Swedish Ambassador: “Feminist policy” prompts discussion more than gender balance does


A feminist approach is transforming the system much more than traditional foreign policy has, says Swedish Ambassador for Gender Equality and Coordinator of Feminist Foreign Policy, ANN BERNES. According to her, in the beginning the concept of feminism in politics surprised even the Swedes themselves. ”The giggle effect is there no more, because our experience is that change is possible,“ she claims.

Swedish Ambassador for Gender Equality and Coordinator of Feminist Foreign Policy, ANN BERNES
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Ann Bernes, Swedish Ambassador for Gender Equality and Coordinator of Feminist Foreign Policy.

Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström announced the world’s first explicitly “feminist” foreign policy (FFP) in 2014. Four years later, the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs launched an FFP handbook. How do you evaluate the beginnings of the Swedish feminist foreign policy?

When the FFP was launched, the initiative came as a surprise both to our own system and to the world around us. We faced a multitude of different reactions. Our former foreign minister described it as a ”giggle effect”. However, this giggle effect is there no more.

Of course, we still face many such reactions, but this is seen much more now as a common way of addressing these issues. Moreover, the fact that there are currently six countries pursuing a feminist foreign policy or diplomacy, and that many more show an interest in doing so, confirms the impact of our effort. Recently, Libya expressed its intention to emphasize this approach – and not least women, peace and security – in its new foreign policy. From where we sit, we can see that we are not alone.

What has changed within this approach since 2014?

There has been no change in the approach over the years. If you look at our action plan, which comes out annually, you can see that the long-term goals, as well as the chapters on actors, tools, and approach remain the same and have only been updated in those parts that relate to activities in a certain year.

At the same time, the whole idea of the policy is to be an “approach” and not a “set package”, and we are now placing more emphasis than ever on the need for context specificity, looking at where we are not only according to our own eyes, but also doing it together with local actors. This is the only way we can be efficient, credible, and sustainable.

If anything has changed, over the years, it is that more emphasis is being placed on learning. What we can do is exchange our experiences, learn from each other, never give up, and just keep on pushing.

Being an ambassador for such a cause seems not just challenging, but also quite innovative. How do you adjust to such a role?

The post itself involves many different roles, ranging from being a representative and an advocate to the outside world1 to being a coach and cheerleader internally.

How difficult was it to be a cheerleader in your own organization, in the Foreign Service?

Cheering for, and highlighting, colleagues’ innovative and tireless work is easy, but I also try to cheer them on when they are struggling. One example is that I try to connect colleagues working with the same kind of challenges in different settings. This kind of “matchmaking” is one of the most inspiring parts of my job, since I have been able to witness how it helps colleagues to learn and borrow ideas and approaches from each other.

This openness to, and focus on, continuous development and creative thinking was built into the policy from a very early stage, as everyone in the whole Foreign Service was invited to take part in the development of the approach. This was inspiring for many colleagues and a lot of them have since then seen concrete examples of the added value of the policy, as it makes it self-evident to observe whole contexts, societies, and conflicts in a new, systematic way.

What does that look like in practice?

The FFP is the responsibility of the whole Foreign Service, in its representation to the outside world as well as in its work within the service itself.  This perspective must be applied by everyone in his or her portfolio, at whatever level. In parallel, my small hub focuses on planning, coordinating and following up on the totality of the feminist foreign policy work, throughout the whole system.

We also invest in continuous support. The more people engage with something, the more questions come up about it, both internally and from the outside.  One example is that we, more than ever, have become a go-to-nation when it comes to gender equality, so when someone is looking at their policy for gender equality, or planning an event or an article on the topic, they tend to turn to us and our missions. In these cases, our missions may need a coach, or a hub they can lean on and talk to for advice and inspiration.

What about external forums? Did you meet with ”the giggle effect“ there as well?

We have worked in the same systematic way, both internally and in our representation to the outside world, with the aim of gender mainstreaming all policy areas and contexts. Our experience is that it works. When we were members of the UN´s Security Council, in 2017 and 2018, we contributed to the inclusion of gender and women into all aspects of peace and security, enhancing references to gender and women in all mission mandates and presidential statements on crisis situations. We also made sure that sexual and gender-based violence in conflict became a stand-alone criterion for sanctions, for the first time.

