How feminist is the Swedish feminist foreign policy?


A feminist approach to security is based on understanding and increasing human security, and promoting preventive methods including disarmament and arms control. It cannot be used only when it suits a state’s national interests, and ignored when it doesn’t.

Erbfürstenpalais (schwedisch Arvfurstens palats)
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The Erbfürstenpalais (Swedish Arvfurstens palats) in Stockholm is the seat of the Swedish Foreign Ministry

For many decades, Sweden has been a leading voice in promoting gender equality and women's rights. The country’s development and aid policy has highlighted gender equality as a priority since 1996. This was strengthened in 2014 when Margot Wallström, Minister for Foreign Affairs, established a feminist foreign policy. An action plan was set up including not only development policy, but also other areas, for example security policy, that are imperative in the struggle to reach equality around the world. The action plan broadens the often very narrow view of security policy, and includes human security, a gender perspective, and environmental aspects. Recently, Sweden launched a revised action plan for its feminist foreign policy. On the whole, it is very similar to the original action plan and highlights the need for women's participation and conflict prevention, the important role of civil society and the UN agenda for women, peace and security, in particular UN Security Council resolution 1325. 

Feminist foreign policy is an important step forward for Sweden’s security policy, and the emphasis on conflict prevention is one of the strongest aspects of Sweden’s feminist foreign policy on the whole. It is crucial to listen to the grassroot communities and let them lead the way, especially women and minorities, as they are most familiar with the context. A feminist foreign policy should be based on a bottom-up approach. This is the only constructive way to build secure, peaceful and sustainable societies. However, both in Sweden and globally, security policy still lacks awareness of how patriarchal power structures shape politics and actual security for people.

Traditionally, security is understood through ‘militarisation’ and embedded in violence, control, and dominance. This understanding of “security” does not question the patriarchal structures that uphold violence and weapons as a conflict resolution method. For the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), challenging patriarchal structures and questioning masculinity is necessary in addressing the root causes of armed conflict and war. The traditional view and approach to security issues not only leads to insecurity through violence, arms race, and war, it also hinders feminist foreign policy in achieving its purpose and progress. Challenging the very core of patriarchal structures is still met with resistance. A clear example is the Swedish arms export policy, which is directly counterproductive to Sweden´s efforts in other policy areas, such as promoting peace, democracy, and human rights for all people.

Through adopting a feminist foreign policy and committing to the agenda on ‘Women, Peace and Security’, the Swedish government is working to strengthen women's influence and participation in peace and state building, counter structural root causes for conflict and violence, support the protection of girls and women from all types of armed violence, and improve gender perspectives in the work for peace and security. Despite this, Sweden continues exporting arms to conflict areas, and to regions where women are denied even their most basic human rights, such as Saudi Arabia. Sweden also sells arms to fragile and unstable states where the risk of intensified conflict is evident, such as Thailand. Among the countries that received military equipment exports from Sweden in 2018 were Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar; hence countries that have been involved in the armed conflict in Yemen, which has become the largest humanitarian crisis in the world with devastating consequences on women and girls.

Ministerin Margot Wallström

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On 13 and 19 August 2019 the Swedish news agency Tv4 Nyheterna reported that a number of different Swedish produced weapons have been used in the Yemen conflict. Such as the Swedish company Saab’s radar and mission system Erieye and missiles IRIS-T and Meteor, Canons and anti-tank grenade launchers from the Swedish company Bofors, warships from Swede ship and engines for Saudi tanks produced by Swedish company Scania. This double standard is the biggest flaw in Sweden’s feminist foreign policy.

In international rankings of development policies, the arms export negatively impacts Sweden's ranking and stands out as a policy area that pulls down the grade. This was highlighted during Sweden’s OECD Development co-operation Peer Reviews in 2019. OCED highlighted “{…} Sweden score{s} poorly on security due to its {…} high share of arms export to countries with poor human rights records and undemocratic regimes”. Similar issues were raised in the yearly Commitment to Development Index, CDI. The CDI ranks the world's 27 richest countries based on how their policies favour and affect the five billion people living in the world's poorest countries. Sweden is ranked top in most of the areas except for security due to its arms export policy.

Disarmament, a key to a sustainable feminist foreign policy

The proliferation of weapons enables and fuels armed conflicts, increasing insecurity, poverty, and inequality. Weapons are what WILPF calls "violence multipliers" as they are used to kill, but also to threaten and abuse. Furthermore, weapons reinforce unequal power relations between men and women. This increases the risk of violence to women and girls in both the private and public spheres and threatens to limit their movement and participation in public and political areas for fear they are unsafe and may be attacked. Consequently, the proliferation of weapons affects not only women's physical safety but also women's health, their sexual and reproductive rights, education, economic empowerment, and access to food/water. Disarmament is key for human security and for the possibility to respect human rights, not least women's rights.

As a member of the UN Security Council 2017-2018, Sweden brought forward concrete progress on women’s rights and conflict prevention (two of Sweden´s priorities in the Council). Unfortunately, Sweden did not emphasise disarmament and non-proliferation as a central tool for implementing the conflict prevention pillar in the UN agenda for ‘Women, Peace, and Security’. Sweden did not once stress the effect of weapon proliferation on women's lives, security, and participation, or the importance of disarmament and non-proliferation as a conflict prevention method in general. This was disappointing as the original action plan for feminist foreign policy addresses that Sweden would promote a gender perspective on disarmament and arms control, as well as highlighting the connection between the spread of small arms and light weapons in violence against women and girls.

