Finland’s women building peace and making a crucial difference.

Living a busy modern life in a developed country insusceptible to natural disaster it can be quite easy to overlook the worldwide crises and catastrophes happening every day, until you turn on the TV or pick up the newspaper, where you’ll usually be greeted by a variety of reports on worldwide conflicts and tragedies. Tsunamis, earthquakes, floods, war, terrorist attacks, poverty, disease, drought, political and civil unrest, refugees fighting for survival; the list is endless.

Peace building and crisis management

Throughout the world there are some amazing people who join international peacekeeping missions, crisis management teams and other civil society NGOs (non-governmental organisations) in order to make a difference and actively bring aid to the global millions suffering such conditions. This is the side of devastation that we don’t get to hear much about but it is ever present and key to helping the troubled states and countries.

Possibly the most well known universal peace keeping organisation is the United Nations, officially established in 1945 to essentially elaborate instruments for settling crises peacefully and without force, work to prevent wars, and code rules of warfare. At the time of their establishment Walter Lippman, an American journalist, summed up their workforce as “the soldier of peace, who is sent to an area of conflict, not to wage war, but to promote peace, not to fight enemies, but to help friends”.

Many other national and local NGOs have been founded since then to work towards the same aims, Finland having many of their own. There are around 300 Finnish NGOs taking part in the implementation of development cooperation projects striving for global solidarity and improving the livelihood of the poorest people in developing countries. Finnish NGOs have projects supported by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs in over 80 developing countries.

Band of sisters

With some military connotations to the idea of missions and crisis management NGOs, and the thoughts of the often violent and oppressive surroundings mission workers find themselves in overseas, there is a common misconception that this is very much a man’s world. However, women play a vital role in these operations and are also very often out “in the field” rather than, as some would think, stuck behind a desk manning the phones. Awareness of women’s appointments in these roles should be wider and many organisations are working towards gaining more women leaders within them.

You don’t have to go far to hear about such commendable and outstanding females – here are some inspiring Finnish women who continue to take the reigns and make a difference.

Anne Palm – Secretary General, KATU

Anne Palm – Secretary General, KATU

Anne Palm has been secretary general of the Civil Society Conflict Prevention Network KATU since the organisation was established in 1997 where, amongst other things, she organises training courses and seminars in conflict prevention, crisis management and peace building. KATU has instigated many international conflict prevention projects and has been active in Southern Africa and Timor Leste, where Palm spent a lot of time training the local people in conflict prevention and peace building. There are also current preliminary plans to launch a project in North Africa with KATU.

After studying International Politics, specialising in security policy, at the University of Helsinki Anne jumped straight into working with international affairs, which led to her current role and activity overseas.

Anne has been involved in civilian crisis management for many years, recently returning from her latest demanding, but rewarding, three-year post in Georgia on a European Union Monitoring Mission. In August 2008, when the conflict between Georgia and Russia broke out, the EU became immediately active in facilitating the peace agreement and set up the Monitoring Mission in order to implement it. Anne was one of the 10 initial monitors sent to Georgia and took a leave of absence from her role at KATU in order to be so. Being the Chief of Operations in Zugdidi, Western Georgia, and being the first woman civilian working in the EUMM operations, Anne had the responsibility for all operations in that area, being part of a large team of 70 other international monitors and 20 local staff members.

“I think that a woman can also be successful in this kind of masculine work”, was Palm’s response to her appointment as the first woman in this type of role at EUMM, and her passion and drive for such causes are what she thrives on in her job. “I have always been interested in international issues and, in particular, security issues. I believe that conflicts can be prevented and crises managed if we simply just want to, and I want to do what I can. I love the work I do and enjoy working with people from different cultures and backgrounds; civilians, soldiers, academics, practitioners, government officials, NGO activists. Unfortunately there will always be wars and conflicts, and people with crisis management experience are needed.”

With experience working in crisis management in the Balkans, and after her return from Georgia, she feels that it won’t be long until she is called to another mission in another conflict area.

Heidi Schroderus-Fox – Director, UN-OHRLLS

Heidi Schroderus-Fox – Director, UN-OHRLLS

With her recent appointment as Director of the United Nations Office of the High Representative for the Least Developed Countries, Landlocked Developing Countries and Small Island Developing States (UN-OHRLLS), Heidi Schroderus-Fox occupies Finland’s highest post at the UN headquarters in New York. A seasoned diplomat, Ambassador Schroderus-Fox has been employed by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs since 1988. She has served in diplomatic missions in Paris, Washington, Tel Aviv, Pretoria and New York.

Prior to assuming her position at UN-OHRLLS, Ambassador Schroderus-Fox served from 2010-2011 in the Cabinet of the President of the 65th Session of the General Assembly of the United Nations, where she was Head of Policy Issues. Most recently, she was deputy for Under-Secretary of State Jaakko Laajava, handling negotiation tasks concerning the establishment of a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction.

