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President Kaljulaid at the Ewha Womens University

President Kaljulaid at the Ewha Womens University © Office of the President of Estonia


It is most natural that the academic environment inspires us to talk about the virtues of education. It is also easy to do it here, because although wide apart geographically, our two countries stand on a similar ground, both ranked amongst the world's best educational systems.

There is a lot of hard work behind it by our teachers, schoolmasters, educational reformers, shakers and movers both in the past and present – but first and foremost, it is our peoples' steadfast pursuit for education.

Despite the hardships that history has so plentifully brought our way, we have never ceased to seek our way out, knowing that the way out is always education.

15 years before Mary F. Scranton began here classes for women at her home – the beginning of today's Ewha Womans University – in Estonia there was nation-wide fundraising campaign for opening a school that would provide secondary education in Estonian language where children could continue learning after local primary schools. It was merely a few decades after serfdom ended in Estonia and Estonians became free.

Being released from bondage and having become the owners of their farms for the first time in centuries, Estonian peasants were eager to donate a portion of their hard-earned income in order to have a better future for their children. It took less than half a century from that moment of educational awakening of our nation to change the University, established in 1638 by Swedish king Gustav the II Adolf, into an Estonian language universitas, which today finds itself among top 3% of the universities globally.

This year we are celebrating the 100th anniversary of our independence, and with independence came higher education in Estonian language.

Education is the road to freedom and prosperity. That is why tyrants often limit education options, particularly for girls, well knowing that smart mothers mean smart nations. We still see, unfortunately, how girls are kept from school. With intimidation. With barriers. With guns.

Just like Mary Scranton and her students here in their initial years, so were first female students in Estonia often ridiculed by those who thought that the only thing a woman has to learn is how to be a good wife. A law professor in our oldest university was taken to court in 1905 for allowing a few female students as free listeners into his classroom.

However, the change was already near. Together with the independence and the start of our national higher education, women had equal access to the university.

First female student sorority was established in 1920, named "daughters of the homeland", Filiae Patriae. My grandmother belonged to that sorority when studying law in Tartu University, having been born as the 12th child and 8th daughter into a peasant family. I am a proud member myself.

True, in the first years of the student sorority Filae Patriae the young ladies belonging to it had to put up with teasing and intimidation from the members of male sororities, to which they defiantly reacted by always carrying a long whip with them, ready to stand up for their principles if the bullying risked to turn physical. When my grandmother came to University to study law, these difficulties were overcome and by the 30ties, there were five women sororities in Tartu University.

It is always worthwhile to remember how it has been. Rights we may today take for granted are not served to us on silver plate. They are the result of the efforts of people who went before us and cleared the way, often paying a high price.

We must be grateful to those people and support those who cannot yet enjoy the same opportunities. Because there are plenty of them.

By many metrics, there has never been a better time to live. We have got rid of – or getting rid of – many diseases and circumstances that have for generations claimed the lives of pregnant women and their newborns. Globally, there have not been more prosperous, more peaceful times in our history. And – again, globally – just about as many girls go to primary schools as boys.

Yet – even in our countries, among the top of many lists in the world, and much more in the others, we see marginalized people, discrimination, suffering, hopelessness. People whose lives are very different from ours, and not by their own choice. We know that there is no difference in what parents want for their children – the only difference is their ability to provide it.

Two years ago, when I started my tenure as the President of my country, I gave the promise to Estonian people to use the power or my words and status of my office to support those who risk being marginalized, ignored or forgotten. I also stand by those wonderful people in our society whose daily work includes caring for those in need of compassion and support.

Two weeks ago I accepted UN Secretary General Guterres´ invitation to co-chair the steering group for "Every Woman, Every Child" movement for the next two years. This movement focuses on the health and well-being of children and women around the world. I intend to use all my opportunities to raise awareness of the heroic efforts people are making globally, of the good ideas waiting to be discovered and up scaled.

I encourage you to join me.

It is easy to believe in the possibility of change because we see it happening already. However, let us remember that it does not happen on its own. It happens because people with mission are working for it.

Dear students of Ewha Womans University.

You are studying in one of the most amazing universities in the world. This gives you knowledge and skills to go out there and do whatever you choose to do. The question is what do you choose to do?

Use those skills and knowledge, and please remember that development of new technologies has turned the world into a neighborhood of 7 billion people – use it to make our world – and your own lives - better.

Even if a much better place to live than ever before, our world is also currently suffering from the reckless spending of natural resources we have seen for the last 150 years. For thousands of years, people coexisted with nature sustainably. In just a few generations, we have almost ruined our world. As a representative of the older generation, I feel responsible. I want to apologize for the mess we have created. We have started to seek remedies; technologically quite a lot can be done. Politically, though, we are failing. Best available technology is not applied even in rich countries. For example, air conditioners do not even automatically stop working when a window is opened, even if, technologically, it is a no-brainer. We can save the planet, even with the current knowledge we have. What is lacking is the common will, enforcement of best available technologies. You grew up more connected, you are much more global as a society; maybe this global feeling of togetherness will help you to save the planet, too.

I wish you all the success, in the name of my own children and grandchildren, in making your lives wonderful without risking the planet the way we, your parents and grandparents, have done. Thank you for listening!