Ms. Helvi Sipilš
20 May 2009

Helvi Sipila picture
Mrs. Helvi Sipila of Finland,
Secretary-General of the First World
Conference on Women in Mexico
City (1975), attending the
Fourth World Conference
on 13 September 1995 in Beijing, China.
Credit: UN/DPI 131231/Yao Da Wei

Ms. Helvi Sipilä, the first woman to hold the rank of Assistant Secretary-General at the United Nations, passed away on 15 May 2009 at age 94. Ms. Sipilä was an inspirational leader with a strong life-long commitment to gender equality. Her life provides an eloquent demonstration of what a woman in power can accomplish.

Ms. Sipilä, a Finnish national born in 1915, started her professional life as a barrister, running her own firm in an age where few women had careers in this domain. Driven by a strong sense of justice, she worked in a range of governmental and non-governmental contexts, relentlessly pushing for change and defending the interests of vulnerable groups. Among her many responsibilities, Ms. Sipilä represented Finland on the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women in the 1960s and early 1970s, serving as its Vice-Chairperson and Chairperson.

In 1972, Ms. Sipilä became the first woman to be appointed Assistant Secretary-General, a remarkable achievement at a time when 97 per cent of United Nations senior management (D1 and above) was male. She headed the Centre for Social Development and Humanitarian Affairs until 1980. Ms. Sipilä used her leadership position in the United Nations effectively to advocate for gender equality and the empowerment of women.

Ms. Sipilä served as the Secretary-General for the First World Conference on Women held in Mexico City in 1975. In her opening statement she noted that the World Conference on Women was the first intergovernmental meeting at which women formed part of virtually all delegations, and she expressed her hope that it would set a precedent for equal representation of women and men in all future international meetings, whether on political or economic affairs, on disarmament, trade or human settlement. Ms Sipilä
was also instrumental in the founding of the United Nations Fund for Women (UNIFEM), then known as the United Nations Voluntary Fund for the Advancement of Women.

Ms. Sipilä remained active after retiring from the United Nations. She was the first woman in Finland to run for president in 1982. Throughout her life, she held a number of leadership positions in civil society, including in the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts, the International Federation of Women Lawyers, Zonta International and the International Council of Women.

Ms. Helvi Sipilä has powerfully illustrated the effectiveness of women’s leadership throughout her long life. She has been an impressive role model, and it is hoped that her memory will serve as a reminder that no effort should be spared to ensure the equal access of women and men to leadership positions at the United Nations.

Helvi Sipila picture
Mrs. Margaret K. Bruce (left), Chief of the Status of Women Section, Division of Human Rights; conversing with Mrs. Helvi L. Sipila (Finland), Chair of the Commission on the Status of Women, United Nations, New York, 23 February 1967