Updated: Jul 11
Vaishnavi Pallapothu takes a look at Sweden’s Feminist Foreign Policy and breaks down its major implications in this essay.
Have you ever heard of a country having a feminist government? If you haven’t, that is probably because there is only one country in the world that has self-proclaimed itself to have a feminist government. In Sweden, gender equality is central to the government’s priorities. Furthermore, Sweden believes that “women and men must have the same power to shape society and their own lives” and that “this is a human right and a matter of democracy and justice”.
Political parties around the country and across the left-right political spectrum commit to gender-based public policies in their political manifestos. In this country, women hold 52% of the ministerial portfolios in the country and made up 43% or representatives in local legislatures as of 2014. Boasting one of the world’s highest figures for representation for Women in the political front, Sweden is home to many parties that have internal policies which promote the participation of women. Another explanation is that there exist many women’s organizations and community activists that press for larger female representation.
So why is it important for Sweden to pursue a feminist policy? Aside from following and implementing six focus areas/goals, the Swedish Foreign Service aims to integrate a gendered perspective in all of it’s activities. Most importantly, the agenda wants to strengthen the rights, representation and resources for all women and girls. Naturally, the feminist perspective permeates every unit of the government from the foreign ministry to the diplomatic missions.
The law that governs all education in Sweden, the Education Act, states that gender equality should reach and guide all levels of the education system. The primary aim is to give all children equal opportunities in life by counteracting traditional gender roles and stereotypes. Statistics show that a greater proportion of girls complete upper secondary education and nearly two-thirds of university degrees in Sweden are awarded to women.
The unbiased method to teaching and learning begins in pre-school itself, with gender-neutral pedagogy emerging as an effective and engaging trend. Many libraries are now discarding traditional fairy tales such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarves in favour of titles like One More Giraffe. This tale, whose protagonist is of an unspecified gender, is about two giraffes caring for an abandoned crocodile egg. The goal is to show different types of heroes, a diversity of family models and to avoid representations that reproduce gender stereotypes.
In late 2015, it was reported that every high school sophomore was given a copy of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “We Should All Be Feminists”. Once the Swedish translation came out, the Swedish Women’s Lobby teamed up with several book publishers to distribute copies of the book to schools all over the country with hopes of increasing dialogues and conversations around gender equality.
More recently, schools have started to implement gender-neutral language in order to avoid gendering whenever it is not necessary. The pronoun ‘hen’ is a genderless alternative to use in place of ‘hon’ (she) and ‘han’ (he).
Peace, security and sustainable development are all key focus areas of Sweden’s foreign policy. Swedish foreign policy also places utmost importance in applying a systemic gender approach. In 2017, the special focus was on combating violence in close relations and strengthening the human rights of women and girls who are refugees or migrants. In 2017, the government also aimed to intensify efforts to guarantee the sexual and reproductive rights of all people, by broadening financial support and counteracting taboo norms and social attitudes on the same. The present Swedish government’s outspoken stance on feminism and women’s rights has made headlines internationally. An example of a humorous foreign policy gesture was when the Deputy Prime Minister, Isabella Lovin was photographed surrounded by women in the government, signing a piece of legislature on climate change. The photo went viral and was shared several times across all social media platforms with many users believing it to be a parody of Donald Trump signing an anti-abortion measure.
Featured image source: thelocal.se
In fact, 8 countries (including the Nordic countries and Canada) joined forces to raise and replace the money withdrawn by the US president, that was allocated to funding groups that supported abortion. In addition to a funding-initiative that would provide financial assistance to NGOS whose family planning initiatives would be affected, Lovin also made clear her stance on a women’s agency and choice in family planning matters. According to Reuters Sweden, she was quoted saying: “If women don’t have control over their bodies and their own fate, it can have serious consequences for global goals of gender rights and poverty eradication”.
Not all headlines have been extremely flattering to the Swedish government, especially when it made the news surrounding a controversy about head scarfs, in February 2017. Although the government defended its decision to have its officials (including trade minister Ann Linde) wear headscarves during a trip to Iran, it was heavily criticized for endorsing a rule that oppressed women (who were not provided a choice in wearing the garment).
Even though Sweden is famous for its laidback parental leave provisions, many regard it to be biased towards the women. About 80% of the allowed 18 months leave is fully paid, however, women still take 75% of the paid parental leave. On the flip side, statistics show that almost 90% of the people who are forced to work part-time due to obligations in caring for the family, are women. Political parties in Sweden aim to divide parental leave equally between the men and women by increasing the time allocated to new fathers.
