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Speech by the Minister for Foreign Affairs Margot Wallström at the seminar about #femdefenders, arranged by Kvinna till Kvinna

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Medlehavsmuseet, Stockholm 28 november 2014
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Dear friends,

It is an honour to be here with key women human rights defenders from all around the globe. Let us start by declaring that women who defend women’s rights are defending all human rights. Human rights are indivisible.

The organiser of today’s conference – Kvinna till Kvinna – supports no more than 130 women’s organisations in five regions afflicted by conflict. Thank you for your important work, and for bringing us together today.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the establishment of the mandate of the ‘Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences’. The current special rapporteur, Rashida Manjoo, notes that we therefore have an important opportunity. It’s time to reflect on the global developments towards the elimination of violence against women and girls. At the same time we must also identify new and remaining gaps and challenges.

Manjoo, whom I have met on several occasions, concludes that violence against women is – and I quote – “a pervasive and widespread human rights violation” that has “reached epidemic proportions in some parts of the world”. A recent WHO report indicates that violence against women is the number one cause of death and disability among women – violence that affects well above one billion women and girls.

That is a statistic that almost makes you lose all hope. But when you lose all hope, you can always find it again.

In the new report ‘Femdefenders’, published by Kvinna till Kvinna, the Secretary General Lena Ag writes the following, and I quote again:

“Women are not only victims. Throughout the world there are those who organise themselves and resist. People who stand up for girls’ and women’s right to education, the right to their own bodies, the right to move freely in society – and the right to be involved in shaping the future of our societies. They are our femdefenders.”

As I continued to read the report, my hope grew as I read about Brikena Puka from Albania and Lara Aharonian from Armenia. These brave women are here today and they will be joined by Mary Jane Real from the Philippines in a discussion later.

And for those of you who have travelled far: when it’s 08.40 on a November morning in Sweden, you have the right to be tired. But standing here I have the opportunity to look out over a room full of femdefenders, determined to fight for women’s rights.

I mentioned hope, and that’s what we must give each other.

* * *

I would like to make three main points. First, I will talk about the hate and threats against women who stand up for their rights. Secondly, what does this mean for a feminist foreign policy? Thirdly, I will comment on a few policy proposals I have received from Kvinna till Kvinna.

* * *

1. The general picture

The new report that I mentioned, ‘Femdefenders’, maps and reveals the hate expressed against women who stand up for their rights. The report also highlights the often systemic and structural discrimination and violence facing women human rights defenders.

There are a number of different threats which I have seen in my own work – each summarised by Kvinna till Kvinna in a few words – that femdefenders are facing across the globe:

  • Sexualised violence.
  • Isolation through scare tactics if you dare to act.
  • Rumours and slander.
  • Silence and lack of action.
  • Authorities as perpetrators.
  • Shrinking space for human rights through restrictive legislation.
  • Monitoring and mapping on the internet.

These threats must be brought to the attention of the public. Visibility helps in addressing the fact that far too many individuals and organisations engaged in promoting and defending human rights do face threats and harassment. Moreover, they suffer insecurity and restrictions in freedom of expression.

I recall a meeting in Colombia, where violations against human rights are a persistent problem. I met a group of women in a small wooden house in an IDP camp. Plastic chairs were brought out and put in a circle, and the women told us their stories.

One woman described how she locked herself in every evening, fearing for her life. Her husband had beaten her up badly; she had lost her teeth and had bruises everywhere. The next woman told a story about how her daughter had been missing for the last ten years, nobody knowing what had happened. Then a woman described how her whole family had been threatened because of her fight for human rights, and how you might have to be separated from your loved ones in order not to put also them into danger.

It was an afternoon of sad stories and desperation, also because they saw no point in going to the police. They knew that some of the policemen had raped women in the camp. The question must be asked: What happens to a woman, to a family, to a village and to an entire country when there is a total lack of justice?

It must also be known and dealt with that women who are human rights defenders often face particular risks. Hina Jilani, previously the UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Human Rights Defenders, has no illusions about why women defenders arouse more hostility than their male colleagues: “As women, human rights defenders may defy cultural, religious or social norms about femininity and the role of women in a particular country or society.”

