities in the election system, results can be made in order to get influence and power. Today everyone has a right to kindergarten in Norway.
Norway and Scandinavia are considered amongst the leading countries in the world when it comes to gender equality. But still, it is important to be aware of the obstacles for equality, especially in cultural matters.

The law ensures female formal rights and participation, but in order to make an impact in the decision-making processes, women – just as men – need adequate knowledge and skills regarding governmental and local political systems and methods.

It is said that men do a lot of things they don’t have knowledge about with the greatest confidence, while women are more modest, hesitating and afraid they are not good enough. Women need empowerment in this aspect as well.
Therefore political parties in Norway give special attention to the female politicians. We train them in presentation techniques in order to empower them to take positions and get attention.

I am glad to see many women in this room today, yesterday in the plenary session I observed many more men than women present. I am glad that the deputy executive director of this important organization is a female. I have great expectation that Doctor Aisa Kasyra will contribute to increase female representation.

Women represent valuable insights and experiences which are important perspectives in the development of society. By thinking and valuing differently from men, women can contribute constructively to solutions and alternative assessments.  Women in politics will increase interest and commitment from other women and thereby ensure a vibrant democracy.

In Asker we experience that we have challenges in encouraging immigrant women to take part in society. As a female mayor I am very conscious about this challenge, and I try in different ways to get in touch with the 140 different nationalities living in our municipality and invite them to contribute and participate.

We offer free language courses in learning Norwegian. Knowing the national language is the key and the door opener to both the labour market and participation in voluntary work. It will also make the women able to take part in their children´s education and social life.

I believe that together with all the voluntary resources in our society, immigrant women will slowly, but surely, be integrated as important contributors in the development of our community.

Even though Norwegian women have reached a high level of participation during the last 100 years since we gained voting rights, we still face challenges as our community grows and changes.

I am looking forward to return home with new ideas on how to meet those challenges. I look forward to hear your experiences here today.

Thank you for your attention.

Lene W. Conradi