September 22, 2020

What Do Sweden and Mexico Have in Common? A Feminist Foreign Policy

— Ann Linde, Foreign Minister of Sweden

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In the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, Chris Purdy, chief executive of one of the world’s largest providers of contraceptives and family planning services, DKT International, sent out an email asking for help.

The pandemic is going to wreak havoc on the supply chains of contraceptives, a situation that will severely curtail women’s access to sexual and reproductive care around the world, he wrote. What this U.S.-based nonprofit organization needed urgently was cash to buy extra inventory that could be sent to health care providers and pharmacies in African countries.

The email went out to DKT’s regular list of donors, which included about a dozen government institutions and major philanthropic organizations.

“The Swedish government was the only one that came back to us immediately” and agreed to provide DKT with $1.9 million, Mr. Purdy said.

That infusion of cash was on top of the roughly $55 million that Sweden had already pledged to DKT in 2016 for a six-year period.

Sweden’s focus on sexual and reproductive care in the midst of a crisis is an example of its feminist foreign policy — an approach, first adopted in 2014, that places women and girls at the center of almost every diplomatic decision the government makes, with the ultimate aim of advancing gender equality around the world.

Six years and several raised eyebrows later, more countries are now following Sweden’s lead, raising the pressure on the United States to do the same.

For decades, governments treated gender inequality as separate and unconnected to the “hard,” big-ticket items of trade or national security. It was instead considered a large part of “soft” diplomacy, particularly in the 1970s, when heads of state, academics, global institutions like the World Bank and nonprofit organizations started investing development and aid money into initiatives like microfinancing and small loans for women and girls, said Lyric Thompson, senior director of policy and advocacy at the International Center for Research on Women in Washington.

The microfinancing and loans strategy, however, made up just a tiny portion of any institution’s budget and didn’t consider important factors, like whether the women on the receiving end were legally allowed to work in certain sectors or socially allowed to interact with other men, or whether they were the primary or secondary income providers in their household, meaning the funding could often be misdirected.

In 1995, the U.N. signed a declaration that officially made gender equality a global priority, thrusting it from the sidelines onto center stage and widening the lens to focus on women not in an isolated way but as part of unequal systems. “Women’s rights are human rights,” declared the then-first lady Hillary Clinton at the U.N. conference in Beijing.

A feminist foreign policy is simply the latest iteration of that evolving focus, Ms. Thompson said. It is based on a growing body of academic research suggesting that increasing women’s economic, political and social participation can lead to a richer, more peaceful world — a direct connection between gender equality and national security.

In practice, instead of factoring women in as an afterthought, this approach weaves gender into everything a country does at every level, from representation in its own ranks at home and embassies around the world to the allocation of foreign aid donations.

“What we always say is, ‘Where are the women? Put on your gender glasses,’” explained Sweden’s foreign minister, Ann Linde. “And if you have a systematic feminist foreign policy, you never take off those glasses.”

In 2018, Sweden published a 110-page handbook outlining its foreign policy targets, methods and case studies.

One example is trade, which is rarely discussed in relation to gender equality.

“When I was minister of trade, we found that tariffs on a silk blouse for women were six times higher than a silk shirt for men,” Ms. Linde said. “There was absolutely no reason or explanation for this.”

That kind of information, Ms. Linde said, can then be used to inform future policy. Even though Sweden as a member of the European Union can’t, in most cases, sign its own trade agreements with other countries, it consistently pushes the E.U. to analyze data and consider these kinds of gender blind spots during negotiations.

Some other examples of its feminist foreign policy at work: In 2017, when Sweden held the presidency of the United Nations Security Council, the most powerful arm of the global member organization, it insisted on including more women in high-level debates and negotiations. In 2018, when hosting the U.N.-backed Yemen peace talks, Margot Wallström, Sweden’s then foreign minister who spearheaded its feminist approach, insisted that both sides include female delegates. When just one woman was put forward, Sweden worked to bring over a group of female Yemeni activists and policy experts anyway, hoping their presence would lead to more informal interactions at the sidelines of the negotiations, an important channel for diplomacy.

