Kartini Day Part II: Sweden a paradise for women

More than half of the Swedish cabinet consists of women ministers. (photo: Frankie Fouganthin/commons.wikimedia.org)

IO – In Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana’s award winning novel Defeat and Vic­tory just after the Americans have occupied Japan at the end of the Sec­ond World some Japanese men are discussing what America will do to the Japanese. One of the friends is a government official and the others ask him what the Americans are planning to do. Their conversation runs more or less along the following lines:

“Well,” he says, “the first thing the Americans plan on doing is to free the Japanese women.”

“Free the Japanese women?” the others exclaim in shock. What’s wrong with our women?”

“They want to give them education and the right to vote and run for office and jobs.”

“Why would they want to do that?” they ask puzzled.

“Well the Americans say that if you change the position of women in a so­ciety you change the whole society.”

That is certainly a thought worthy of Kartini day. So, what does an al­most gender equal society look like? For that we should perhaps take a look at Sweden, a country often con­sidered a gender equality role model for the world. A land, that believes that men and women should have equal power to shape society and their own lives.

Emilie Rathou, was the first women in Sweden to ask the Swedish parliament to give women the right to universal suffrage. (photo: commons.wikimedia.org)

According to the World Economic Forum’s annual Global Gender Gap report Iceland is the winner when it comes to gender equality but Sweden although not the top country comes in as number two and Asa Lindhage, Swedish Minister for Gender Equali­ty is proud of the fact as she believes that it has brought about better child care, better protection for pregnant women, better pay, more work op­portunities, fairer taxes for women and better protection against vio­lence.

The current Swedish government is probably one of the few if not the only government in the world to refer to itself as “a feminist government” which is perhaps not surprising with Sweden in the front lines of best coun­tries in the world for gender equality. The Swedish believe that everyone, regardless of gender, has the right to work and support themselves, to bal­ance career and family life, and to live without fear of abuse or violence. In Sweden gender equality is not a party issue but a national one. Consequent­ly, both the ruling party as well as the opposition promote feminist policies although they may not always give their policies the same names.

Swedish Ambassador to Indonesia, Marina Berg. (photo: Swedish Embassy Indonesia Doc.)

Sweden has a law against gender discrimination and a gender main­streaming policy. “This means that every decision has to have a gender consideration. When building a road for example,” explains Swedish Am­bassador to Indonesia, Marina Berg, “the gender perspective has to be taken into consideration. So, data is first collected on things such as who is going to use the road and how they will use it. Gender specific information is needed. So, they will find out how many women, men, old people and children will be using it for they will all have their own specific needs. For example, if more women ride bicycles then bicycle lanes should be created and if there are women passing at night there will also need to be more lights and cameras around for safe­ty. So, Sweden’s feminist policy is an umbrella policy for all its other poli­cies. In fact Sweden’s Prime Minister, Stefan Löfven has declared himself a feminist and that he runs a feminist policy in Sweden.”

Swedish Prime Minister, Stefan Löfven runs a “proud feminist government”. (photo: commons.wikimedia.org)

To carry out such a gender main­streaming policy the Swedish Gender Equality Agency was created to help government agencies integrate a gen­der perspective in all their operations which is known as the Gender Main­streaming in Government Agencies (GMGA) program. It integrates gen­der equality in all government insti­tutions and policies. This is however not deemed enough. The Swedish government holds that as gender equality is vital to society more needs to be done to achieve it. Consequent­ly, whereas in 1947 Karin Kock was the first Swedish woman to hold a government position, now in 2019 more than half of the twenty-two Swedish cabinet ministers are wom­en. Also, nearly half the members of the Swedish parliament are women.

In the private sector in Sweden about one in three members of the board of listed companies is a wom­an and if the trend continues it will become half within the next decade. Even in the General Synod of the Church of Sweden there are 123 women and 128 men on its board. Gender discrimination in the work place has been forbidden since 1980 and now employers must actively promote gender equality and prevent harassment at work. Also, when a child is born employees taking pa­rental leave may not be discriminated against.

