This isn't just a women's issue

Sofia Calltorp on why a feminist foreign policy means benefits for all

The World Today Updated 29 September 2022 Published 4 February 2022 3 minute READ

Sofia Calltorp

Ambassador for Gender Equality and Coordinator of the Feminist Foreign Policy, Ministry for Foreign Affairs, Sweden

When Margot Wallström, our former minister for foreign affairs, declared in 2014 that Sweden was to pursue a feminist foreign policy many eyebrows were raised. 

Less than eight years later, feminist foreign policy has been established as a new standard. Today, six other countries are pursuing this policy – Canada, France, Luxembourg, Spain, Mexico and just recently Germany. 

The full enjoyment of human rights for women and girls is the unfinished business of the last century

There are several reasons for this extraordinary development. First is, of course, the situation for women and girls around the world and the will to do something about it. The full enjoyment of human rights for women and girls is the unfinished business of the last century. 

Unfortunately, the pandemic risks rolling back progress on global gender equality. Combined with the effects of climate change and a shrinking democratic space in many contexts, the situation is serious. 

Gender equality is the fundamental prerequisite if we are to achieve our foreign policy goals. Sustainable peace, security and the fulfilment of the Sustainable Development Goals cannot be achieved if we exclude half of the population. 

This is not just a ‘women’s issue’. All of society benefit. 

Our progress has been remarkable. When I started in my role as Ambassador for Sweden’s feminist foreign policy six months ago, I was struck by the overwhelming cultural shift that has taken place in the Swedish foreign service. 

It has led to a strategic approach to staffing. A review of the entire chain of recruitment, leadership programmes and the process of appointing managers was undertaken. As a result, we have seen an increase in women managers and the proportion of women managers is now close to 50 per cent. 

All diplomats and civil servants view everything through a gender lens, taking an integrated and systematic approach to integrating gender equality into all policies and actions. 

Our feminist foreign policy is completely integrated into the daily operations of our more than 100 diplomatic missions abroad. In my previous post as Ambassador to Zimbabwe, gender issues were at the centre of all our endeavours, from ministerial discussions to cooperation with trade partners and our development cooperation projects. 

Sweden has organized its feminist foreign policy around three Rs: rights, representation and resources

In practical terms, Sweden has organized its feminist foreign policy around three Rs: rights, representation and resources. This is the framework we use when analysing the contexts in which we work. 

What do statistics say about disparities between women and men, girls and boys? Do they have the same rights to education, work, inheritance, marriage and divorce? Are they represented where decisions are made in parliaments, local councils and other political arenas? Is gender equality considered when resources are allocated in central budgets or development assistance projects?

On the global stage, during Sweden’s term as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council we consistently promoted the integration of the gender perspective into the day-to-day work of the council, in all geographical and thematic contexts and in talks on resolutions and declarations. 

We invited reporting by women’s rights organizations to inform the Security Council of the situation of women and girls in various conflict situations. Last year, this systematic approach was taken forward during the Swedish term as chair of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and will continue throughout our presidency of the council of the European Union in 2023. 

Even trade agreements are analysed in terms of gender under our feminist trade policy. Strong political leadership is needed, and it takes courage and patience. This leadership needs to be combined with clear ownership and lines of responsibility at all levels. A gender perspective must be integrated into systems, processes and responsibility structures. 

Through our feminist foreign policy, we have achieved significant results. One example is Sweden’s establishment of a network of women mediators who are active all around the world, championing issues relating to women, peace and security. We have also substantially increased our financial support to gender equality initiatives. 

Today, about 85 per cent of Swedish bilateral development aid is gender-mainstreamed or has gender equality as a main objective. 

Dialogue with, protection of, and support for women’s rights organizations and women’s human rights defenders are key elements of Sweden’s feminist foreign policy. Sweden supports umbrella organizations for women’s rights groups that can offer support and protection to women human rights defenders worldwide, for example in countries such as Afghanistan, Indonesia, Syria and Pakistan. 

Sweden is also a global champion of sexual and reproductive health and rights, and we are one of the largest donors to the UN Population Fund. This is important, not least in view of the resistance to gender equality and sexual and reproductive health and rights from various countries and movements. 

Women’s economic empowerment as it is critical to gender equality

We have pushed for women’s economic empowerment as it is critical to gender equality. Sweden is currently co-leading an Action Coalition on Economic Justice and Rights within the UN initiative Generation Equality. In this coalition, we have committed to working to strengthen women’s economic empowerment over five years. 

A lesson learnt from our feminist foreign policy work is that gender equality often arouses strong reactions. It touches upon key issues such as the distribution of power, resources and influence. It is important to be context-specific and to rely on research, experience and arguments that show that gender equality benefits society at large, for example in terms of social and economic development. 

As long as the daily lives of women and girls around the world are marked by discrimination and systematic subordination, a feminist foreign policy is needed. A great deal of work remains to be done, but the progress over the past seven years shows that pursuing a feminist foreign policy makes a difference.