How feminist is Sweden’s foreign policy?

One of the biggest news since the government took office, especially from a global perspective, has been the introduction of a feminist foreign policy that the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Margot Wallström (S), as declared in the autumn of 2014.  The new explicit focus on gender equality in foreign policy having existed for eighteen months by now and it is time to review what has been achieved thus far and what more should be expected from the government in order for it to fulfil its declaration of a feminist foreign policy.

In our second article on Sweden’s feminist foreign policy, Mundus International takes a closer look at what impact the policy has made so far.  The government has in fact taken several steps aimed at strengthening women’s representation, resources and rights.  A female mediator network has been established, a Principal Advisor on Gender has been appointed to the European External Action Service and greater emphasis has been placed on consultation with local women’s organisations when operating in conflict stricken regions. However, a recent report from Civil Society Organisation CONCORD highlights a number of areas for improvement, stating that urgent steps need to be taken in order to reinforce the efforts for the rights of women, girls and HBTQI-people.  The policy for migration and refugees, the trade policy and the continued munitions exports are criticised for being inconsistent with the rights of women and lacking a feminist perspective.[1]

Ambitious development policy, but criticised refugee reception

Within the realm of foreign development policy, Sweden has had an explicit focus on gender equality for a long time and the Swedish Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA) has been known to systematically incorporate a gender perspective across all operations.  Whilst CONCORD’s report acknowledges this, it also highlights the need for further action to be taken in order to secure the rights of HBTQI-people in developing countries.  The success of the Swedish support in these matters is claimed to rely too heavily on dedicated individuals and organisations in the local community, and a more proactive approach from the Swedish government in systematic cooperation with local authorities is said to be needed.  Furthermore, the report addresses criticism towards the lack of action by Sweden to prevent tax evasion in developing countries since insufficient tax collection is considered to hit women and children the hardest.  Concerns have also been raised regarding the fact that only 3 per cent of SIDA’s bilateral development aid is aimed at promoting women in the agricultural sector.  Women in many countries are dependent on agriculture, but often lack access to arable land.  A stronger focus on this issue in the development policy is expected to not only help support women around the world, but also increase agricultural output on the whole.[2]  At large however, the term perspective that favours women in the developing world. As a measure of this dedication, 87 per cent of the development aid coming from SIDA is actively aimed at contributing to improved gender equality.[3]  Looking forward, the action plan for 2016 advocates sexual reproductive rights for women and girls as a specific focal point for the year’s development policy.  During the Foreign Policy Debate in the Riksdag in February, Ms Wallström affirmed Sweden’s conviction of the importance of feminist development aid and revealed a special focus for the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit. “For the upcoming World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul in May, we work for a stronger humanitarian system with particular focus on women’s rights and influence,” she said.[4]

Meanwhile, the changes that have been made in migration policy and the government’s infringements on the right to seek asylum are receiving fierce criticism.  ”This almost exclusively leads to deteriorating opportunities for women and girls to have their human rights respected” CONCORD’s report states.  The government decided in November last year to substantially limit the possibilities for family immigration and family reunification, thus forcing thousands of women and children to be either left behind in conflict zones or pushing them to make the dangerous journey to Sweden via human traffickers.  The lack of legal ways to enter Sweden and the EU is severely limiting women’s capability to escape war and famine, and less than 30 per cent of the asylum applications in 2015 came from women or girls.[5]  The introduction of ID-checks is also criticised for disproportionately affecting women, who to a larger extent lack formal papers.  Moreover, the report addresses criticism of the fact that the suggested new regulations surrounding residence permits are likely to make it more difficult for HBTQI-people to be granted asylum.  “There is no doubt that several of the changes that have been made, and the proposals put forward in the migration and refugee policy in the autumn of 2015, have devastating consequences for girls, women and HBTQI-people,” CONCORD’s report argues.

Weak progress on issues of environment and trade

The trade policy as well as the environmental policy has witnessed little impact from the declaration of a feminist foreign policy.  The framework for such a policy perhaps provides adequate guidelines for improvements, but CONCORD argues that both the action plan for business and human rights and Sweden’s export strategy are lacking a feminist perspective.  When it comes to the export strategy, women are mentioned neither as actors nor as a target group and the action plan for business and human rights only mentions women in relation to organisations such as the EU, ILO and UNICEF.  “The lack of coordination between these strategies is a sign that the feminist ambition has not yet managed to enter forums where decisions dealing with economic interests are being taken” the report states.  There has also been criticism from a feminist perspective regarding Swedish participation in the EU and WTO, not least regarding the Economic Partnership Agreements with countries in Africa that are accused of being damaging for local market actors.  Parts of the agreements promote opening up of African markets for European products, an action that is likely to damage domestic production if executed too drastically.  With women often being in weaker positions on the local labour market, they are also considered to be more likely to suffer from unemployment due to competition from European competitors.  The Minister for Foreign Affairs has argued that protectionism is the enemy of development and pledged Sweden as a firm advocate for free trade. “Free trade between countries builds the long-term foundation for peace and democracy.  Therefore, we oppose the protectionist tendencies in the EU and other G20 countries, especially those affecting developing countries,“ said Ms Wallström.[6]