So, how did what was once seen as a male dominated, rough Viking society evolve into a country which now has had a feminist government for more than four years and where even four years ago, they already had a government committed to feminist policies?

“The Vikings were not a kind or inclusive society,” says Marina Berg firmly, “but then there was a period of about 200 years when there were nearly no wars in Sweden and it gave us the opportunity to focus on devel­oping the country on a more solid ba­sis than on war.”

In fact, Swedish women were rel­atively free during the Viking era and it was only after parts of the Old Tes­tament were introduced into Swedish law that women’s position worsened. From 1718 till 1772 in the period known as the Age of Liberty certain groups of women who paid taxes and were members of guilds could vote in municipal elections. In 1734 certain groups of women could also take part in national elections but by 1772 these rights had been abolished again. After the Napoleonic Wars the number of unmarried women grew as so many men were killed causing the number of unmarried men available for marriage to decrease drastically. Reforms were then brought about in order to give women compulsory ed­ucation and training for jobs to sup­port themselves. More types of work were also opened for women. Parlia­mentary reformists then argued that it was the responsibility of the state, which had granted women these new rights, to provide them with the edu­cation and the juridical status nec­essary to handle them. Many more reforms were then brought about including equal rights in inheri­tance but it was not until 1862 that tax-paying Swedish women of legal majority were again allowed to vote in municipal elections. Universal suf­frage was finally granted to Swedish women in 1921.

Swedish Foreign Minister, Margot Wallstrom once remarked that “No woman needs to be given a voice, ev­eryone has a voice – what is needed is more listening.” For that to hap­pen women would need more repre­sentation by women in parliament. The question would also need to be asked: what are governments spend­ing their resources on and how much does that affect gender equality for women?

Sweden’s ambassador for Indone­sia, Marina Berg states that Sweden still face multiple obstacles in achiev­ing gender equality and one of the main ones is equal pay for women. In Sweden 78.3% of women work never­theless, on average women’s monthly salaries are less than 88 per cent of men’s salaries. The main reason for this is that more women work part time and this is because of lack of work and because they tend to be the ones who care for children and old people. So, the Swedish government created a family policy with the same rights and obligations for working men and women so that both can find a decent life-work balance. For this the government provides child care in the form of affordable nursery school and pre-school fees that are proportional to the parents’ income and number of children. In 1974, Sweden was the first country in the world to replace gender-specific ma­ternity leave with parental leave. Par­ents may also have up to 480 days paid leave during the time their child is between 1 and 8 years of age.“In Sweden we have the pappamanad or ‘daddy month’ whereby since 2016 half of the six months maternity leave must be taken by the father or the couple will lose the leave,” explained Ambassador Berg. “Ninety percent of Swedish dads take the ninety days parental leave. The ten percent who do not take it loose because the tax payers pay it.”

Gender equality is also import­ant for economic growth which is not sustainable without it but gen­der equality is not possible without massive political reforms. As we have seen in Sweden this has led to reforms amongst others in fam­ily planning, work flexibility and social care education. For 40 years the Swedes have seen these reforms slowly making it possible for women to work and have education and ca­reers like men. Another reform that was needed for gender equality was tax reform. Before the 1970s married couples’ income was taxed together and that meant that they paid a high­er tax because the higher the income amount the higher the tax on it. An added carrot is that now that hus­bands and wives have their incomes taxed separately women also see themselves more as individuals with their own careers and separate taxes.

In Sweden another interesting re­form is within the realm of prostitu­tion. Since 1999 it is illegal to pay for sex in Sweden so that the law crimi­nalizes the purchaser of prostitution rather than the prostitute. There are areas in Indonesia where there are bylaws making it illegal for women to be about at certain hours of the night without being accompanied by a male relative because women out alone at night are presumed to be prostitutes. If we turn this around by criminalizing the man rather than the woman it would mean that it would be men who should not be allowed to go out alone at night unless accom­panied by a woman relative because otherwise they must be presumed to be preparing to commit prostitution by buying it. Perhaps in the end no one would be permitted to go out after 10 pm.

