Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie giving the keynote address at the Stockholm Forum on Gender Equality. Photo: Margareta Bloom Sandebäck / Svenska Institutet .

At the Stockholm Forum on Gender Equality 700 participants from more than 100 countries came to share diverse experiences, ideas and solutions that sparked urgency, vibrancy, and inspiration for taking gender equality struggles to new levels.

The commitment for change on stage and through social media was ardent. But it was also disheartening to see that the same stories of exclusion, violence and injustice have continued to persist despite gender mainstreaming commitments made at Beijing in 1995 at the World Conference on Women.

Lina Abirafeh of the Institute of Women’s Studies in the Arab World based in Lebanon warned that the world today is facing a toxic concoction of patriarchy, conservative movements, corruption and a general constricting of democratic rights and freedoms. “Insecurity is the new normal,” Lina said.

So, has there been really no let-up to gender inequality?

One remarkable change is that the world now has its first feminist government.

“We are no longer patient,” Margot Wallström, Sweden’s Minister of Foreign Affairs said firmly, “gender equality is not solely a women’s issue – it concerns peace, security, development and democracy. We meet at a difficult time and are worried about the future, how do we get sustainable peace if one-half the population is not represented?”

Margot Wällstrom, Swedish Foreign Minister

Margot Wallström, Swedish Foreign Minister. Photo: Bernadette P. Resurrección / SEI Asia.

Isabella Lövin, Sweden’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for International Development Cooperation and Climate chimed in by saying that we are experiencing a tragic backlash, and this is most evident on women’s bodies: “if a girl gets pregnant at 14 years old and gets married away, there’s no way that she can have an education, and poverty becomes the heritage of the uneducated mother.” Sweden’s feminist government aims to institutionalize gender equality at all levels and in all areas of work.

And what of climate and environment? As a gender and environment researcher, I found that these themes did not share the centerstage of ideas in the Forum. Only three out of 28 parallel sessions and 8 round tables were dedicated to gender-related environment issues. Lorena Aguilar of IUCN lamented that the session she led on gender-responsive (climate change) mitigation was not very well attended. “It seems that we have not yet grasped how important climate change is for the feminist movement. Half the world’s population should not be excluded from creating solutions to climate change,” she said.

In one session that aimed to trace the root causes of gender inequality, panelists from Diakonia, Oxfam, and the Women’s Coalition of Zimbabwe began to question whether current development agendas were transformative, weighing the urgency of these agendas against root causes of inequality.

For example, women are finding it tough to be political actors in male-dominated politics, and the push for women’s representation sometimes subjects them to pressures they are unprepared for. How can businesses be truly rights-based, not just incomes for women under the banner of economic empowerment, but power to negotiate? How do we de-colonize aid coming from the Global North to the Global South, and who holds the development narrative? Can the SDGs be achieved for as long as free market fundamentalisms are in place?


Mia Odabas, Margot Wallström, Lisabella Lövin, Ann Linde and Annika Rembe at the Stockholm Forum on Gender Equality.

Photo: Bernadette P. Resurrección / SEI Asia.

Similarly, Madeleine Rees, secretary-general of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom on Day 1, called for a political economy analysis on the household, community, nation, region and up to the global scale to identify where power lies – who uses it, what entrenches it, how it is supported and sustained. “Men are not per se the enemy, but structures of power create a particularly aggressive and violent masculinity that requires privilege in order to sustain it through the financing of economies which then becomes rooted in gender relations as drivers of conflict.”

These compelling insights beg me to ask whether patriarchy also drives global warming. Has the climate change and gender discussions only come so far as calling for the inclusion of women without tracing where power lies behind increased GHG emissions that have caused global warming in the first place? Are we simply muddling through and thus bowing our heads to the structures of power by making women adapt better, or by financing women’s participation in reducing deforestation to capture carbon credits? As Diakonia senior gender specialist Jenny Enarsson warned, “Patriarchy is also recruiting women into exploitative value chains.”

While many of the Forum’s sessions spoke about the need for gender data and numbers for evidence, for women’s entry into the market, and for gender-equal laws, renowned writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie told her own story of sexual harassment when she was 17, indicating that besides the numbers, it is the story that educates. “For me it is the story, the narrative, that can begin to reach these subtler and necessary parts of women’s experiences. We should change laws that diminish women, but changing mindsets is as important. We should enact policy that supports women but changing cultural attitudes is even more important.”

As a gender and environment researcher, my takeaway message from the Forum is that the same power dynamics that drive global warming and unequal access to land and other resources are those that also drive gender-based violence and exclusions by race, age and class. How these dynamics play out in specific contexts should be understood and transformed.