President Tarja Halonen, Chair of the commission

Giving peace a chance through health and gender equality

The new and international cross-discipline Lancet commission spearheading peace, health and gender equality issues comes at a perfect time, says Tarja Halonen, former President of Finland.

By Ulrica Segersten/Alex Farnsworth, Photo: Lasse Keltto

In her position as Chair of the Lancet-SIGHT Commission, a joint effort between by SIGHT, the Swedish Institute for Global Health Transformation at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, and The Lancet, the world’s leading medical journal, Halonen brings a wealth of expertise and experience from the international arena.

The Commission’s task is to identify cross-sector ways to strengthen the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development by generating new ideas, presenting evidence and develop recommendations to improve health and gender equality and create more peaceful and inclusive societies globally. The Commission is made up of members from academia, multilateral institutions, research and development organizations, and government organizations. What’s unique about the Lancet-SIGHT Commission is that it will seek to identify cross-sector ways to strengthen 2030 Agenda with 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) including good health (SDG 3), gender equality (SDG 5) and peaceful and inclusive societies (SDG16).

President Tarja Halonen described to Swedish students from the Foreign Policy Association LUND (UFP), during a “fika” (traditional Swedish coffee break) how the 2030 Agenda can be thought of o as a house with 17 doors representing the individual SDG objectives. Her point is that it doesn’t really matter what door you open; the house remains the same. Everything is interconnected, and all rooms affect each other independently of whether the front door represents climate or access to clean water. It’s one house.

Despite uncertainties, the Commission’s work comes at an interesting and challenging time, says Halonen.

“How conflicts arise is no longer as black and white as it used to be. War has always affected the civilian population but children, women and the elderly are increasingly becoming targets. In addition,
healthcare and relief workers in conflict zones have also become targets in a way we have not seen before,” she continues. “But most disturbing is how sexual violence is increasingly used as a weapon in conflicts. It upsets me very much.”

“War has always been a threat to human health. But health has also become an increasingly clear indicator of social status. That is why I think the Lancet-SIGHT Commission’s ambition to tackle the question of how health, equality, and peaceful communities are interconnected comes at the right time.

Born in 1943 and raised in Finland, Tarja Halonen has experienced the consequences of two world wars and one civil war. Poverty was still evident during her upbringing. But she also sees it as an asset to have seen up close how a country like Finland rose from being closed and poor to becoming an
open and rich country that has continuously embraced globalization in modern times. She believes for example that the way Finland took care of its veterans is an interesting story in itself. Not only could these disenfranchised people often return to a productive life, and become relatively healthy, but they have had long rich lives as well. And last year, Finland was ranked as the world’s happiest nation.

UN structure, not the most elegant

In addition to two mandates as a popular and outspoken president of Finland, Tarja Halonen has also been Minister of Social Affairs and Health, Minister of Justice and Foreign Minister. After her presidential tenure, she held countless assignments of sustainability and human rights work, especially concerning children and women as a common theme. She’s also been an advisor to various UN agencies.

Some wonder how the UN, which was created in another era, will succeed in navigating a time with a completely different balance of power and where multinational agreements are no longer regarded as equally sacred. How does Tarja Halonen see it?

“Yes, I know there is criticism. The UN is an old and large organization neither the most elegant nor effective. One Secretary-General after another has made great efforts to modernize it and it is not without challenges. This is partly due to the UN becoming so strongly divided into sectors; a conflict-solving one and another that concentrates on the development agenda. The current Secretary-General is trying hard to bring these two factions together.”

UN work is therefore increasingly concerned with building more resilient societies, and not just trying to get a short-lasted ceasefire or negotiate with warlords.

“Health seems to be one such area that contributes to sustainable communities and, by extension, perhaps peace. In order to create conditions for health, human rights must be respected, not least when it comes to sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR). We know that girls and women are especially vulnerable in conflict and disaster settings. It will be interesting to see what the Lancet-SIGHT Commission comes up with. Women become pregnant regardless of war or peace. Securing primary care is therefore central,” says Halonen.

