Gender Equality is Negotiable: Still some way to go for Swedish women

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Sweden has a reputation as a land of thoroughgoing gender equality. Well, the Social Democratic government is somewhat ahead of the Taliban, it’s true. But as Annika Cullberg of the Vänster (Left) Party explains, the situation of the country’s women remains a long way from ideal. This article first appeared in June, 2000.

When thinking of the fierce fight for the recognition of women’s fundamental rights that has been going on for centuries in Sweden and other countries, and what has really come out of it, one realises that our struggle for full equality cannot be looked upon as a linear process, and that talk of a ‘backlash’ is therefore irrelevant. Women are strong and challenging. They know what they can be obliged to forgo and what they have to fight for, and that is why resistance to women s empowerment sharpens when steps are taken forward. Gender equality is negotiable. A couple of years ago our Prime Minister, Göran Persson, declared that Sweden could not afford gender equality, but this was, of course, a slip of the tongue. The Swedish Government, however, admits openly that there remains a lot to be done in a large number of fields. At the same time they want people to accept that this work will be of ‘long-term nature requiring determination, patience, commitment and not least knowledge.’ (Swedish Government Policy on Gender Equality: Into the 21st Century). Why? There is enough knowledge already. The subordination of women in everyday life, in the labour market, in the economy, in decision-making, is sufficiently registered and documented, both in research and official reports, and many women and men at all levels at of society are determined and committed to improve this situation. We are not inclined to patience. What are the changes needed? As we in the Vänster (Left) Party look upon it, from a feminist perspective there are two main targets to attack. One is the gender-based division of work, the other is gender-based violence. These phenomena are crucial to maintaining and reproducing the supremacy of men and the subordination of women that is essential to patriarchy, which is as strong a structure in Sweden as anywhere else, and constantly supported and strengthened by capitalist interests. In Sweden today violence against women remains universally present - in battering, rape, sexual assault and abuse, in public as well as in private, in pornography and prostitution. There have been a series of cases before court in recent years which very clearly confirm that being a female means you have to watch yourself in every situation, that unless she can prove the crimes committed against her, the woman or girl is the one to blame. Since 1976 we have had five different committees in Sweden investigating the crime of rape, without any success in finding a proper definition. One may ask, what is the problem? Young women of today face the same situation as their mothers did thirty years ago, in spite of the fact that women s employment rates were then less than half. Gender-based division of work increases the gender-segregation in the labour market, which in turn carries with it a growing and broader division between men and women. The migrant woman’s position in the labour market is especially weak. They are the most ignored in Swedish gender policies. The Minister for Gender Equality, Margareta Winberg, has declared that men must change - for instance, by taking advantage of their parental leave. On the other hand, there is no response from the government for a new norm for full time work to be legislated, which would mean one of the most important political reforms in favour of women in Sweden since women’s suffrage in 1921 and individual taxation in 1971. Another problem is the refusal to recognise the price women have had to pay for EU membership. In spite of the accelerating expansion of the Swedish economy there are serious financial problems in municipalities and county councils, problems which have a direct impact on women s jobs and social conditions as well as on their political influence. The anxiety to involve men in gender equality issues tends to stress the so-called gender-balance at the sacrifice of empowering women. According to Margareta Winberg there is no need any longer to find out about how to empower women. It is old-fashioned. This is a complete misjudgement. Together with government policies for mainstreaming this attitude, has turned out to be a very dubious strategy, one which has served merely to show up the political unwillingness to break down those fundamental structures in society which keep women down.

Annika Cullberg of the Vänster (Left) Party