When asked about her own ex­periences growing up and living in Sweden and as a woman ambassador Marina Berg laughs, “I was born in 1968 when women all over Europe were at the barricades fighting for gender equality.”

Nevertheless, in describing her own experiences grow­ing up in Sweden Ambassador Berg confided that she experienced gender difficulties. “I was so comfortable grow­ing up because my mother’s father took as much care of his wife as she did of him. In the last 10 years he was retired whereas she was still working so he took on the cooking and the cleaning. They were born in 1917 nevertheless, he would do the cleaning and have the dinner ready when she came home. My father was the same. So, I grew up in a cer­tain sense in a comfort zone. My oth­er grandmother brought up her chil­dren on her own as her husband, my other grandfather had died. I thought this way of doing things was normal. My parents never taught me other­wise. It was only in university that I realized that I had to fight for my rights. At university I would hear men talking about how they would make their careers and then get themselves a nice wife. I found no one looking at my mind, character or achievements. At my later work place I also did not find gender equality. It was not equal salary for equal work. Now though as a diplomat and ambassador I have no such problems. I am prepared for chal­lenges as I have been trained for that.”

Berg explains another aspect of achieving gender equality namely the role of men in helping to achieve this. She says, “Starting in the 19th cen­tury Swedish women were suffering a lot and demanded their rights. No women were imprisoned for this rath­er they were punished by being ostra­cised. Sweden needs ‘She for She’ but it also needs ‘He for She’. For genera­tions both in Sweden and elsewhere the structure of society was patriar­chal. What we must realize though is that the majority of men also do not like a patriarchal societal structure. Most men do not like seeing women treated unfairly or badly. There is a growing group of men the world over working for gender equality. Wom­en will not be able to achieve gender equality without men and that is why ‘He for She’ is important.”

To support what she says Berg ex­plains that the Swedish government has created a travelling exhibition promoting gender equality and that the Embassy brought amongst oth­ers to Aceh, a province not especially known for its gender equality. Sur­prisingly, or perhaps not surprisingly the exhibition was very well received there. “It had a fantastic reception in Aceh,” declared Ambassador Berg en­thusiastically. “The men went to see it too.”

The exhibition included pictures of men in difficult situation when on parental leave in Sweden. One ques­tion raised was who does a child go to when it is sad? Apparently. first to Mummy, then to Granny then to a teacher and then only to Daddy. “What we need is all Swedish men to use their parental leave for children need male role models as well as fe­male role models,” stressed Berg.

As part of being a feminist country Sweden is also the first country in the world to formulate and pursue a fem­inist foreign policy and the question for them was, “How do we combat ob­stacles to create a better environment for women worldwide?” This includes amongst others better education, im­proved economic activities and more political power. Sweden’s feminist foreign policy is based on two main assumptions namely, that historical and cultural factors create an envi­ronment that is either supportive of gender equality or not and that gen­der equality does not just happen but requires hard political word. In reality it means that there has to be a cooperation between civil society and society as a whole.

According to Berg the world is not an easy place for democracy and human rights at present. In Europe one sees the influence of right-wing radical movements which are against Islam and against Muslims moving to Europe. There is also a radicalism in Islam which at times has targeted Indonesia with terrorist acts in the past. Indonesia represents the great­est democratic Islamic country in the world which of course makes it a target for such terrorism. Meanwhile, Swedish Home Affairs Minister, Mi­kael Damberg has said that Sweden is a target of terrorism and religious radicalism irrespective of the religion because it stands up for democracy, justice, human rights and gender equality which are amongst the most difficult things to handle in the world today.

Apparently, Sweden’s Foreign Minister, Margot Wallstrom is a close friend of Indonesia’s Foreign Minister, Retno Lestari Priansari Marsudi. Berg says, “Ms Wallstrom has put forward a government bill with emphasis on democracy and human rights in for­eign affairs and within that is also gender equality. While Sweden’s gov­ernment has been based on feminist policies since 2014, now in its second term it places more emphasis on the democracy and human rights part of it which is of course gender equality, not only for Sweden but globally.” (Tamalia Alisjahbana)