1915-2009, United Nations Civil Servant

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Helvi Sipilä was born on the 5th of May in Helsinki in Finland and died on the 15th of May 2009 in the same place. Helvi (Linnea Aleksandra) Maukola-Sipila, mother of four children, was a lawyer and a Finnish politician as well as an international civil servant. Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations from 1972 to 1980, she was in charge of the Centre of Social Development and of humanitarian affairs. She also presided over the first World Conference on Women organized by the UN in 1975, in Mexico.

Born of farm owner parents, Helvi Sipilä graduated from Helsinki University in 1939 with a law degree. She married the same year and finished the law school in 1941. Women rarely practiced law in Finland at that time, but Helvi Sipilä benefited from the men's departure for the frontline. During the war, she became an adjoint judge and worked regularly

for the Supreme Administrative Court and the Supreme Court of Finland. In 1943, she opened her own law firm. In addition to her work, she was involved with multiple national and international volunteer work, including becoming the president of the International Federation of Women Lawyers between 1954 and 1958. Between 1960 and 1972, she represented Finland in various UN branches, including in the Commission on the Status of Women.

In 1972, Helvi Sipilä became the Assistant Secretary-General of the UN at the request of the then Secretary-General, U. Thant. At a time when 97% of the leaders in the organisation were men, it was the first time that a woman held such prestigious position. Helvi Sipilä was in charge of the Centre for Social Development and Humanitarian Affairs, which dealt with issues such as women’s rights and crime prevention. Secretary-General of the international conference for the advancement of women’s rights in Mexico in 1975, she had a great influence in the organization and implementation of the International Women’s Year that very same year as well as contributed to the creation of the Decade for Women organized by the UN between 1975 and 1985, which also led to the creation of two other international conferences. She also played a decisive role in the establishment of a United Nations development fund for women.

Helvi Sipilä then left the UN in 1980, at the end of her mandate. She nonetheless stayed active in the international scene, notably as a member of the international committee of the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts, a women’s scout movement. In 1982, she was chosen as a candidate of the Liberal National Finnish Party for the presidential elections. She ended in fifth position, but it was the first time that a woman has run for president in the country. In 2001, she received a prize of the International Bar Association for her outstanding career. She died three years later, in Helsinki.