Sound the Alarm—Sweden Drops ‘Feminist’ and Returns to Mere ‘Foreign Policy’

A country’s calling its foreign policy “feminist” distinguishes gender equality as a central priority and perspective.

Protesters take part in a Women’s March in Stockholm, Sweden, on Jan, 21, 2017, one day after the inauguration of the U.S. President Donald Trump. (Pontus Lundahl / Sweden OUT / AFP via Getty Images)

This article was a joint effort by Mabel Bianco, Fundación para la Investigación de la Mujer (Argentina); Memory Kachambwa, FEMNET- African Women’s Development and Communication Network (Kenya); Kristina Lunz, Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy (Germany); Geetanjali Misra, CREA (India); Lyric Thompson, Feminist Foreign Policy Collaborative (USA); and Beth Woroniuk, Equality Fund (Canada).

Feminists around the world reacted with concern and dismay when the new Swedish government recently dropped the term ‘feminist’ from its foreign policy. Alarm bells went off about what this meant for both Sweden’s progressive role in the world, and for other countries advancing a feminist foreign policy.

While the new government has suggested that Sweden’s feminist foreign policy was merely a label, our experience has proven otherwise. As feminist activists and officials working all over the world to advance this approach, we mourn the loss of the world’s first feminist foreign policy, an effort that has, in our view, had an important global impact.

In 2014, Sweden was the first country to call its foreign policy “feminist.” This bold statement opened the door to others. Since then, at least 10 other countries have followed—either announcing a feminist foreign policy or the intention to develop one. The growing list now includes France, Mexico, Canada, Spain, Libya, Luxembourg, Germany, the Netherlands, Colombia, Chile, Liberia and Scotland.

But first and foremost, Sweden’s decision to call its foreign policy feminist gave hope and inspiration to feminist activists around the world. Women human rights defenders knew they had an ally on the global stage. This solidarity is vital as attacks on feminist activists and LGBTQIA+ people increase.

Sweden’s feminist foreign policy made it clear, once and for all, that gender equality was not a side issue. Rather, it is central when looking at global security, economic prosperity and climate disaster.

There were results. Under Swedish leadership, the Security Council passed a resolution including sexual and gender-based violence as one of the grounds for sanctions. Sweden supported new legislation on gender equality in over 20 countries. Sweden championed sexual and reproductive rights in international fora and development assistance investments in gender equality increased.

By using a basic framework of “rights, resources, representation,” Sweden also helpfully demystified what a feminist foreign policy looks like in practice. While there continues to be much global debate and discussion around what a feminist foreign policy should and could involve, Sweden demonstrated it was possible to move forward with a specific vision and purpose.

Of course, there were criticisms. All states adopting feminist policies face critiques. Bringing a feminist approach to something as complicated and multifaceted as foreign policy is not easy. Developing a coherent and consistent approach will take time. Feminist foreign policies are a journey. There are numerous interests and global forces that challenge principled approaches and efforts to build a more equitable and peaceful world.

While the Swedish government has reassured both domestic and international stakeholders that removing ‘feminist’ from the official description of its foreign policy will not affect its commitment to gender equality, there are many who mourn this change.

Yes, it is possible to advance gender equality objectives without this label, as many other countries do. However, calling your foreign policy “feminist” signals a different level of ambition and distinguishes gender equality as a central priority and perspective, as opposed to one of many global objectives. And it sends a message to feminist activists around the world that they are not alone.

We hope that Sweden’s step away from the feminist foreign policy ‘club’ is temporary. We will miss your insights, ambition and leadership. And we will welcome you back with open arms when—once again—Sweden proudly calls its foreign policy feminist.

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Lyric Thompson is the founder and CEO of the Feminist Foreign Policy Collaborative, where she leads global coalition efforts to refine and advance the highest level of ambition and impact for feminist foreign policies. Previously, she served vice president of policy, advocacy and strategy at the International Center for Research on Women, as a primary expert and strategist for Amnesty International USA’s women’s human rights program, and senior policy manager at Women for Women International. She writes regularly on feminist issues for such platforms as the New York Times, Foreign Policy Magazine, Devex and Ms.