To many, it may come as a surprise that Sweden (a country that has harbored one of the world’s best reputation with regards to feminism and diversity) is grappling with problems like sexist advertisements. After London’s mayor Sadiq Khan urged the Transport for London network to ban adverts promoting negative body images, the non-partisan Swedish Women’s Lobby was quick to label Sweden the worst of the Nordic countries in forming legislation combatting sexist imagery and stereotypes. There have also been remarks against banning advertisements in the fear that it curbs freedom of expression and that it shouldn’t be up to politicians to decide rules about advertising in public spaces.
Sweden’s current projects include maintaining a network that helps more women become international mediators; contributing to research that helps get Vietnamese girls and education in male-dominated occupations and introducing new legislation about sexual consent that states sex is illegal if it is not voluntary. It is proposed that the bill will be enforced from July 1st 2018 onwards. Additionally, Sweden intends to participate and sponsor numerous Wikipedia Edit-a-thons across the country, that are aimed at increasing the content on articles about women. Last but not the least, the government will host an international conference about gender equality from 15–17 April wherein leaders from all over the world are expected to gather alongside representatives from business, academia and civil society organisations.
Despite its limitations, the Swedish government is strides ahead of other governments in showing that striving towards gender equality is not just a goal but also a precondition for achieving wider development and standards of living.
Addendum in May 2023:
Sweden was the first country to officially declare that it had a Feminist Foreign Policy. The policy was rooted in the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, and the WPS Agenda – specifically Resolution 1325, and a range of other relevant international agreements dedicated to raising the status of women and gender mainstreaming. The policy centred on three Rs, namely Rights, Resources, and Representation. In 2019, the policy was expanded to include a fourth R, namely reality – where the focus was on acknowledging the context in which the Swedish Foreign Services were engaged, by engaging with local actors and commissioning research toward contributing to strategic, and efficient feminist foreign policy.
The Swedish Foreign Policy did practice policy coherence both in the international-domestic continuum and across multiple departments of government. In 2017, the policy specifically called for a focus on internal policies and practices of the Swedish Foreign Services. For the former, it included within its scope a domestic component as well – where it sought to achieve gender equality in domestic practice by closing gender gaps domestically. For the latter, it covered foreign and national security policies, development cooperation, and trade and promotion policies. It also looked at gender equality as a means and an ends, that is, as both a priority objective and as a tool toward advancing other policy priorities. The 2019-2022 window added six objectives for the policy, namely, ensuring and safeguarding the
1) full enjoyment of human rights;
2) freedom from physical, psychological and sexual violence;
3) participation in preventing and resolving conflicts, and post-conflict peacebuilding;
4) political participation and influence in all areas of society;
5) economic rights and empowerment; and
6) sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR).
In 2021, it pledged to account for the disproportionate impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on women and girls, and the new challenges it poses to the objectives established above.
In terms of its impact, there were many gaps.
- First, the policy pursued a binarized understanding of gender – by conflating sex and gender and focusing on women. It ignored the rights of individuals across the SOGIESC spectrum, save for the sexual and reproductive health and rights of LGBTQ individuals under the health component.
- Second, Sweden was known for its arms trade with Saudi Arabia, which has been known for its poor human rights and women’s rights record as well as the military intervention it led in Yemen.
Following this critique, however, Sweden implemented a legislative change to its arms sales regulations in 2017, mandating that the democratic status of the receiving country would be a central condition for its arms trade. However, arms trade with Saudi Arabia rose by 2 percent in 2018. According to Svenska Freds, a Swedish NGO, over 20 percent of Swedish arms exports in 2020 were directed to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, as opposed to 9.4 percent in 2019. In terms of representation, though, Sweden fared well internally and externally. It also dedicated 84% of its official development assistance (ODA) to gender equality – either as a principal or significant objective (OECD, 2021). It increased support for women’s organizations by 35% between 2015 and 2016. However, it did little to track and implement its Feminist Foreign Policy. In 2018, it released a self-reported review of progress in the first four years – but it was timed for release, in that it was released shortly before the presidential elections. In 2020, though, the Expert Group for Aid Studies, an independent evaluator, called for studies to evaluate the implementation of Sweden’s Feminist Foreign Policy in countries where it conducted development cooperation. This study series remains underway as of now. In 2022, Sweden rolled back its Feminist Foreign Policy, while affirming its commitment to gender equality, reflecting the fact that feminist foreign policies can be subject to political changes in the domestic regimes in each country.
Addendum References  Nordström, L. (2018, February 26). The Local Sweden. Retrieved December 31, 2018, from https://www.thelocal.se/20180226/swedish-arms-exports-topped-11-billion-kronor-last-year  https://www.icrw.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/ICRW_DefiningFeministForeignPolicy_Brief_Revised_v5_WebReady.pdf  https://www.icrw.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/ICRW_DefiningFeministForeignPolicy_Brief_Revised_v5_WebReady.pdf
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