Something absolutely delightful happened this week. Sanna Marin, 34, became the Prime Minister of Finland, making her the youngest Prime Minister in the world.
She comes hot on the heels of Jacinda Arden of New Zealand who became Prime Minister at age 37 in 2017.
It does not stop there. Marin, will lead a coalition government made up of five parties, all led by women, three of them under the age of 35. This means that four women—including Marin—under the age of 35 will be running the Finnish political scene.
Marin, recently married and a mother of one, started her political career in 2012 as a local council member in Tampere, after which become a member of parliament in 2015. She most recently served as the minister for transportation and communications in former Prime Minister’s Antti Rinne’s government, the man she replaced at the helm of the Finnish government.
Political observers have welcomed this brilliant move and shift of power to a younger, female generation, in a country that has historically had a record of strong female leadership. Former female Finnish prime ministers include Annelo Tuulikki Jäätteenmäki who the first female leader in the country, albeit for only 68 days. There was also Mari Kiviniemi who took up the reins of leadership in June 2010 and served for a year.
I am massively excited by Marin’s rise to power not because she is a mere four years older than I, but by what Marin and her three counterparts in government represent, not just for the people of Finland, but also to the world. Marin’s rise sounds unthinkable and even impossible in some parts of the world, Kenya included, but this move sends a very strong message about one simple thing: hope. In a world where we are increasingly witnessing toxic and divisive politics fuelled by abusive and racist demagogues posing as world leaders, there is a crop of young leadership rising to counter this.
Whether it is Ilhan Omar, the opinion-dividing Greta Thunberg or even 32-year-old Bogolo Joy Kenewendo, former minister of Investment, Trade and Investment in the Cabinet of Botswana, I feel hope when I witness a world out there that is led and influenced by younger leadership, no matter how insignificant and inconsequential it may seem to others.
What Marin’s rise to power teaches young women is also quite profound; that it is possible. That contrary to popular opinion around here, it is absolutely possible to be young, female and lead. That it is possible to be a normal human being, do normal things that young women and men do—tweet, get married, have friends—and still be a world leader with your place clearly cut out in national politics. Marin’s story teaches us the power of tenacity and consistency, that if you identify your ‘why’, if you stay the course and apply yourself to your cause, one day your time at the helm shall come, and that is the message we need every young woman and man in this country to realise.
It is easy to dismiss this small win for young and female leadership across the world, particularly our country that has no regard for female achievement, takes pleasure in dimming the lights of successful women and likes to ‘humble’ confident women. We live in a country that likes to justify the success of women, young women especially, because we have been conditioned to believe that young women rarely rise to the top on the basis of their intellect and hard work. This attitude needs to stop. We need to disabuse ourselves of the notion that young women cannot succeed unless on the backs and shoulders of a powerful individual in the shadows.
It is a massive injustice to young and hardworking women around the world to overlook the work and dedication some women put in and reduce it to vain attributes such as beauty and youth.
That said, I am well aware that a single column chastising this toxic attitude will rarely go a long way in making a difference. So, I will speak to the young women of Kenya reading this, and leave them with Michelle Obama’s advice to Greta Thunberg (tweeted just now as I write this column on Friday morning) “@GretaThunberg, don’t let anyone dim your light. Like the girls I’ve met in Vietnam and all over the world, you have so much to offer us all. Ignore the doubters and know that millions of people are cheering you on.”
Ms Chege is the director of the Innovation Centre at Aga Khan University Graduate School of Media and Communications; [email protected]