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Women and Men Must Decide the Future of the Arctic Together

‘Gender equality is good economic policy,’ said former Finnish president Tarja Halonen at the opening of a conference on gender equality in the cultural centre Hof in Akureyri, Iceland, on 30 October this year.

Halonen pointed out that the countries with the highest levels of gender equality are also the ones with the best living conditions.

‘It makes good economic sense to use the capacity of both women and men,’ she said and reminded the audience that because of the tough conditions in the Arctic, it has always been necessary for both genders to contribute.

Focus on the Arctic

International experts, leaders from the private sector, politicians and representatives from the countries in the Arctic Council (USA, Russia, Canada and the Nordic countries) met at the conference in Iceland to discuss Arctic concerns. In light of the climate change problem and issues related to security and natural resources, there is an increasing focus on the region.

The Arctic Council is the only institution that can make decisions that lead to direct action in the eight Arctic states. At the conference, the group discussed the Arctic region and issues such as gender equality, gender representation in politics, resource management and climate change.

Gender equality lagging

Eva Maria Svensson. Foto: Þóra Kristín Ásgeirsdóttir
 Eva Maria Svensson. Photo: Þóra Kristín Ásgeirsdóttir

Eva Maria Svensson, professor at the University of Gothenburg and the University of the Arctic, stressed that the position of the genders varies across the countries in the Arctic countries. Gender equality has come a long way in the Nordic countries, which implies significant challenges for Canada, USA and Russia.

The gender equality in all public administration in the northern regions is falling behind, despite the gender equality legislation in place.

A number of indigenous organisations are also part of the Arctic Council. Sami member of parliament Gunn-Britt Retter spoke on behalf of the indigenous groups. She said that although the Nordic countries share both weather and spirit, it is the shared experience of the indigenous groups that is a key factor in the cooperation – and how they can ensure that their concerns remain on the agenda in the international community.

Masculine politics

Gunn-Britt Retter said that now, when all eyes are turned to the North, it can be seen that the policy developed for the area seems to be very male oriented. One can imagine what the Arctic would be like if all these men could have it their way. The Sami have relied on fishing and reindeers for their survival for thousands of years and therefore possess a unique understanding of life in the far North. Norway and Sweden are focusing on mining and do not believe in the viability of developing the traditional industries, like developing sustainable and environmentally friendly agriculture and fisheries. Retter also said that it is certainly possible to develop opportunities for mining to some extent, but that it is also important to consider the business opportunities inherent in old traditions. The mining will probably be profitable for the first, say, 20 years, but then what?

Ownership of knowledge

‘There is a major difference in the proportions of men and women in different areas of these countries,’ said Unnur Brá Konrádsdóttir, vice chair of the West Nordic Council, in a discussion with Nordic Information on Gender (NIKK) about what northern regions have in common in the area of gender equality.

‘Women move away, get a university degree, but because of the lack of opportunities in the labour market they never return.’

She says that businesses in industry and mining should be encouraged to target women in particular when recruiting workers, and also to consider the needs of women when planning the workweek.

Kriss Rokkan Iversen earned a PhD and then returned to Lofoten – a remote archipelago off the coast of Norway above the Arctic Circle – and started a business named Salt together with another woman. The company operates far from the academic world and sells specialised products related to the marine environment.

She pointed out in her speech that the farther north you go, the fewer university graduates you come across. However, women are better off in this regard, since considerably more women than men get a university degree. She said that ownership of knowledge is an important factor in discussions about the right to the northern areas, and that both genders can get a stake in the future by retaining the knowledge in the local communities.

Climate change and gender equality

Climate change and increased traffic and resource exploitation form a threat to the natural conditions, security and sustainable environment for all people in the northern regions and also in the rest of the world. It is therefore important that the eight countries in the Arctic Council base their discussions on common sense and sustainability, and that both women and men can participate in the decision making.

Tarja Halonen. Foto: Eva Maria Svensson. Foto: Þóra Kristín Ásgeirsdóttir
 Tarja Halonen. Photo: Þóra Kristín Ásgeirsdóttir

Tarja Halonen said that the climate change, environmental protection and right to land issues in the North have to be addressed with a gender equality perspective. Equal rights to the legal system for everybody – men, women, indigenous groups and others – must be ensured.

Eva Maria Svensson agreed and reminded that the economic development in the North did not happen by itself, but is rather the result of the present policies. It is important to include gender equality on the agenda in order to ensure public participation in decisions regarding the future of the Arctic region.

Audur H. Ingólfsdóttir, assistant professor at Bifröst University, discussed the problem from a feminist perspective. She said that the debate on the Arctic region has been highly masculine, in particular in the last few years. Those with the strongest financial interests have become increasingly interested in the region as they are seeing a great potential for profitable oil production and mining. She also said she has noticed how some things cannot be said in the open, critical questions cannot be asked and demands for sustainability and environmental protection are not appreciated.

Ingólfsdóttir said that there are many signs that the two genders have different outlooks on these issues, and that female participation could give soft values more attention and increase diversity.

Information is lacking

‘We need more data,’ said Unnur Brá Konrádsdóttir, vice chair of the West Nordic Council. ‘Information is the key to change.’

Eva Maria Svensson agreed and said that we need more research on the position of the genders and a better analysis of women’s participation in the far north areas that belong to the countries in the Arctic Council.

Kristín Ástgeirsdóttir, head of the Centre for Gender Equality Iceland, agreed. She suggested that a gender equality barometer be created for the Arctic, as there is currently no data illustrating the status of the different regions.

‘After listening to the discussions here at the conference, I think that type of comparison could be interesting,’ said Ástgeirsdóttir in an interview with NIKK. ‘It’s important to have a clear view of regional problems.’

Kristín Ástgeirsdóttir. Foto: Þóra Kristín Ásgeirsdóttir
 Kristín Ástgeirsdóttir. Photo: Þóra Kristín Ásgeirsdóttir

Ástgeirsdóttir also said that since Iceland and the other Nordic countries have come farther, they can share their experiences from gender equality work with other countries. As Iceland does not have any indigenous groups, the country does not have to consider the consequences of age-old oppression and colonialism.

‘There are many common traits across the Arctic region,’ said Ástgeirsdóttir. ‘Lots of women moving away, differences in educational attainment and lack of diversity in the labour market, in addition to the effects of climate change and the large corporations’ demand for natural resources. In the end, it’s a question of which kind of society we want in this part of the world.’

Updated 29 August 2020