Science plays an important role too in that it can contribute to proper decision-making. But, according to Halonen political clarity is also needed in developing these priorities. This, in turn, requires closer
collaboration between academia, politics, and the private sector. How health is affected by conflicts, and through trust in institutions, needs to be studied more.

Today, the Nordic countries place a high degree of trust in their institutions and have come relatively far in terms of gender equality and health. With 34-year-old Sanna Marin as prime minister and a government with a majority of female ministers, Finland has shown progress on this front. Sweden, in turn, has a feminist foreign policy. Norway and Denmark also have female prime ministers, Erna Solberg and Mette Frederiksen, respectively. 

This is however not the norm, globally there are still relatively few top managerial positions in health care held by women globally, although women account for over 75 percent of the health care workforce. How does all of this affect the Commission’s mandate?

“Women should hold important positions but often don’t. At the UN, we work hard to make women more visible in peace negotiations so that more people become convinced of their skills. There are many skilled and courageous female negotiators out there, but they are underutilized.”

“We need scientific evidence of the difference women can make in peace negotiations. But before we get there, there is no reason to use only half of the resources available, i.e: just men.”

Tarja Halonen adds with some caution that women have a wealth of experience from nursing and other welfare occupations, and that this skill set is valuable or even crucial when and where decisions are made.

When asked what President Halonen wants the Lancet-SIGHT Commission to accomplish, her quick answer is that it would be very useful to have more evidence-based knowledge on how health, equality, and peace are linked. She’s hopeful about the Commission’s prospects and future findings on these issues.

And out of sheer curiosity, how was the news received at home that Finns are ranked as the world’s happiest people in 2019 – according to the World Happiness Report?

“We are not the richest country in the Nordic countries, but it seems that the feeling of social security, freedom and the environment makes us happy, or in Finland, we would rather express it as fewer
people being unhappy. We are a melancholy people, so we take the news with a pinch of salt,” says Halonen with a wry smile.

She believes that the feeling of solidarity Finns have amongst themselves, to have built the country together, is important.  “We’ve created a society where even a single mother can do well and can feel safe,” she claims.

According to Halonen, Finland can be a shining example of building security and trust for a whole generation. We must always have the interest of the next generation in mind. That is the only sustainable approach, she says.

Finally, do you think the welfare society as we know it is threatened?

“Welfare systems have come under scrutiny in this period of heavy globalization, no doubt. Globalization and market economies are tough environments in which to retain a welfare system. But the biggest threat to the system is corruption. Sure, I may be worried about the welfare state,
but I have taken part in studies that show that people, in general, have a good understanding of the prosperity of the welfare system. But our systems must be transparent to avoid corruption. Corruption steals so many resources in our world. Our democratic systems must be constantly defended,” she says.

The 76-year-old former President has no time to settle down. Swedish coffee or Fika was quickly shared with students before she was torn away to more pressing assignments. Even her passion for art had to take a back seat, (she chairs Finland’s National Art gallery after all) as Halonen had to skip a visit the Skissernas Museum in Lund.

For ex-President Halonen, the artwork of human rights as well as how to strengthen peace, health and gender equality is what beckons with a higher calling.


• Chair of Lancet-SIGHT commission 2019–

• Chairman of the National Gallery of Finland, 2015–

• President of Finland (2000–2012)

• Foreign Minister (1995–2000)

• Minister of Justice (1990–1991)

• Minister of Social Affairs and Health (1987–1990)

• Own Global Foundation for Sustainable Development, TH Global Sustainability Foundation

Several assignments as an advisor to the UN, including UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), United Nations Global Champion for Disaster Risk Reduction, 2015–, UN Secretary General’s High-Level Advisory Board on Mediation, Member 2017–

…and many more assignments

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