What Sweden’s Feminist Foreign Minister Gets Wrong About Women, Peace and Security

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Ever since Sweden’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Margot Wallström launched the first explicitly feminist foreign policy agenda in 2014, she has become a figurehead for feminist foreign policy. But at the United Nations last month, Wallström made a surprising comment about its peace and security work and its approach towards gender and conflict. “All of this is not a women’s issue,” she said. “It is a peace and security issue.”

Focusing on peace and security rather than women contradicts the goals of Sweden’s feminist foreign policy to promote peace and gender equality. It even contradicts other parts of Wallström’s speech, including her assertions that “women often bear a disproportionate burden” of conflict and that the Security Council has a critical role to play in ensuring “that women’s voices are heard.”

By making this distinction between “women’s issues” and security issues, Wallström effectively dismisses “women’s issues,” pushing gender inequality into the remit of peace and security. In doing so, she misses the point of the Women, Peace and Security agenda altogether, which aims to shed light on the human rights abuses perpetrated against women in conflict situations. In moving away from this focus on women, Wallström is contributing to a shift towards analyzing security issues without an explicit focus on gender.

Histories of Feminist Activism

The Women, Peace and Security agenda was born when the Women’s International League of Peace and Freedom pushed the U.N. Security Council to adopt the first ever resolution focusing on gender and conflict. More specifically, the resolution laid out efforts for U.N. Member States to address the challenges women face in conflict situations.

There is a crucial need to shed light on women’s experiences at the U.N. Throughout its history, men have significantly outnumbered women on the Security Council, which means that political issues are often analyzed through the ideas and experiences of men. As a result, other gender identities have been under-represented. The Women, Peace and Security agenda sought to challenge this masculine dominance, demanding that other voices be heard in this space.

More specifically, the goal of its founders was to push gender inequality to become a distinct part of peace and security issues. They understood that focusing on those who are not visible within these systems was a way to disrupt international systems and bring about more sustainable peace.

Employing a gendered lens in conflict situations is necessary to address the impact of conflict on women and to change the ongoing cycles of violence For example, research into education projects in post-conflict northern Uganda demonstrated that a psycho-social education program deconstructing local gender identities improved gender relations, economic wellbeing, and community integration. It also reduced levels of violence.

To separate “women” and “peace and security” as Wallström has done is counter-productive to the activist roots and aims of the agenda. It removes the explicit focus on those who are systematically excluded, erased and marginalized in the security space.

The Women, Peace and Security Balancing Act

While there is much to celebrate about the agenda, engagement with the U.N. forced its founders to make compromises that softened some of the feminist goals they initially envisioned. For example, it defines gender primarily from the experiences of cisgender heterosexual women and describes women as either victims or agents of change. The agenda does not engage with structural inequality on a global scale and has a long way to go before it is able to engage with complex intersections of oppression.

Precisely because of its focus on women, however, the agenda has succeeded in pushing the boundaries of conversation within the Security Council. By helping to give voice to a wider variety of experiences, it has been transformative in many ways. For example, seven out of ten peace agreements signed in 2015 included gender-specific provisions. There is still a long way to go, but these accomplishments are steps in the right direction.

Forging the Agenda’s Future

The role of leaders such as Wallström should be to strengthen women’s involvement in global policy creation and critically examine the Security Council’s vision of Women, Peace and Security.

If they refuse to explicitly focus on women, they will reduce the space and capacity for women’s experiences to be heard. They will also make it harder for activists to push the boundaries of the agenda even further.

Feminist activists must engage with the Security Council—one of the largest and most powerful institutions in the world—in ways that are both critical and intersectional. And in order to do this successfully, they need to move back to the activist roots of Women, Peace and Security rather than move away from them as Wallström is doing.

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