Last Tuesday the Swedish ambassador to Austria and the permanent representative to the international organizations in Vienna gave a presentation on Sweden’s foreign policy. Yeah, I know you’re thinking–another empty suit regurgitating prefab boilerplate. Yawn. But this was a rather unusual presentation for the standards of Viennese diplomacy (which is a lot like the standards of diplomacy everywhere else–a bunch of greying men debating the future of the world). First of all, it was an all-female panel and secondly, the topic was Sweden’s feminist foreign policy.
You see, upon taking office in 2014, Sweden’s prime minister announced the country’s (the world’s, for that matter) “first feminist government“. In the meantime, a fitting feminist foreign policy has been developed. On Tuesday, Ambassador Eduards outlined the Swedish Foreign Service action plan for feminist foreign policy 2015–2018 and its six focus areas for 2016 according to which the Foreign Service plans to contribute to all women’s and girls’:
- Full enjoyment of human rights by strengthen the human rights of women and girls in humanitarian settings;
- Freedom from physical, psychological and sexual violence by combating gender-based and sexual violence against women and girls in conflict and post-conflict situations and impunity for such crimes;
- Participation in preventing and resolving conflicts, and post-conflict peace building by promoting the participation of women as actors in peace processes and peace support operations;
- Political participation and influence in all areas of society by promoting the participation of women and girls as actors for economically, socially and environmentally sustainable development;
- Economic rights and empowerment by strengthening the economic empowerment of women and girls and their access to economic resources, including through productive employment and decent work;
- Sexual and reproductive health and rights by strengthening the sexual and reproductive rights of girls and young people.
Intrigued by Ambassador Eduards’ presentation, I looked for more and quickly turned up a powerful presentation by Sweden’s Foreign Minister Margot Wallström last March. She begins by contrasting the fate of what was at the time Sweden’s newest prince  and a baby born at about the same time in Bumbu, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The cards are clearly stacked against the latter:
I think the DRC is an illustration of the need for a feminist foreign policy. Why? Because this is what we can report about the situation for women and girls in that country. It is extremely difficult. In short, there is a very clear patriarchal system in the rural areas as well as in the cities where women and girls have a subordinated position. They are underrepresented in all positions of power. They have fewer resources. Their health is worse. They have access to less education. They have less influence. And they are exposed to gender-related violence much more often than boys and men. The law states that the man is the head of the family and woman should obey, and this of course has effects on girls’ and women’s real possibilities to exist and work on the same conditions as men and boys in society. There has been over the years a focus on sexual violence against women and girls in the conflict areas in the eastern DRC, but actually study after study shows that men’s violence against women, also domestically, is the most common form of gender-based violence. Women’s participation in political processes is low at all levels. In the national parliament 9% are women and ministers are less than 15%. And women who participate in political life are often seen as a bit…you know.
Minister Wallström then introduces her country’s foreign policy and argues for its relevance (emphasis mine):
Academia now tells us that the feminist foreign policy is considered to be an extremely strong brand. But the feminist foreign policy is more than a brand. What is important is the realization that gender equality is not a women’s issue, but a make-or=break issue. It is a make-or-break issue in itself and for peace, security and sustainable development as a whole. A feminist foreign policy therefore defines gender equality also as a peace and security issue.
The truth is that oppression, violence ans systematic subordination still mark the daily lives of countless women and girls all over the world. And as you heard, there are examples in every field. One in three women worldwide have experience physical or sexual violence. Every day, more than 39,000 girls under 18 become child brides. A daunting majority of all countries have at least one legal difference between women and men, limiting women’s opportunities. And when I talk about our feminist foreign policy and what it is all about, I try to encapsulate it by referring to the three Rs: rights, representation and resources.
- Firstly, respect for human rights and rule of law constitute a starting point for every discussion about gender equality ensuring women’s rights and access to justice must be seen as central in achieving the overall human rights agenda.
- Secondly women must be represented at all levels of society, in parliaments, local authorities, at the negotiating table, in board rooms and in peacekeeping missions to name but a few.
- And thirdly, resources must be distributed evenly.
These presentation were still fresh on my mind when I attended a panel discussion with the UN Secretary-General the next day on the status and prospects of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in particular as well as disarmament and nonproliferation in general. After going in circles for the better part of an hour on two intractable issues [FN2], an audience member posed the following question:
Women are key in peace building, peacekeeping and security. How can we bring more women to the table in order to achieve greater levels of disarmament and enter the treaty into force?
Suddenly it occurred to me that this whole business of nuclear weapons and the general reluctance to stop testing, to say nothing of getting rid of them, is the doing of a bunch of men. It was men who decided to pursue bombs in the first place, mostly men who built them, men who decided to use and test them and men in charge of the governments who drag their feet and block progress. The victims of nuclear weapons explosions and nuclear testing are not just men, however, but women and children, who, though they make up most of the world’s population, are never consulted.
Feeling, I suppose, somewhat out of its element, the mostly-male panel punted to the UK ambassador, Susan le Jeune D’Allegeershecque, who noted:
A question about bringing in more women probably shouldn’t be answered by a women. I think it’s a problem across the whole of the security landscape. I mean, looking around this room there is a reasonable number of women here but this is not typical. I think it is something which has to start very early on, impressing on girls when they’re at school that this is not a boy’s subject, that we all have a role to play, that we all have a responsibility is absolutely key. But there is something about feeling uncomfortable if you are the only woman or one or two women in a room full of lots and lots of men, and it’s only when you start to build up a critical mass that everybody begins to feel more comfortable. […] But I also think across history, peace building, conflict resolution, conflict prevention, have been most successful when women have been part of those efforts.
The international community acknowledged as much in 2000 with the passage of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 which emphasizes participation, protection, prevention, and relief and recovery. While progress ought to be acknowledged, male-dominated foreign (and, for that matter, domestic) policies continue to dominate peace and security outcomes the world over. In light of this dubious track record, I’d say it’s high time to make (more) room at the table for perspectives that have traditionally been disregarded, even if you can’t bring yourself to label what you do as “feminist”. Otherwise, you might end up with this as America’s future foreign policy.
: How to persuade the remaining states whose ratification is necessary to do the right thing and allow the treaty to enter into force? What to do about North Korea’s nuclear testing?