Liia Hanni


September 10, 2008

Liia Hanni

Former MP, Minister of Property Reform and Member of the Constitutional Assembly, Estonia

“In the modern world online networking is an important source of social capital. Women benefit a lot from being members of social networks of young mothers, business women etc. Why not also benefit from the exchange of skills and experiences of political activities.” - Liia Hanni

iKNOW Politics: You were elected to the Estonian Parliament during the period when Estonia restored independence and you were Estonia’s only Minister responsible for property reform. What challenges have you faced as a woman in these leadership positions? How did your past experience as a scientist prepare you to meet these challenges? 

I did not have any illusions about the challenges I would face when I gave my consent to run for elections to the first freely elected parliament of Estonia. Nobody knew at that time how our fight for independence was going to end. There was no difference - be it a man or a woman - in our main goals, but because of the unprecedented complexity of the process there was a struggle between competing ideas on how to act.

For men in politics the fight for ideas became a fight for political power and influence. Women were more tolerant and cooperative, like a bridge between different political camps. My past experience in science helped me to analyze different options and to make constructive proposals. The reason why I became minister of reforms was a concept of ownership transformation which was developed together with my closest colleagues and friends.

iKNOW Politics: Your professional background is in the sciences – you were a researcher on astrophysics. What first motivated you to change careers and to go into politics?

Jokingly saying – I am a victim of the Singing Revolution. Indeed, it was not my intention to change my profession but the call of the time. My colleagues in the Observatory asked me to run for the elections and I did not find enough serious argument to abstain. When I was elected there was no way back to the telescope since I was fully engaged in the new tasks of state building.

iKNOW Politics: You were a member of Estonia’s constitutional assembly and later chair of the Estonian parliament’s constitutional commission. Do you think that women bring a unique perspective to constitution-building processes? How important is it to look at constitutions from a gender perspective?

A constitution is not only an important legal document but also an intellectual creation of the society, a vision of the future. Definitely, women enrich the content of a constitution as well as the process of drawing it up. It is of utmost importance to provide women as well men with the sense of ownership in laying down the foundation of the statehood.

iKNOW Politics: Estonia is one of the most advanced countries in terms of e-governance development. You are currently leading the e-democracy program of the e-Governance Academy in Estonia. How important is technology in opening possibilities for women’s political participation?

We know from our own life how busy people we are. There is not enough time to go to meetings or to find policy documents for scrutiny. New technology and the Internet provide us with powerful tools to be informed and engaged in policy- making. Many governments in the World already have special web portals for that aim. Also grass-root online networking helps us to understand how other people think and feel about the issues of common concern. We should learn to use these new opportunities.

iKNOW Politics: What do you think are the biggest barriers to women running for public office? How did you overcome these barriers?

The biggest barriers are traditions and the inability of society to cope with those who violate the equality of human beings. Also in my country politics is still mostly seen as men’s activity. In addition women are more overloaded by work in the home than men, which makes it difficult to be socially and politically active. Inevitably, because of motherhood we have periods in our life where care for children is the top priority. Family relations and the social welfare system should support young women to not become alienated from public life. However, the most important driving force is our own will and self-confidence that we can do it. For me it was not difficult to start political life since I had the full support of my family, friends and colleagues.

iKNOW Politics: Could you give us some more detail about the state of women’s political participation in Estonia, both in political parties and in the legislative and executive branches?

In general, women are more numerous in the political parties of social orientation than in conservative parties. For example, in the ranks of Social Democrats, to which I belong, there are almost 50% women members. In the conservative Pro Patria party women consist one third of all members. In the Parliament of Estonia the proportion of women has increased gradually from 7% in 1990 to 24% in the current composition. Now we have women as a President of the Parliament and in the three-member Board of the Parliament two are women. In the executive branch there is still room for improvement. Currently we have three women Ministers in the Government.

iKNOW Politics: How has support from other women helped you in your work? How can women’s caucuses and women’s commissions in political parties help to make women more effective in politics?

I became engaged in women’s activities after realizing that women are an enormous resource for democracy. We are able to enrich the political agenda as well as to make political processes more participatory and thoughtful. My experience as the first President of the Women’s Caucus of my party showed clearly that organization is necessary to support women candidates and to achieve a more balanced election program of the party.

iKNOW Politics: Based on your experience, what do you believe are the best strategies for including men in processes for promoting gender equality, especially in political participation?

Try to get democratic values to be honored in every-day political practice. Do not speak too much about gender equality – just work for it and make it a reality step-by-step.

iKNOW Politics: Can you tell our readers about a particular policy change you made that benefited women and continues to resonate?

I was one of the initiators of the women’s network in Estonia in 1997. It brought together women representatives of different political parties as well as non-political women NGOs at the regional level. Women gained valuable experience in how to establish joint activities to support women candidates during election campaigns and lobby for women’s political agenda. The network is still alive with ups and downs depending on the leadership and financial resources.

iKNOW Politics: Do you think that being a part of a global network, such as iKNOW Politics, can help women at all levels of politics and their supporters to succeed in their careers and to mobilize around issues of common concern?

In the modern world online networking is an important source of social capital. Women benefit a lot from being members of social networks of young mothers, business women etc. Why not also benefit from the exchange of skills and experiences of political activities. I think iKNOW Politics is a useful undertaking.

iKNOW Politics: If you were to make one recommendation, what piece of advice would you share with iKNOW members, particularly women candidates and officials, as they progress in their political careers?

Don’t hesitate to ask advice from others but make decisions by yourself.