As of 2018, Sweden was the only country in the world that allocated almost 90 percent of its aid money for organizations focused on gender equality, compared with the United States’ 28 percent, according to an O.E.C.D. report. Among the aid recipients are organizations that aren’t overtly focused on women and girls but in some way contribute to gender equality by building clean water supplies or transportation systems that were designed using carefully analyzed data, or disaggregated data, to ultimately improve the lives of women and men.

And, as soon as the World Health Organization pronounced the spread of the coronavirus a pandemic in March, Sweden — though widely criticized for its handling of the virus at homeboosted its funding for organizations focused on keeping sexual and reproductive health services around the world up and running, like DKT.

A handful of other countries — France, Canada and, most recently, Mexico — have since adopted or announced intentions to adopt a feminist foreign policy, though with varying levels of ambition, Ms. Thompson said.

Although it announced its intention in 2019, France has yet to publish a formal policy framework. Canada, which also hasn’t published its full policy yet, pledged in 2017 that by 2021 it would earmark 95 percent of its foreign aid spending on promoting gender equality. And Mexico, which formally adopted a feminist foreign policy in January, has expanded its purview of feminism to include “not only women’s rights but L.G.B.T.Q. people’s rights, climate change, immigration and trade,” Ms. Thompson said.

As more countries walk this path, dozens of researchers, activists and lawmakers in the United States — including Representative Pramila Jayapal, Democrat of Washington — have proposed that the country take the leap as well, arguing that it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to put in effect.

In April, the state of Hawaii proposed a feminist recovery plan for Covid-19 to help “build a system that is capable of delivering gender equality,” as stated in its report. The plan, which includes a variety of recommendations, from ensuring no cuts to funding for domestic violence services to shifting the state’s reliance away from the tourism industry that offered women precarious, low-paid jobs, is evidence that the concept of a feminist approach to concrete policy decisions can take root on American soil.

In 2009, under President Barack Obama, Melanne Verveer became America’s first ambassador for global women’s issues — long before Sweden’s move to adopt a feminist foreign policy. From that position, she incorporated the gender lens into foreign policy decisions, adding women’s issues to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit agenda for the first time, and ensuring that hundreds of women were included in peace negotiations in Afghanistan in 2010.

Before becoming ambassador, Ms. Verveer served as chief of staff for Mrs. Clinton in the 1990s, when she was the first lady.

Back then, when traveling around the world, “we would ask the State Department for briefing materials on the state of girls’ education or the state of political participation in any given country,” she recalled. “But, for the most part, it didn’t exist because our embassies weren’t collecting that information.”

“It’s very interesting to me as I watched this evolution,” Ms. Verveer added. “Fast forward to 2009, and I was told this is not to be an office that just focuses on nice projects for women, as important as they are, but that we really need to factor the gender lens into everything we do.”

After laying that foundation, all it would take to formally declare a feminist foreign policy in the United States is support from both the president and secretary of state, Ms. Verveer said. “The ability that I had to do what I did, and bring the focus of the department in the way we did, was because of leadership.”

In theory, if a president wanted to, a simple stroke-of-the-pen executive order could elevate the ambassador position, giving it full budget and policymaking authority, which would help take America’s current approach to women and girls to the next level.

But a feminist foreign policy clashes with the Trump administration’s diplomatic priorities. For about four years, the Office of Global Women’s Issues didn’t have a leader until December, when Ambassador Kelley Currie was confirmed to take the role.

And in a speech on Thursday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that the United States should ground its human rights policies in “property rights and religious liberty” — a move that critics said could embolden countries to roll back rights and protections for women and L.G.B.T.Q. people.

The political and reputational risks of a feminist foreign policy are high. After Foreign Minister Wallström denounced Saudi Arabia’s track record on women’s rights in 2015, Sweden’s business community published an open letter against her for potentially severing a trade relationship with a big buyer of Swedish goods and arms. Mexico, in touting its shiny new feminist foreign policy, has been criticized by activists for failing to apply that same thinking to domestic issues even as gender-based violence surges in the country. And Canada, which recently lifted an embargo on selling arms to Saudi Arabia, has been called out for putting its economic interests ahead of the Kingdom’s notoriously poor track record on women’s rights.

“It’s a work in progress,” Ms. Verveer said.

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