Elin Bjarnegård and Erik Melander discuss the relationship between gender equality and peace, and argue that realising a feminist foreign policy requires more than securing women’s rights to equal participation.

Sweden has emphasised women’s participation and gender equality issues in foreign politics more and more systematically since the 1990s.  Under Foreign Minister Margot Wallström, the Swedish Government took it a step further and proclaimed a feminist foreign policy. This is good news for gender equality. This policy promotes equal participation in political processes, which is an important issue of justice. It may also be good news for peace, because research shows a robust relationship between gender equality and lower risks of war. But what does research say about why a feminist foreign policy is important? And what policy implications can be drawn from research in this area?

Contrary to the dominant assumption in the current debate, one thing is clear: it goes beyond an increased focus on women as peacemakers. While research has demonstrated that gender equality and peace tend to go together, there is little evidence of a direct link between increasing the number of women in influential positions and achieving peace. Part of the reason is that women are diverse and we cannot automatically assume a certain policy preference based on sex. Moreover, as newcomers, women are often marginalised in male-dominated policy and peace processes and sometimes lack the necessary tools and networks to enact change.

But if it is not about women per se, what is it then about gender equality that is so important? For almost 30 years, research on public attitudes has repeatedly and consistently pointed out that a feminist gap in attitudes is more important than attitude gaps between men and women. The relationship between gender equality and peace seems to pertain to feminist attitudes rather than to biological sex: more specifically, people with feminist attitudes are more averse to violent solutions to conflicts. In other words, a focus on women as peacemakers is too narrow. It also seems to imply an assumption of all men being warmongers. Instead, research shows that there is a need to focus on values and attitudes among both male and female citizens and decision-makers if we are to identify actors of change.

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The Swedish Foreign Service action plan for feminist foreign policy, however, concentrates on improving the situation of women and girls. When conflict is concerned, the first focus area for 2016 was to “promote the participation of women as actors in peace processes and peace support operations”. The focus area for 2017 is “promoting the role of women and girls in preventing conflict”. While women’s rights to equal participation are fundamental (and a worthy goal in itself), the argument of the action plan that equal participation in and by itself will also make peacemaking more effective lacks a feminist critical assessment of the role of men and masculinities in these processes.

Results from our recent research serves as a reminder of the importance of focusing on the attitudes and values of individuals, rather than on biological sex. Using data from the Pew Global Attitudes Project on countries around the Pacific we can confirm the limited explanatory value of sex differences as we investigate potential causes of hostile attitudes. The analyses clearly demonstrate that gender is, indeed, important for understanding patterns of hostile attitudes, but that instead of focusing on differences between men and women, the explanatory value rather lies in the differences in attitudes to gender equality.

Feminist research, for instance presented in the book Sex and World Peace, has linked microaggression in the private to macroaggression at the national level. The attitudes we have concerning appropriate gender roles and the value we attach to that which is considered male and female are likely to translate to similar judgements regarding other societal categorisations: such as ‘other’ countries, or ‘other’ religious groups. In a series of analyses presented in our recently published article Pacific Men: how the feminist gap explains hostility, we demonstrate that individuals who are more positive towards gender equality are also less likely to view other countries as enemies or to express intolerant views towards religious groups.

More specifically, individuals who agree that women and men should have equal rights, as well as individuals who prefer equal marriages where husband and wife both provide for and take care of the family to marriages with a more traditional division of labor, are significantly less likely to describe other countries as ‘enemies’ or to demonstrate intolerant attitudes towards Jews, Christians or Muslims. Importantly, these relationships hold among men and women also when analysed separately. Indeed, the sex of the respondent is much less important than his or her attitudes to gender equality when the objective is to predict hostile and intolerant attitudes. These findings validate earlier research findings, and from other regions, but serve as a much-needed reminder about how and why gender equality and peace are related, and why feminist and egalitarian men also have a role to play in realising a feminist foreign policy.

Concluding, we would therefore argue that the real value of feminist foreign policy is forwarding gender equal values. We agree that we need to ensure that a peace process is inclusive and gender-sensitive, but we claim that this does not imply an exclusive focus on women per se. Rather, to ensure peace, we need to focus on the inclusion of people – men or women – with feminist, egalitarian attitudes. When these attitudes are found among the women and men who are promoted to powerful positions, they stand a greater chance of being translated into policy – and this is when we are likely to see a more sustainable peace.


About the authors

Elin Bjarnegård is Associate Professor at the Department of Government, Uppsala University, Sweden. Her publications treat issues of gender, masculinities, conflict, political parties, and informal institutions. She is the author of Gender, Informal Institutions and Political Recruitment: Explaining Male Dominance in Parliamentary Representation.

Erik Melander is a Professor at the Department of Peace and Conflict Research, Uppsala University, Sweden. Among his many publications is the forthcoming The Peace Continuum: What it is and how to study it (Oxford University Press, coauthored with Christian Davenport and Patrick Regan) in which he proposes a measure of peace that includes gender equality as an element.