On 29 October 2019, Helsingin Sanomat reported that the debating culture at the Finnish Parliament has become brusquer. When taking the floor, the Members of Parliament speak more succinctly and make pointed remarks that are short enough to be reposted on social media. In the era of social media, tweet-like word games are entertaining for sure, but only for as long as they do not violate the principles of good taste. According to the chairpersons of the parliamentary groups, they increasingly often do.
For a long time, I have been comprehensively reflecting on the alarming nature of the shift we are seeing in political debate, particularly from the viewpoint of women involved in politics. Harassment, hate speech, spam and destroy attacks and sexism against young, politically active women in particular are everyday themes in news articles and social media posts. According to a recent report published by several Finnish non-governmental organisations, entitled Peking +25, more than 70% of the respondents who took the first equality survey conducted among Finnish Members of Parliament reported having received threats on social media. Among them, the threats against women were often sexual in nature.
In addition to the Members of Parliament, there are several thousand municipal decision-makers across Finland. The harassment they face has not yet been studied as no corresponding equality survey has been conducted among them. Municipal decision-makers still face inappropriate behaviour and harassment while performing their duties as elected officials. Harassment and hate speech are truly alarming from the viewpoint of democracy because they raise the threshold for taking part in political decision-making. When it comes to working life and, for example, the drafters of municipal decisions and persons who are subject to liability for their acts in office, we have clear rules for intervening in harassment at workplaces as required by the Occupational Safety and Health Act. Further research on gender-based harassment and the extent of this phenomenon is still needed to make it possible to identify means to intervene in it.
The Espoo Equality Committee was asked to prepare instructions for situations where elected bodies need to address harassment directed at elected officials. The instructions were completed in spring 2018 when the City Board approved them under the title Instructions for respectful interaction and addressing harassment in elected bodies. The instructions are the first of their kind in Finland, probably even in Europe. Their starting point was to highlight the fact that everyone has the right to feel appreciated, work undisturbed and hold elected office without facing harassment or inappropriate treatment. In Espoo, cases of harassment of elected officials are dealt with as the instructions suggest: through mediation where the Chair of the Equality Committee plays a key role.
To spread this approach to other municipalities, I challenge every Finnish municipality to work with its elected officials to draw up similar instructions and an operating model. This will be the first step towards a situation where elected officials no longer need to endure harassment.
The author is employed as Specialist on Women’s Politics at the Left Alliance and is a member of the Espoo Equality Committee.