We also contributed to the fact that the Security Council was briefed by more representatives of civil society than before, not least by representatives of women’s rights organisations.  During our Presidency of the Council in 2018 we followed up and saw to it that for the first time ever, those briefing the Council were 50 % female and 50 % male.

What about other international institutions?

We are now applying the same kind of approach to the OSCE, where Sweden is currently the Chair.

Looking ahead, Sweden will hold the EU presidency in the first half of 2023, and of course we are thinking about how to apply this perspective to that context too, so that it gets integrated into every file, brief, and statement. 

We have already mentioned six countries pursuing the FFP. Are you also reflecting on what they are doing and taking inspiration from other countries, such as Canada, France, or others?

Absolutely. During this last year, we have boosted our online networking, as we have not been able to meet in person. This has enhanced our dialogues and collaboration on pursuing a feminist foreign policy.

On the 18th of February, our Foreign Minister invited colleagues from the other countries pursuing a feminist foreign policy to the first ministerial meeting on the subject. That was followed up by meetings between experts in the six capitals as well as in New York.

We can surely learn from each other. New challenges keep on emerging, so we have to constantly look at how we can enhance our feminist foreign policy even more.

Has the pandemic influenced your work in other ways?

Absolutely. The pandemic has affected everyone, but it has also been called both a crisis with a woman’s face and a step backward, since it has widened gender gaps and led to a further increase in gender-based violence. This has made it even more important to pursue a feminist foreign policy and to insist on a gender and human rights perspective in all parts of pandemic response and rebuilding. At first, this was far from evident. Such aspects were totally absent, and Sweden was often the only one to raise them.

How did your counterparts react?

We were met with question marks and the classic scenario of people being unable to understand how we could talk about “women” when there was a crisis. For us, this was an important example of how our policy makes a difference, since we always reflexively take gender equality and human rights into account. It helps us to keep these key issues on the table, no matter what.

Many countries have been inspired by your FFP progress, but in others, especially among the newer EU Member States, the word “feminism” is still met with giggles. How would a cheerleader approach such communities to inspire them?

From what I have seen and from where I sit, I can confirm that a feminist approach is more transformational than the more traditional foreign policy. One reason is that gender equality is no longer seen as just one priority, but it is seen as core business. Another reason is that you can have a gender-sensitive approach to your foreign policy without really questioning assumptions underlying the work. With a feminist foreign policy, though, you must look at the basis, the systems and the structures too. That makes it more of an agenda for change.

The word “feminism” also tends to create more discussion than “gender equality” ever does. People do not necessarily understand either concept, but they always have views on what they believe “feminism” is and are often eager to share them. Once you get a discussion going, you also get a chance to influence people’s thinking and to ask them why they are giggling at a policy that strives for everyone’s full enjoyment of human rights? 

You’re asking about influencing communities, and that can be hard to do, but I think that battle is very much won if you can reach persons who are strategic allies, if you can find the arguments that work with them so that they, in turn, can influence others.

Does that work out?

What we have seen is that new ways of thinking often start with an epiphany or an “Aha!” experience. This can sometimes be achieved with the help of statistics on aspects that a given person is interested in - such as, for example, economic arguments for gender equality.

Storytelling can also spark such revelations, especially if it describes reality from a new, unexpected angle, or conveys new facts and new information.

A third way is to reach people’s hearts and minds through other means. In our case, we have been able to use an exhibition called Swedish Dads, which consists of 25 fantastic photos of dads in all the impossible situations you can end up in when you have kids. The exhibition has been shown all over the world and paved the way for many discussions, not least because it has always been coupled with local activities, such as roundtables on parental leave or photo contests where dads in a given country have been invited to participate by contributing photos of themselves and their kids. In Shanghai this resulted in 25 photos of Chinese dads being displayed together with the photos of Swedish dads in the city’s biggest metro station. Six million people walked past them every day.

Our experience is that change is possible, even when obstacles to it seem insurmountable.

/The interview was first published in Slovak on Euractiv.sk/