What Germany can learn from Sweden’s Feminist Foreign Policy

Sweden was the first country in the world to adopt a feminist foreign policy. Madeleine Winqvist, policy advisor on gender equality at CONCORD Sweden, took stock and shows which experiences from Sweden could be useful for a successful implementation in Germany.

It all started in 2014 when the former Swedish foreign minister Margot Wallström announced that Sweden was to have a feminist foreign policy. At the time Sweden had a coalition government where the Social Democratic Party ruled together with the Green Party. Both parties have a history of prioritising gender equality in their internal as well as external policies. In fact, gender equality has been a priority for Swedish governments since decades and been a steady growing priority for the development cooperation since many years back. What was new, however, was labelling the foreign policy as ’feminist’ which was to be understood as a strong signal to the rest of the world that Sweden was ready to step up its efforts in the fight for women’s rights and gender equality. It cemented Sweden’s aspiration to be a global leader and role model in the work for gender equality.

After 2014, ’feminist foreign policy’ has become an established international concept and several countries have since then launched versions of it. In Sweden, the policy is today supported also by opposition parties and is thus no longer a concept tied to the two founding parties. As the concept has spread around the world, questions have however been raised concerning what actual impact labelling a country’s foreign policy as ’feminist’ can have. The risk of governments branding policies ’feminist’ for cheap political points without having to make genuine efforts to change power structures has also been highlighted. These are of course legitimate and important questions that should be raised.

Thus, when a government initiates a process with the aim to launch a feminist foreign policy or similar, like Germany, it is therefore important to try to learn from similar experiences. With eight years of implementing its feminist foreign policy, Sweden certainly can provide valuable lessons.

A feminist foreign policy requires a bold political leadership

With high-level political commitment and investments made to institutionalise and systematise the work on gender equality within the foreign ministry, one can argue that the feminist foreign policy has since its launch in 2014 strengthened Sweden’s voice and actions for gender equality at the global scene. Something which, in turn, has contributed to important international discussions on power, resources, gender and sexuality. One concrete example is Sweden’s efforts to promote the women, peace and security agenda within the UN Security Council during its membership in 2017-2018. One significant aspect of the feminist foreign policy is its function of being a comprehensive political framework that includes all areas of the foreign policy. This means that a gender equality perspective should influence and be integrated into all parts of the foreign policy, including security policy and international trade and promotion. To put this into practice the government has appointed gender focal points within all departments at the foreign ministry and all diplomatic missions. In addition, a coordination team led by an Ambassador for Gender Equality and Coordinator of Feminist Foreign Policy was set up to support and oversee the overall implementation of the policy.

Mainstreaming and prioritising gender equality has, however, been proven to be easier said than done. Although Sweden has been an important voice for gender equality in many international high-level discussion forums, there is not always consistency in messages and in political engagement between the various high-level meetings, for example between different UN meetings. Over the last few years, the feminist foreign policy has furthermore been left out of some key public speeches held by the political leadership.

Important challenges have also arisen when the feminist foreign policy has come in conflicts with other political interests and policies, most prominently related to Sweden’s trade and defence and migration policies. The Swedish government has repeatedly been criticised for exporting arms to non-democratic countries with records of severe human rights abuses. Although a change was made to the arms sales regulations in 2017 to adhere to this criticism, Sweden continues to export armaments to countries at war and that violates human rights. This example of inconsistency is a serious impediment for the Swedish feminist foreign policy. It also highlights the struggle to challenge the traditional foreign policy and its focus on military force, violence and domination that is still shaping foreign and security policies.

A feminist foreign policy requires long-term commitment and bold political leadership that is willing to make tough political decisions.

In the last few years, important progress has been made in breaking ‘silos’ between gender equality and other political priorities. For example, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) has made important efforts to create space for its cooperation partners and own staff to learn and develop methods to link the work on gender and climate change. The government has also played a central role in strengthening gender mainstreaming in the multilateral climate and environment funds. Still, much more can be done to leverage synergies between the two perspectives. Integrating a gender equality perspective across all layers of the foreign ministry and political areas demands not only continuous political engagement but also continued investments in knowledge and expertise.

Participation of civil society is a key aspect

Another aspect that should be central to a feminist foreign policy is the involvement and participation of civil society, in particular local women’s rights organisations, and feminist movements. When announced, the Swedish feminist foreign policy took many Swedish civil society actors by surprise. Since the launch, however, civil society has regularly been invited to provide input to the annual updates of the feminist foreign policy action plans. This said, there has been much less dialogue on the actual implementation of the action plans and many external actors, civil society included, have struggled overseeing the implementation. Germany, that is now embarking on a process of developing a feminist foreign policy has an opportunity to create a truly participatory process that involves all relevant actors at all stages, from design to implementation.

Despite challenges like those mentioned above, Swedish feminist foreign policy has made important difference for the rights of women and girls in all their diversity. Today, taking a firm stand for feminism and for gender equality is perhaps more relevant and needed than in a long time. The world is seeing a serious and growing back lash against gender equality. The rights of LGBTQI-persons and women’s sexual reproductive health and rights are being threatened all over the world and anti-gender movements are gaining more and more ground. The voices of women human rights defenders are being silenced through violence, threats and harassment. In this political context, defining a foreign policy as ‘feminist’ has an important symbolic value. When such policy rests on a strong and genuine political commitment it can make significant change for equality, justice, and peace for all.

Ahead of Sweden’s EU Presidency 2023, CONCORD Sweden’s gender working group is developing a new report to contribute to discussions on feminist foreign policy at the EU level with lessons learned from the Swedish experience. Hopefully this report, expected to be finalised early 2023, can provide further food for thought for the German process.