The possession of weapons is often linked to gender stereotypes and heteronormative notions that men should protect and defend ”their” women as well as children with or without the threat of violence. Through this lens, women are victimised and denied agency and power. It also positions women as potential targets of strategic sexualised violence as a weapon of war since rape can be utilised to humiliate the enemy (the men) through demonstrating that they cannot protect “their” women. In turn, women also respond to these masculine ideals of weapons to gain legitimacy or agency. An armed man by their side or owning their own weapons to be able to defend themselves can also lead to increased status and a higher sense of security. 

This approach is embedded in a traditional, militarised view of security, where military means are employed to protect a nation when, for example, an invasion is perceived as a form of humiliation and sign of weakness, and women are seen as weak and vulnerable, and therefore in need of protection. This approach neglects to address the imperative of addressing the root causes such as the patriarchy, militarism and unequal power structures. Put simply, these issues cannot be tackled by more people wielding more weapons in the name of women’s rights, and any feminist foreign policy needs to address this.

It is not enough to just “add women and stir!”

Representation is an important part of achieving equal and safe communities and is primarily a question of rights. Globally, women constitute half of the population, so they should hold half the power. This imperative is also echoed in the overall objective of Sweden’s national gender equality policy that states that women and men should have the same power to shape society and their own lives. Among other things, women and men should have the same rights and opportunities to be active citizens and to shape the conditions for decision making.

Despite this, security policy is one of the most male-dominated policy areas in Sweden today. In 2017, only 35 percent of the members of the parliamentarian Defence Committee were women (unchanged since 2001). In comparison, the Foreign Affairs Committee, 41 percent were women in 2017 and 59 percent men, which has increased since 2001, when there were 29 percent women and 71 percent men. We see similar lack of representation in the media in who is invited to be an ‘expert’ and comment on issues relating to security policy. WILPF Sweden’s estimation shows that about 70 percent of those who commented in the debate on whether Sweden should join the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) in the fall of 2017 were men.

However, the issue must not be reduced to representation, where women are included in already established patriarchal militarised structures. From a feminist standpoint, gender equality is not achieved by including women in existing structures, values ​​and norms. It requires fundamental changes in structure; and new structures to be created.

After failing to recruit enough military on a voluntary basis, the Swedish government reinstalled the conscription in 2018 for both men and women. The decision was based on a governmental investigation, which focused on the military as a mechanism to achieve gender equality. The Armed Forces' Equal Opportunities Plan has the goal that 20 percent of those who carry out basic military education should be women. However, the investigation was based on the assumption that gender equality means equal representation of men and women, it does not discuss nor question the use of military intervention as a tool to address conflict. In addition, there is no deeper analysis of why so few young people, especially women, do not apply for, or remain in, the Swedish Armed Forces.

The governmental investigation employs, what WILPF calls an "add women and stir" model, which assumes that gender equality increases automatically if the number of women increases. "The fact that women and men as citizens are subject to equal conditions with regard to obligations and rights in relation to the military defence, assesses the investigation as a very important principle step that should have a great impact on the way in which norms and values ​​are progressively developed within the area” (author’s translation). Consequently, any in-depth work for structural change is seen as unnecessary. The investigation neglects to discuss the ways organisational culture, structures, and discrimination can be obstacles for women, and avoids addressing questions about leadership or men's role in promoting gender equality.

The investigation informed a public campaign led by Swedish armed forces which was embedded in stereotypes around both youth and gender relying on messages such as; Do you have to be able to do two things at the same time or can guys also apply? Is there Wi-Fi? Do I have to be strong? Do I always need to get up early? Can I become a seaman as a woman? What happens if I get pregnant? Can you have a period in the field? (author’s translation). The focus on women's bodies, with questions about menstruation and pregnancy reduces women to their biology, and their reproductive systems are assumed to be a problem or an obstacle to their full participation. From WILPF’s perspective, more relevant questions could be: Will I have to go to war? Do I need to kill? Do I always have to follow orders? Can I express my own values?

Resisting real feminist change

Since 2014, the Swedish government has claimed to be: “the world's first feminist government to ensure that a gender perspective is included in the policy formulation on a broad front, both in national and international work”. This means that a gender and feminist perspective should be applied to all government policy areas, including defence and security. Despite this ambitious plan, Sweden’s security policy still lacks feminist analysis and implementation, specifically on issues of disarmament and arms control.

A feminist foreign policy needs to address root causes. A militarised security approach will only result in a false sense of security and uphold the current unequal power structures that need to change. A feminist foreign policy cannot only address issues such as development where the focus is to change something elsewhere. A feminist foreign policy must challenge the power structures and norms in domestic policy too. A feminist approach to security is based on understanding and increasing human security, and promoting preventive methods including disarmament and arms control. It cannot be used only when it suits a state’s national interests, and ignored when it doesn’t, as it is with Swedish arms export industry to states in conflict or by strong-arming young adults into violent patriarchal structures such as the armed forces.

Power structures are not clear cut. They intersect and adapt continuously to new conditions and contexts. Therefore, it is imperative to keep questioning, unpacking, and critiquing what is going on beneath the surface. To reach peace and equality, it is vital to challenge the unequal power structures that maintain the legitimacy of militarisation and war.