With almost 25 years of experience in global affairs, Ambassador Schroderus-Fox brings to the United Nations, not only an appreciation of the organisation’s indispensable role in forging international consensus’ on a variety of challenging issues, but also an understanding of the need to mobilise the UN system to support global, regional and national strategies to address the building blocks of sustainable development in the world’s poorest nations. About 90 countries fall within the scope of activities of UN-OHRLLS, most of which require ongoing support from the international community to overcome a myriad of developmental challenges.

“The UN provides a truly democratic forum through which different countries’ concerns can be addressed, and through its programmes and agencies provides practical support to help member states meet a wide array of needs, including crisis recovery, poverty reduction, health and education enhancement, gender equality and building sustainable livelihoods,” Ambassador Schroderus-Fox said.

As she discharges her functions in her new position in New York, Heidi Schroderus-Fox continues to make important in-roads into the world of global development both for women in Finland and across the world.

Deputy Head of Mission Nina Suomalainen has over 19 years of experience from around the world.

Nina Suomalainen – Deputy Head of Mission

Nina Suomalainen has 19 years’ experience in managing capacity and institutional development, human rights protection, and promotion in post-conflict and development contexts, working currently on a mission for Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Based in Sarajevo for the next two years, Nina manages all aspects of the 500-staff operation across the whole country, making important decisions about what the mission will achieve and which sectors it will support.

The work of the mission takes political action towards the authorities, aiding in developing legislation, institutions and other aspects of the government to work towards a better-supported judicial system. A major part of the mission in Sarajevo is to follow the political activity across the country, paying particular attention to hotspots such as Srebrenica, and provide early warnings in order to alleviate conflicts by facilitating discussions and interaction between parties. As well as monitoring the country wide court procedures and governmental / political issues, the OSCE mission is also striving to improve education structure and curricula for students, and supports the work of women’s rights and their right to vote in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

“It is really great to work in our Mission,” Suomalainen comments. “I like it a lot; I have got lot of responsibility in my position and I like the challenge. I have also been involved in politics in Finland and find that my political background helps me to understand many things here in Sarajevo better. It is important to try to understand why, for example, Bosnian politicians say or do – or not do – something.”

As well as currently being out in the field in Bosnia, and not for the first time, Nina has also been involved with a human rights evaluation mission in Rwanda in 2005, a women’s rights issue campaign in Sierra Leone in 2007, reporting on a humanitarian project in Haiti in 2011 and with the UNDP in Latvia, following the breakdown of the Soviet Union, to name but a few. Some of these peace building missions, and many others that Nina has had involvement in, were with Finland’s largest development NGO, Finn Church Aid, of which Suomalainen is Senior Development Policy Advisor.

On her mission to Rwanda, Nina observes that “the scope of the genocide there is just mind blowing, and in such a beautiful country,” hinting at the haunting memories and images that are witnessed by mission workers surrounded by such devastation. On the flip side though, she recollects a fond sensorial experience: “On [my] first arrival to Sarajevo in 1998 the snowy hilltops surrounding the city, the smell of coal, and call to prayer from the mosques will be in my memory always.”

Mia Seppo, Country Director, UNDP, meets with the Youth Commissioner, one of the NGO’s close partners for the Youth Employment and Empowerment Programme.

Mia Seppo – Country Director, UNDP

Starting her career with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) working on fragile states in the former Soviet Union, where she worked within all the Soviet Union countries except Moldova, and then being based in New York for five years with the Regional Bureau for Africa covering crisis and post-crisis countries, Mia Seppo is no stranger to the challenges and opportunities of the UN’s work on peace building. Seppo’s current role with UNDP sees her working in the field in Sierra Leone where she has been working for the past two years to promote good governance, sustainable and equitable growth, youth employment, and improve natural resources management and the protection of the environment.

The UNDP in Sierra Leone is working with the government of Sierra Leone, national counterparts, and civil society in strengthening institutions and processes that are more responsive to the needs of ordinary citizens, and is currently focusing on the upcoming third post-war elections in November. Free, fair and peaceful elections are critical in allowing the country to leave behind the horrific images of conflict and struggle of the civil war. Also, being ten years after the peace agreement of 2002, this is a time of reflection for Sierra Leone involving many discussions on the choices faced by the country and the policies needed to pull the country out of the bottom group on the UNDP Human Development Index.

Among the various areas of focus of UNDP in Sierra Leone is the Youth Employment and Empowerment Programme (YEEP) which strengthens national policy for youth employment and provides basic support services for youth across the country. Youth face the daunting challenge of securing decent employment in an economic context, characterised by a lack of job opportunities, especially in rural areas. Marginalisation, low income and limited prospects make the youth volatile and vulnerable to manipulation.

