A feminist foreign policy to advance gender equality globally

Key messages

Sweden is advancing global gender equality by mobilising all its foreign policy tools, including the implementation of a feminist foreign policy. Inclusion of all staff, dedicated leadership and ongoing support are essential to the success of the approach. This policy has enhanced the gender equality focus of Sweden’s engagement in the Security Council, EU trade negotiations and development co-operation.

Feminist foreign policy

Gender equality is a fundamental aim of Swedish foreign policy. Ensuring that women and girls enjoy fundamental human rights is an obligation within our international commitments and prerequisite to achieving Sweden’s broader foreign policy goals – peace, security and sustainable development.

In 2014, Sweden became the first country in the world to publicly adopt what it explicitly called “a feminist foreign policy,” putting the promotion of gender equality and women’s rights at the center of its diplomatic agenda. This policy consists of three laudable R’s: rights, meaning the promotion of women’s issues, including by countering gender-based violence and discrimination; representation, including support for women’s participation at all levels of decision-making, from parliament to private sector boards to the legal system; and resources, to ensure equitable allocation among people of all genders, whether in government budgets or development projects.

The government recognized that gender equality is critical to Sweden’s broader foreign-policy objectives, including economic development, prosperity, and security.

Swedish Foreign Minister, Margot Wallstrom

While the policy builds on Sweden’s long history of multiparty support for gender equality, the government’s explicit adoption of the word “feminist” to describe its policy approach was a significant—and arguably radical—new direction for the ministry, one that initially was met with skepticism even within the Swedish diplomatic corps. Describing what a feminist foreign policy would look like, Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom explained in an interview with the New Yorker in March 2015 that it meant “standing against the systematic and global subordination of women.”

But Wallstrom’s announcement of a feminist foreign policy was not simply rhetorical—it was also strategic. The government recognized that gender equality is critical to Sweden’s broader foreign-policy objectives, including economic development, prosperity, and security.

There is a growing body of research at the Council on Foreign Relations, the United Nations, academic journals, and military publications demonstrating a relationship between women’s inclusion and stability. A 2015 study by the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies found when women participate in peace processes, agreements are more likely to last—and to be forged in the first place. Improving women’s status is also imperative to economic growth. In a separate 2015 study, the McKinsey Global Institute, the business and economic research arm of McKinsey & Company, calculated the potential benefit of closing gender gaps in the workforce at a staggering $28 trillion to global GDP by 2025—as well as an estimated 19 percent growth rate in Sweden alone—if women simply participated at the same rate as men.

Challenge

For many years, Sweden has promoted gender equality and human rights. The focus on gender equality in Swedish development co-operation is based on the insight that strengthened gender equality contributes to reduced poverty and more sustainable development, security and peace. The feminist foreign policy is a response to the discrimination and systematic subordination that still characterises everyday life for countless women and girls around the world. The policy builds on Sweden’s previous efforts and represents a further increase in ambition.

Approach

In 2014, Sweden became the first country to launch a feminist foreign policy. Focusing on enhancing the rights, representation and resources of women and girls globally, the policy directs Sweden to use all its foreign policy tools to address gender equality. To enable successful implementation of the policy, Sweden has invested in the following elements:

  • Leadership: at the highest levels of management and across the organisation, by means of frequent and clear political messages, through the focus of activities and expectations vis-à-vis staff to promote gender equality.

  • Ownership: consultations with staff and other stakeholders inform ways to implement the policy.

  • Guidance: Sweden has integrated gender equality into its operational planning and budgeting, guidance and political analysis. Every department and mission abroad must explain how the feminist foreign policy is applied in practice.

  • Support: led by a co-ordination team, this includes advice through gender focal points, e-training, a dedicated website containing good examples, presentations and communications material, and a special gender coach programme.

Results

The new policy has led to an institutional culture shift which has enabled action across Sweden’s foreign policy portfolio. In the Security Council, Sweden has advanced women’s participation in peace efforts and conflict prevention. In trade, Sweden has promoted the gender focus of EU trade agreements. It has also increased official development assistance (ODA) for reproductive health to counter the declines in other countries’ spending. In partnership with Wikimedia, Sweden introduced the #WikiGap campaign to enhance information about women on Wikipedia. This global initiative has led to a substantial growth in the representation of women in Wikipedia articles.

As a result, the Security Council and the European Union have increased their work on issues related to women, peace and security, with a greater number of women participating in dialogues on peace and security in 12 focus countries. In 2015, Sweden initiated a Women’s Mediation Network in response to the significant under-representation of women in international mediation and peace processes. Sweden has also worked with the UN’s trade body, UNCTAD, to produce a “Trade and Gender Toolbox” containing methods for assessing the effects of trade policy initiatives on women and gender equality.

 

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