From an environmentalist perspective, the key event of 2015 was the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris in December.  Sweden entered the discussions with a strong feminist focus but when the negotiations got tough, the issue of gender equality was not prioritised.  This caused quite a stir in the civil community that asked for further action to help women, who often are affected the hardest from catastrophes relating to climate change.  Moreover, Sweden’s attempts to bring an adequate equality perspective into EU’s Climate Funding for Developing Countries have been deemed unsuccessful, despite the fact that the government has representatives in the Member State Committee that makes decisions on these matters.  ”The lack of a gender perspective in plans for the EU’s environmental and climate aid is striking, since none of the expected results or measurable indicators contain any reference to gender,” CONCORD writes.  The report also states that there is a need for further effort to be directed specifically at supporting women in Sweden’s own foreign development aid for environment, climate and resilience.

Promising prospects for a feminist security policy

The government’s policy for peace and security stands out as the area where the most difference has been made since the Minister for Foreign Affairs launched the feminist foreign policy in the autumn of 2014.  The explicit focus on gender equality issues has set a standard throughout the action plan for foreign policy as well as Ms Wallström’s actions and statements over the course of her time as minister.  The report from CONCORD highlights the establishment of a network for female mediators, the launch of the Syria strategy and the enhanced dialogue with women activists in conflict zones as important steps in the right direction. “We continue to work according to our action plan to involve women in peace processes.  By involving women in peace talks in Syria, we can contribute to a more sustainable society,” Ms Wallström said in the parliamentary foreign policy debate.[7]  Furthermore, the upcoming action plan for the agenda for women, peace and security could prove to become a key component of the work for equality in the peace and security policy.

Despite progress, there are still areas where improvements are called for.  Harsh criticism has been directed towards the Swedish arms exports and voices have been raised that suggest this is in stark conflict with the proclaimed feminist focus in foreign and security policy.  “It is difficult to credibly claim to be a feminist voice in the world, while Sweden is selling monitoring systems to the dictatorships in the United Arab Emirates,” said Hans Linde (V).[8]  The criticism regards the presence of arms exports in general, but specifically argues that munitions sales to undemocratic countries that violate human rights are unacceptable and irreconcilable with a feminist foreign policy.  In an opinion piece in Sydsvenskan, Feminist Initiative (Fi) even went to the lengths to state that the Host Nation Support agreement with NATO is incompatible with Ms Wallström’s proclaimed direction of foreign policy.  “It is impossible for Sweden to establish a host nation agreement with a military alliance that rests on a nuclear strategy,” Fi’s Party Leader, Gudrun Schyman, wrote.[9]  The Liberals, on the contrary, argue that a deepened cooperation with NATO is the right pathway in order to effectively spread a feminist message.  “By the next election, Sweden needs a liberal foreign policy that stands up for democratic values and builds security together with other like-minded countries,” Birgitta Ohlsson (L) has stated.


The launch of the feminist foreign policy is a symbolically important step in an apparent return to the more morally guided diplomacy that used to characterise Sweden during the 1960s and 1970s.  There have been some improvements, for example the appointing of a Principal Advisor on Gender to the EU and the greater emphasis on consulting women in conflict resolution, but the general focus on gender equality has arguably been around for longer than Ms Wallström’s term as Minister for Foreign Affairs.  In essence, the feminist foreign policy is simply a rebranding, although it has provided more explicit guidelines on how to conduct foreign policy.  Regardless of the outcome in terms of policymaking, the launch of the feminist foreign policy has undeniably created an unprecedented volume of headlines around the world.  Or as the Washington Post put it: “Sweden’s subtly radical feminist foreign policy is causing a stir”.[10]

[1] ”Hur feministisk är Sveriges utrikespolitik?”, CONCORD 2016
[2] Women in agriculture : Closing the gender gap för Development. State of Food & Agriculture, FAO 2010-2011.
[3] Report p. 7 (Plan för jämställdhetsintegrering på Sida 2015- 2018. u.o. : Sida, den 2 nov. 2015.)
[5] Inkomna ansökningar om asyl, 2015. u.o. : Migrationsverket, 1 jan 2016.