Hina Jilani’s words ring true to us all, but the question is how a feminist foreign policy can be a part of the solution.

* * *

2. A feminist foreign policy

As you might have heard, the Swedish Government will pursue a feminist foreign policy. I have started to develop this ambition around three concepts: representation, resources, and respect.

Representation, which includes influence over agenda-setting, starts by asking a simple question. Who takes part in conducting foreign policy – at all levels? It starts at the highest level over at the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs – where all the four top positions, two ministers and two state secretaries, are held by women. It must continue in every other part of the Ministry: when ambassadors are appointed, when mediators and their teams are sent to conflicts, and when a position as mid-level executive is filled. But it is also about the knowledge and awareness about gender equality among all our staff in the Ministry, both at home and abroad. To this end, I have already initiated a process within the Ministry for Foreign Affairs involving all of our different departments.

This signal seems to have an effect already. When I have ambassadors visiting me, they often start by saying that they, for example, “have appointed three new women to the government in their country, and today we have this and that proportion of women in politics.” Something seems to be happening.

The term resources highlight Sweden’s ambitious international work, for example in development. Let me use an example about a bridge in Sri Lanka, which in a simple way captures what it means to have a gender perspective when distributing resources.

Sweden has an impressive number of activities and projects abroad, but when we distribute our foreign aid – do we always make sure to include a gender perspective in what we do? I think the answer is increasingly so. But when the plan for this bridge in Sri Lanka was presented, women could point out that one thing was missing: a lane for pedestrians. Men travel by cars and motorbikes, but women and children often walk. In the end, the bridge turned out to have an effect on gender. How a bridge is built can discriminate against women in their everyday life. Therefore it can also be a symbol of the necessity to always include a gender perspective when we distribute resources.

Respect is about what femdefenders do on a daily basis: it’s about women’s rights, and let me develop this part of a feminist foreign policy in more detail.

It is my ambition to actively address the structural and historical inequalities in power relations from a rights perspective. Inequalities are founded on discrimination and reinforced by extremism and fundamentalism, which are root causes and serve to condone the violence. These matters are also pointed out in the UN resolution on protection of women human rights defenders. The resolution was adopted in the UN General Assembly last year.

The protection of women’s enjoyment of human rights is of fundamental importance for each and every individual. It is a must for the prosperity and development of societies at large. No country can afford gender-based discrimination, which also constitutes a major obstacle to sustainable development.

If you aim at pursuing a feminist foreign policy, the work must follow two paths when dealing with women’s human rights. There are areas where we must aim for prohibition, such as in relation to gender-based discrimination, forced marriages and female genital mutilation.

Secondly, there are areas where the aim is progress, such as in regard to equal rights to inheritance, access to education and health, including sexual and reproductive health and rights. These areas are key to women’s empowerment.

To this end, it is pivotal to promote UN special rapporteurs – like you, Asma Jahangir. In these roles the rapporteurs can help strengthen national investigation, prosecution, legal reforms and law enforcement to promote women’s human rights.

One focus now is to support the Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court in promoting gender justice by combating impunity for sexual and gender-based crimes. We must also support the ICRC in engendering international humanitarian law.

In order to promote women’s rights, it is crucial to cooperate with civil society and the organisations represented here today. Without people like you, with the courage you have demonstrated in spite of harassment, violence and personal sufferings, women’s human rights would have been even worse than they are today.

I do indeed want to pursue, expand and explore further approaches to cooperating with you for the common goals we have in strengthening women’s rights. I will need your advice when moving forward with our feminist foreign policy. But first, let me bring out the tool-box and discuss a few concrete policy proposals.

3. The feminist foreign policy tool-box

Before coming here today, I received some very useful recommendations from Kvinna till Kvinna. Let me mention them, while adding a short comment.

a. “Recognition and rights: The single biggest threat to women’s rights defenders is the lack of recognition from governments and international bodies. The work on women’s human rights is not seen as part of the ‘real’ work to promote human rights.”

