Q&A: Exploring Sweden’s ‘feminist’ foreign policy

Sweden’s foreign-affairs minister discusses the benefits of including women in foreign and social policy.

EU Defence and Foreign Affairs Council
Wallstrom has led Sweden's recognition of a Palestinian state and overseen a standoff with Saudi Arabia [EPA]

Johannesburg, South Africa – Margot Wallström, Sweden’s minister for foreign affairs, has emerged as one of the most vocal diplomats in Europe.

Trumpeting a “feminist” foreign policy she has led Sweden’s recognition of a Palestinian state, overseen a diplomatic standoff with Saudi Arabia over her criticism of the kingdom’s human rights record, and she has also stood firm against a surge in criticism of her suitability as Sweden’s top diplomat.

Her international reputation as an advocate for the rights of women is, however, fast growing.  

She was invited by the chairperson of the African Union Commission, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, to address this weeks’ African Union summit on the Swedish model for women’s empowerment.

Al Jazeera spoke to her in Johannesburg about the foreign policy she champions and how it shapes Sweden’s relations with the rest of the world.

Al Jazeera: What exactly is the Swedish, or Nordic, experience that you have shared with African leaders at this summit?

Margot Wallström: It starts with education. You have to ensure that women are educated.

We were also once a very poor country with an enormous outpouring of people who went to the USA to look for their fortune and their future there.

In order to become a welfare state with a very high standard of living as we have today, we have invested in the basic things.

You have to make sure there is healthcare and education and infrastructure and all the basic needs of people are met.

But what is also needed is to create a political climate of moderation and compromises and involvement of all different groups, based on democratic principles.

Al Jazeera: You’ve come to the fore in recent months promoting a feminist foreign policy. What exactly is it?

Wallström: It is an analysis and also a practical tool. It’s not a magic wand. It is not a set list of political views or positions.

It is really an analysis and tools that you can use.

Al Jazeera: How does this analysis actually work?

Wallström: The analysis has to do with the fact that even though we have this very ambitious goals and targets when it comes to, for example, the rights of the girl child – we have wonderful, almost poetic language in the Beijing declaration for example – but girls are discriminated against around the world.

It’s a kind of reality check, as an analysis of the world.

Al Jazeera: What are the core principles underpinning this feminist analysis?

Wallström: We use the “Three R’s”.

What about rights?

Do women enjoy the same legal platforms and the normative framework that you need in any country?

Secondly, to look at representation, are they represented among those who take the decisions?

And then resources.

When we distribute even development assistance, how do we distribute it? Do we direct it also to women’s projects?

This is part of our policy but also new in this, is women are seen and defined as a peace and security issue.

Al Jazeera: So in a situation like Ukraine, how does this vision inform Sweden’s actions?

Wallström: We look at the OSCE monitoring mission. Do they ask what are the needs of women and children? What about the fact that women are the majority of the IDPs?

And if they meet in bus stations or train stations, there are also many soldiers there.

If nobody asks about the crimes committed against women there, and there are many rapes unfortunately, it would never be visible to us.

So you have to provide the expertise and you have to give the resources to fight it.

In Mali, for example, in the peace agreement we are hoping for, when we get a peace agreement, will women be around the table to sign it?

What we need is to look at all the existing conflicts and war situations, and the ongoing negotiations, are women really there?

Are they represented?

Al Jazeera: The UN recently released a damning report on Eritrea. Does Sweden plan to take any action based on this report considering you are already one of the most vocal critics of the Eritrean regime?

Wallström: We are very concerned about Eritrea and this is also discussed among the European Union countries.

We also have a rather large diaspora in Sweden and we are also seeing a higher number of unaccompanied children who are arriving as refugees in Sweden.

In the past couple of months it has increased enormously. So we think this has to do with the fact that they are recruiting very young boys to the army and they are trying to escape.

It is a very problematic situation. We are of course trying to keep up with our political and diplomatic contacts and we are engaging with dialogue with Eritrea.

Al Jazeera: We saw Saudi blogger Raif Badawi’s scheduled punishment being postponed last week, do you have any comments on the developments in that case?

Wallström: It’s good that the punishment was suspended.

It’s clear what we think on this issue and the European Union also made a statement on this. So we can only hope that this can be solved in a positive way.

Al Jazeera: This “feminist” approach to international relations can also be criticised because Western versions of feminism often ignore the agency of women of colour. How do you reconcile the feminism you champion with these criticisms?

Wallström: I think we have to cool that down.

I think if you want to say equality between men and women, that’s fine with me.

It’s really about what it is and how it is being used.

Sometimes feminism, not in my country but in other places, has a pejorative sense, so I think we just have to explain what it is and be judged by what we do with it, and that’s the most important thing.

Al Jazeera: The issue is that Western feminism is often used to inform a saviour mentality towards people of colour…

Wallström: It has nothing to do with colour or race or anything like that.

It’s important to say the yardstick that we use: We look at rights, representation and resources.

Source: Al Jazeera