Johanna Laaja 15 January 2018

Gender equality and non-discrimination are basic human rights

Non-discriminatory local government excludes no one

We in Finland live in two different realities. One the one hand, this is one of the world's best countries for gender equality and non-discrimination. Yet at the same time, many of us are subjected to continuous hate speech, gender violence or discriminatory situations in everyday life, for example at schools or in job hunting. The #Metoo campaign has revealed what is going on behind closed doors, but harassment takes place openly in public spaces as well. The hurt of discrimination is magnified when bystanders stay silent and close their eyes on what is happening.

Sometimes local authorities too, whether consciously or not, close their eyes on discrimination against municipal residents. In many cases, discrimination is structural or indirect in nature, and thus more difficult to recognise. One example of indirect discrimination is a school that bans headscarves that cover the face. Elimination of discrimination is important, but it is not enough. In order to achieve de facto equality, more is required than just treating everyone the same. Some people need positive action that will put them on the same footing with others.

Every municipal resident has a right to a life without discrimination and with equal opportunities for participation. Local authorities are the primary duty bearers responsible for securing this right. In an equal municipality, all municipal residents can participate, be heard and feel like full and valued members of the community irrespective of their functional ability, background or identity. A municipality’s obligation to promote gender equality and non-discrimination is based on the existing legislation — the Constitution of Finland, the Non-Discrimination Act, the Act on Equality between Women and Men, and the international human rights treaties and ethics.

The Non-discrimination Act requires every municipality to have a plan for the promotion of equality in all its activities and in personnel policy. Municipal educational institutions are also required to draw up their own plans. These plans must contain an evaluation of the current situation and concrete measures for promotion of equality. The Association of Finnish Local and Regional Authorities supports municipalities’ equality planning within the Rainbow Rights project coordinated and managed by the Finnish Ministry of Justice. The project will publish a best practices guide for local authorities in autumn 2018.

One objective of the work on equality is to broaden our idea of what is an ordinary municipal resident. We must not impose a single model on everyone. For example, over one-thirds of Finnish families are diverse in different ways, and that is a conservative estimate. So why plan municipal activities around the traditional nuclear family only? 

Officeholders of a medium-sized Finnish city told me that they had received feedback saying the people depicted in the city magazine are too diverse and do not reflect the city’s real population. Such ‘over-representation’ of diversity is one example of how to promote equality, in other words, to paint a picture of the more diverse municipality that awaits us in the future. In that picture, perhaps we as municipal residents, too, have already overcome some of our fears and prejudices?


The Project Rainbow Rights is supported by the Rights, Equality and Citizenship (REC) Programme of the European Union.


Johanna Laaja.

Adviser, Rainbow Rights Project.