In Sierra Leone the vast majority of people rely on natural resources such as land, water, forests and fish for their livelihoods and the country’s high vulnerability to climate change and natural disasters can be a catalyst for economical and civil instability. Responsible for the day-to-day management of UNDP programmes and operations, Seppo comments that, “if managed effectively, natural resources and the environment can make a vital contribution to peace building in Sierra Leone, laying a sustainable foundation for jobs and economic growth.”

Coordination with other partners, engaging in discussions with the Sierra Leone government on their priorities, promoting the greatest impacts to change, and monitoring the overall implementation of the programme are Mia Seppo’s main activities. When asked what drives Mia to do her job she replies “The challenge! Never a boring moment is truly the case. Working for the UN is being part of something bigger than me, contributing to change for the better. The UN is not perfect, but I still believe it is indispensable.”

Before her current position as Administrative
Director, KEPA, Aysu Shakir-Corbishley was
sent to Afghanistan by the Finnish Government
on her first overseas mission working for the
Finnish League for Human Rights.

Aysu Shakir-Corbishley – Administrative Director, KEPA

Recently joining the team at KEPA, an umbrella organisation for Finnish civil society organisations, Aysu Shakir-Corbishley continues to enrich her experience in the management and direction of organisations, following her return from a civilian crisis management mission in Afghanistan.

Whilst working for the Finnish League for Human Rights, a Finnish NGO, Shakir-Corbishley was sent to Afghanistan by the Finnish Government on her first overseas mission. The Finnish government posts many civilian crisis management workers all over the world to conflict areas in need of aid, and in this case Shakir-Corbishley was asked to join the European Union’s Special Representatives Office in Afghanistan as the Human Rights and Rule of Law Advisor. As a country having been through a 30 year civil war, and being still very much a war zone, Afghanistan is a high conflict area with many of its state structures having collapsed completely.

Responsible for all aspects of human rights issues, including women’s rights and freedom of expression, Shakir-Corbishley coordinated the rights work done by the EU member state embassies present in Afghanistan in order to create a common and coherent agenda and plan of action between them. Reporting on the situation and making proposals for change, Shakir-Corbishley would closely monitor and analyse the civil and human rights state of affairs, whilst also offering support and listening to other Afghan civil societies in order to raise their concerns to try and improve the human rights condition.

Getting involved

If you’ve been inspired by the work of these commendable women and are interested in getting involved with similar projects then there are plenty of volunteering opportunities available. Finnish volunteer programme, ETVO, offers volunteering prospects for people over the age of 20 who are interested in aiding the mission work in developing countries. A KEPA volunteer programme, ETVO channels their volunteers to NGO’s in the South, aiming to bring benefits to the relationship and work of both the receiving organisations and Finnish civil society.

Another such portal of opportunity is Kansainvälinen Vapaaehtoistyö, (KVT), which literally translates as International Voluntary Service. KVT is a Finnish peace organisation aiming to promote equality, social acceptance and respect for the environment, and they mainly organise international work camps in Finland or send willing volunteers to work camps abroad. There are various ways in which to participate, with the chance to become involved in long term volunteering projects of up to 12 months.

If you’re interested in more closer to home, small scale volunteering, then the Finnish Seamen’s Mission are always looking for volunteers to help out with either, kitchen duties and customer service, work with the seamen and truck drivers, or maintenance tasks.


Shakir-Corbishley’s work with the mission “demands a lot of work, a lot of patience, and long term commitment. Nothing can be changed in a few months or even a few years, but the point is to try to make a difference, however small. Even though it’s tough and it’s sometimes very frustrating, because you naturally want to see the results of your work but can’t always, I really enjoyed my work there and would have stayed longer.” When the opportunity of the mission arose Aysu jumped at the chance reasoning that, “where there are conflicts, human rights violations, or a state has collapsed, I think it’s the responsibility of the international community to support and help. I personally feel a responsibility of trying to do my best to help people or groups who are in a much more vulnerable situation than I am.”

This commendable career choice though led her into a dangerous environment of bombing, fighting and gunfire that meant her living habits whilst in Afghanistan were extremely restricted. Having to always travel in armed vehicles and living in compounds with armed guards this mission, and Aysu’s work here, confirms that women are more than capable of dealing with working in conflict areas. Although self admittedly scared at times when there were attacks on the town and one was not quite sure what was happening, or when one always knew someone who knew someone who was injured or even killed in recent attacks or bombings, the commitment and belief in the mission was always stronger.

Working together

As vital cogs in the peacekeeping machine, these Finnish women are just five of many who stand shoulder to shoulder with the world and work with other countries to take small steps towards a brighter, independent future. As Mia Seppo sums up beautifully, “We cannot change the countries we work in alone, but support will enable the people to implement the change that they want: peace, growing economies, institutions they can trust, and a better future for their children.”

Beth Morton