We can only make a difference if we are involved - Pirkko Mahlamäki

7 March 2019
Pirkko Mahlamäki

I have a very concrete example of discrimination of women with disabilities: screening for breast cancer. Women with disabilities have an increased risk of not surviving breast cancer because they often do not have access to regular screenings – therefore, the cancer is diagnosed at a later stage. Early detection improves chances of surviving cancer. This is the reason why screenings and other preventive measures need to be accessible for all.

I was telling this to my doctor and he warned me that I, too, have not had regular check-ups or screening. I never had realised that! I think, subconsciously, I was put off by it because I thought it would inaccessible for me. This is an example of how ingrained discrimination is, even in me.

Employment is also another example: I was talking with a friend about her job interview and she told me that she was almost happy when the interviewer asked her if she was planning to have children.

Asking this question during recruitment interview is illegal in Finland – it is a form of pregnancy discrimination – but she was happy because the question meant that the employer saw her as a woman and not only a person with disabilities. It felt very conflicting, being happy about being discriminated in a way that is far too familiar to women.


In Finland, one of the most burning issues for women with disabilities is poverty. After years of austerity, the cost of living is increasing but social benefits such as unemployment support, are being reduced. This affects especially women with disabilities, since they are more likely to be unemployed than men.

Other big issue is care. The care services in Finland are increasingly being privatized, and the cost is the main deciding factor. This results in much less services with worse quality. It is a big problem for women with disabilities – worse services increase the risk of negligence and abuse.

Women’s movement

I am in the Executive Committee of the European Women’s Lobby (an organisation for women’s rights), where I work to promote diversity and inclusion. It’s very important that the women’s movement include minorities, and we need to assure that the feminist discussion spaces are accessible, and that information is easier to understand. We are working on a position paper about this issue to inform European feminist movements.

I am also assuring that the EDF Women’s Committee is heard. Our Women Committee does a very good work and really brings a lot to the European’s Women Lobby. A lot of what I say and do at the European Women’s Lobby meetings is informed and inspired by our Women’s Committee.

We still need to make advances though: we must remind the women’s movements that we are active citizens, that we are rights holders. That we are not just “care-receivers”, we are even unrecognized care givers especially in older households! That’s why I think national movements should follow our example and cooperate more. Both movements need to make the meetings more accessible and easier to understand – because we can only make a difference if we are involved.

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