Opinion
21 Sep 2018

Should foreign policy be feminist?

Sweden certainly thinks so and wants the rest of the world to follow suit: recently, they released a handbook as a resource and guide for other nations to put the equal rights at the forefront of their strategies abroad.

Elizabeth Walsh
Elizabeth Walsh Producer, Al Jazeera English, Europe
Should foreign policy be feminist? - NewsMavens
Margot Wallstrom in Belgium, 2007. Photo: Wiktor Dabkowski/REPORTER

But what does a feminist foreign policy look like and why should other countries care?

According to the handbook, “gender equality is an objective in itself, but it is also essential for achieving the Government’s other overall objectives, such as peace, security and sustainable development.”

In other words: feminism is good for everyone.

It’s not just Sweden that knows this: the data shows that improving gender equality would add jobs for both women and men, that women are integral to successful peacemaking, that gender inequality is linked to conflict and violence and that “if women were to participate in the economy identically to men, they could add as much as $28 trillion or 26 percent to annual global GDP in 2025.”

Yes, you read that correctly: $28 trillion.

For Sweden, feminist foreign policy means working to strengthen the rights, representation and resources available to women and girls; it means challenging patriarchy by aiming “to change structures and enhance the visibility of women and girls as actors. Discrimination and gender inequality in all life’s stages and contexts shall be counteracted.”

The handbook highlights some of the barriers to women’s rights that exist around the world, including laws that bar women from the workplace (a full 104 countries legally prevent women from holding jobs in industries like mining, manufacturing, construction, energy, agriculture, water and transport) and laws that fail to protect women from violence within their homes.

It also provides statistics on women’s lack of access to resources: women own less than 20 percent of the world’s land resources and there are 300 million fewer women than men with cell phones. Only 17 women are the head of their countries and women still trail behind men in parliamentary representation (in the United States, for example, less than 20% of the Congress is made up of women).

To close the gaps, Sweden proposes a six-point plan of action for its foreign service: (1) Full enjoyment of human rights; (2) Freedom from physical, psychological and sexual violence; (3) Participation in preventing and resolving conflicts, and post-conflict peacebuilding; (4) Political participation and influence in all areas of society; (5) Economic rights and empowerment; and (6) Sexual and reproductive health and rights.

Achieving these goals means pushing other countries to ratify -- and implement -- international treaties like the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security and the European Union action plan for gender equality and women’s empowerment in the EU’s external relations.

Over the past four years, Sweden has worked towards women’s rights within the areas of foreign and security policy, development cooperation and trade and promotion policy; the handbook cites specific success stories, like the Swedish Women’s Mediation Network, which shared the country’s expertise with women peacemakers in Afghanistan, Burundi, Colombia, Georgie, Somalia, Ukraine and Zimbabwe.

But a feminist foreign policy isn’t just about women’s rights -- more critically, it’s about reversing traditional approaches to foreign policy that put practical needs ahead of moral considerations. That means, for example, having to pay attention to the human rights record of a nation before selling it weapons -- regardless of whether the sale of those weapons would make your country rich.

That’s where Sweden’s star foreign minister, Margot Wallström, comes in.

Sweden has, in recent years, ranked among the top three nations for arms exports per capita, reaching over 11 billion kronor in 2017. Those sales included weapons to Saudi Arabia, which is waging a devastating war in Yemen, home to the world’s worst humanitarian crisis: at least 50,000 children died in 2017 alone, millions have been displaced, and some 5.2 million children are facing famine today.

In 2015, Wallström denounced Saudi Arabia’s treatment of women and repression of freedom of speech, prompting 31 of Sweden’s largest businesses to send her an open letter in protest. Companies like Ericsson and H&M worried that standing up for human rights would be bad for business (yeah, might want to think twice before buying that €20 top).

Saudi Arabia then blocked Wallström from speaking about women’s rights and democracy during an Arab League gathering in Cairo.

Her government’s response? They scrapped a major arms deal with the Gulf kingdom. Since then, Sweden has introduced legislation that will make it much more difficult to sell weapons to countries run by dictators or those with dubious human rights records.

But how do we convince other countries to stand by Sweden and take the moral high ground? Not every nation enjoys such a high level of wealth and stability.

As long as wars remain profitable, conflicts will flourish and with them, the violent abuse of our human rights. Incredibly, a feminist foreign policy can solve this problem at both ends, for not only have women proven themselves to be (more) successful arbiters of peace, but again and again, the research shows that the economic benefits of gender equality are staggering: it’s hard to argue for the continued sale of weapons when a more peaceful alternative -- women’s full participation in the economy -- would add trillions to our annual GDP.

So rather than a foreign policy designed by and for an elite group of men that profit off of the suffering of millions, we would do well to follow Sweden’s lead, taking down the roadblocks of patriarchy that get in the way of prosperity and peace.

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