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Defining Sweden's feminist foreign policy

Defining Sweden's feminist foreign policy

| Text: Gunhild Wallin

Sweden’s feminist government wants to use its foreign policy to promote women’s and girl's rights, representation and resources based on the reality in which they live. What exactly a feminist foreign policy means is hard to define, but the perspective should permeate everything the foreign ministry and the diplomatic missions to.

“So far the feminist foreign policy has shown it can take many different forms, since it always must take into account the situation on the ground,” say Ann Bernes, who has been the Swedish government’s ambassador for a feminist foreign policy since last autumn.

She provides several examples for how they work. Sweden has for instance started a network which aims to help more women become international mediators, contributed to research on norms for masculinity in the Democratic Republic of Congo and helped Vietnamese girls get an education within the male-dominated occupation disc jockey. The dialogue with women’s organisations around the world has also been increased, she says.

“Sweden has also contributed to progress in negotiations on gender equality within the UN and the EU. There is a considerable drive and breadth to what we do,” says Ann Bernes.

“The breadth of what we do illustrates that the real feminist foreign policy is not static or ready defined, but a perspective and approach to everything we do. We want to strengthen women’s rights, representation and resources by starting with what we call the fourth R: Reality. This means staring with the actual situation on the ground, which could mean many different things in different places,” she says.    

Interest replaces the giggle factor

When the Swedish government called itself the world’s first feminist government in the autumn of 2014, it gained international attention especially when it came to its foreign policy. Could a feminist foreign policy really be the right way to approach a difficult security situation, critics asked while others praised the initiative. Ann Bernes agrees that there was a giggle factor to begin with, but that this has given space to interest and respect.

“We point out that you cannot achieve peace, security or development if half of society and populations are taken out of the equation, and more and more people are beginning to listen,” she says.

It is nothing new that Sweden has a foreign policy which aims to strengthen women’s rights. Gender equality and integration has been on the government’s foreign policy agenda since the mid-90s. But the main focus has always been on foreign aid and rights. The feminist perspective has been less prominent in other parts of the foreign policy, like foreign and security policies and trade and promotional policies.

Ann Berner

“What is happening now is that we are broadening, systemising and deepening the work, and this gives us an extra push forwards, not least what is happening in parallel with the rest of the feminist government’s efforts,” says Ann Berner.

She points out that there is still much to be done even in Sweden, despite the fact that work to promote gender equality in Sweden has been going on for much longer than in other countries.

Long road ahead

The relatively newly appointed ambassador is very happy in her work. Days are full to the brim and the to do lists are longer than what her working hours can cover. There has been an action plan for the feminist foreign policy since November 2015, and part of her daily work is now focused on being a coach when the action plan is to be introduced both in the department and to the foreign missions.

Many ambassadors are making contact and want some input for their activities, which also should be coloured by feminism. It might be discussing which challenges in the individual countries are most important to try to influence, and how to best promote women as actors, for instance by including them in visiting programmes or panel debates. 

For innumerable women and girls the reality is still marked by discrimination, suppression and structural injustice, says Ann Bernes. She says 128 countries have legislation which limits women’s economic independence, and 63 million girls are still not getting an education. And 39,000 girls under 18 are being married every day.

“There have been some progress since the UN's world conference on women in Beijing 25 years ago, but there is still so much to do. That is why the government has declared itself to be a feminist government. It is a way of saying ‘enough is enough’,” says Ann Bernes.

Women absent from peace talks

In uneasy, conflict ridden times it is also more important than ever to listen to women’s voices in peace negotiations. Today the female half of the population rarely take part when peace is agreed, which could risk weakening the peace and create friction which could lead to more unrest in the future. 

The government views this as an important issue, and it is also underlined by researcher Helene Lackenbauer, who has written ‘With feminism as a guiding star. Swedish foreign policy in new clothing’, which was recently published as part of the Swedish Institute for International Affairs’ series ‘The daily agenda of world politics’. Helene Lackenbauer works as a political advisor at the Swedish archbishop’s office, and was previously leader of research at the Swedish Defence Research Agency (FOI).

She writes that between 1990 and 2010, 585 peace agreements were signed. 92 contained texts referring to women. Women were referred to in nearly half of the peace talks which were held in 2014. 

Industrious work with UN resolution 1325 for women, peace and security, where Sweden has been very active, has given results. In 2006, Sweden became the first country to adopt an action plan for working with resolution 1325, and now work has started to create a third national action plan based on the same resolution. A main priority is women’s participation in peace talks and conflict prevention.

“In many peace talks warring men gather, but large groups are never included in these talks. It is therefore absolutely necessary to promote women. Women are underestimated generally and not least in conflicts. Women might not be represented in public bodies, but they can be active through mobilising their sons or through taking care of the logistics demanded by war. Exposed women give birth to exposed and poor children who might pick up arms in the future,” says Helene Lackenbauer. 

Few surprises 

After summing up what constitutes a feminist foreign policy, there is really nothing that has surprised her.

“From a Swedish perspective there is nothing new really, just classic Swedish politics. What’s new is that the foreign policy is now called feminist and that there is an action plan, but such a plan does not necessarily mean things will turn out the way you wish,” says Helene Lackenbauer.  

So far there has been no definition of what a feminist foreign policy is, and no foreign policy doctrine has been presented from a feminist perspective, she points out, and lists examples of issues she would like to highlight more – not least what feminist politics means to defence and security politics and diplomacy. 

What would a feminist foreign policy mean in relationship to Russia, for instance? Would that include increased support for women working for peace in the Baltics or for talks on human rights in the area? She also wants to see a clearer wording on how structures and norms can be influenced within a feminist foreign policy framework.

“By increasing women’s power you reduce the power of men, and that has not been addressed. There should be a clearer vision around what you want to achieve,” says Helene Lackenbauer.

She thinks Sweden’s feminist foreign policy is more important abroad than at home.

“It can give hope and courage in the wider world, even in the West, and give courage to groups who are promoting gender equality. Sweden has also addressed this as an issue within the UN and the EU, which means that civil society knows there is a government which will support them on these issues,” says Helene Lackenbauer.

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When the Swedish Social Democratic Party formed a government after the 2014 elections, they called themselves the world’s first feminist government. One year later, in November 2015, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs presented its action plan for a feminist foreign policy with goals for the years 2015 to 2018 and six focus areas for 2016:

  1. To strengthen women and girls’ human rights in humanitarian situations
  2. To fight and prevent gender-based and sexual violence against women and girls in conflict and post conflict situations
  3. To promote women’s participation as actors in peace processes and peace promoting measures
  4. To promote women and girls’ participation in the work for economic, social and environmental sustainable development
  5. To strengthen women and girls’ economic independence and their access to economic resources, including though productive work under decent living conditions
  6. To strengthen sexual and reproductive rights for girls and young people

Source: the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ action plan for a feminist foreign policy 2015-2018 with focus areas for 2016


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