Comment: This analysis is correct. I can promise to support and hopefully develop the existing legal framework supporting the work of femdefenders.

b. “Support: Strong women’s organisations increase the chances for better laws and policy in terms of gender-based violence.”

Comment: Absolutely, this is also something I learnt as the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General. In terms of funding and support, the Government has presented a budget that hopefully will pass through the Riksdag next week. I’m glad to announce that we will increase the support to women’s domestic violence shelters by an additional SEK 100 million.

c. “Meet: By meeting women’s rights defenders during official visits to their countries and by inviting them to international conferences we can hear their analysis.”

Comment: I saw in today’s paper that Lena Ag, the Secretary General of Kvinna till Kvinna, asks if I met with women’s organisations in Ukraine. The answer is yes, that was the first thing we did. I met with La Strada – a Ukrainian civil society organisation working on women’s issues.

During my travels abroad I will always ask to meet with civil society organisations before I meet with representatives from the government. I will do so since I know that it will give me different and important perspectives. In Ukraine I also discussed the Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (the Istanbul Convention) with the Prime Minister, and during our press conference he actually promised to ratify it.

I have also declared that our foreign policy will be solidly based in civil society, and being here this morning is one example.

d. “Diplomatic dialogue: Kvinna till Kvinna also urge me to underline the importance of organisational freedom and femdefenders’ living conditions in the diplomatic dialogue with countries such as Afghanistan, Egypt, DR Congo and Russia.”

Comment: My answer is yes. To stand up for women’s rights will always be part of Swedish foreign policy. This is exactly what we use diplomacy for.

e. “Knowledge and awareness: Sweden’s diplomatic corps should work strategically on these matters and also undergo training so they have the right skills regarding these issues, and a specific manual should be developed, like the Norwegian Action plan for human rights defenders.”

Comment: We already have a fantastic diplomatic corps, but I am willing to look into how awareness can be improved. I will definitely read the Norwegian Action Plan. We always feel a bit triggered when the Norwegians are moving ahead of us.

f. “Update EU guidelines: The EU Guidelines on Human Rights Defenders turns 10 this year. Kvinna to Kvinna suggest that Sweden should invite the EU Special Representative for Human Rights, Stavros Lambrinidis. The purpose would be to update the guidelines with a gender perspective in accordance with UN General Assembly resolution “Protecting Women Human Rights”.

Comment: I cannot make such a promise here, but the idea to invite Stavros Lambrinidis need to update the guidelines is noted. And in such a discussion I am sure that Asma Jahangir, who is here with us today, would have valuable comments.

* * *

In addition, Kvinna till Kvinna have two proposals that I will need to reflect on further.

One is about security and the need for legislation to be reviewed and adapted to the new times we live in. As I mentioned earlier, much of the threats and violence against femdefenders today take place over the internet.

The second proposal regards the establishment of a system that could provide femdefenders with temporary visas and temporary residence permits. In addition, Kvinna till Kvinna propose that the Government should give the Migration Board the task of developing administrators’ expertise. The focus should be on sexual violence and trafficking, but also the specific threat against women’s rights defenders.

Again, I have noted the ideas and I look forward to discussing them further, both with you and with my colleagues in the Government.

* * *

I started by saying that November might be dark in Sweden, and that we need to give each other hope. One person who can inspire us all is the Swedish feminist and author Elin Wägner. She once made a very accurate comparison that is also very fitting on a November morning. She compared values and ideals to old-fashion bicycle lights: They don’t light up until you pedal forwards.

I will remember Wägner’s words when I move forward in order to implement a feminist foreign policy. In all my work as a foreign minister, our policies must be built on the idea of gender equality. It’s about having a foreign policy for 100 per cent of the world’s population. It’s about never accepting a world in which violence against women is the number one cause of death and disability among women.

So let’s listen to Elin Wägner. November might be dark in Sweden, and developments in many parts of the world are worrying. Therefore we have to move on. Let us listen to our values and strive forward together.

In that way, millions of lights will light up the world.

Thank you.