It is time for every country to strengthen the midwifery profession

Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven. Photo: Martina Huber/Government Offices

Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven. Photo: Martina Huber/Government Offices

Speech at the Museum of Women’s History in Umeå, 8 March 2015

Check against delivery.

First I would like to thank you for the tour of this wonderful museum. I think you have done a really great job of making visible that which so often is made invisible, of allowing us to listen to voices that are so often silenced, and of highlighting the destructive power relations that have dominated our history, that continue to govern our present, but that must not be allowed to destroy our future. Thank you for showing our past, so that we are not doomed to repeat it. And thank you for your impassioned work!

And I could talk about our history today.

I could say that it was terrible in the old days, when 800 women died every day in pregnancy or childbirth – usually from complications that could have been treated with basic health care. I could say that it was a dark chapter of our history when 47 000 women would die every year from complications following unsafe abortions. I could lament our past, when women were expelled from their families because they bore injuries sustained in childbirth that those around them found shameful.

But it would be wrong to do so. Because those 800 women are dying in pregnancy or childbirth today. Those 47 000 women are dying annually in the 2000s due to unsafe abortions. Thousands and thousands of women are dying right now of conditions that modern medicine and health care can prevent. Maternal mortality is a tragedy, and a disgrace to the global community, and it is a task for all of humanity to fight it!

This is why Sweden focuses such a large proportion of its aid budget on health. We have long been one of the largest donors to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), which works for maternal health care and sexual and reproductive health and rights.

In the past, it was believed that maternal mortality could be combated by identifying those women at greatest risk and helping them. But we now know that the majority of serious complications cannot be foreseen, and that the only way to attack maternal mortality is to guarantee qualified care for all.

So I can report that your tax revenues have helped purchase medication and medical equipment in countries such as Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They have renovated and built maternity clinics in Guatemala and Bangladesh. They have helped ensure that in one year, one million women have had access to preventive maternal health care, 690 000 children have been vaccinated against measles, and 1.7 million children have received vitamin A to promote healthy vision, skin and mucous membranes. In one year, they have also guaranteed the production and purchase of 27 million contraceptive implants, helped ensure the distribution of 18 million condoms, and contributed to strategies on gender-based violence, research on unsafe abortions – and access to safe ones. Sexual and reproductive health is a human right, and human rights must be defended in all situations.

This is also why the Government Offices last week launched a campaign to support the work of midwives, entitled Midwives4all. It is time for every country to strengthen the midwifery profession, and to understand that childbirth must be handled in a professional and evidence-based manner and requires everything from training to infrastructure to go smoothly. And a great deal of work remains to be done. But there is also growing interest.I am an ambassador for the feminist UN initiative HeForShe, which highlights the fact that gender equality is not only a responsibility for women, but also for men.

And in the international forums in which I participate – including, recently, the World Economic Forum in Davos and the African Union Summit in Addis Ababa – there is a growing interest in gender equality and social equality. Of course, there are still conservative forces defending the prevailing patriarchal, racist and class-based structures that exist in the world. But at the same time I meet more and more people who are interested in reform for women’s rights. Both because it is morally right, and because it makes economic sense.

They see that a more gender-equal labour market with more women in working life boosts the economy. They understand that having more women in leading positions in business and academia would unleash more geniuses. They grasp that increased inclusion of women and women’s organisations would deepen and strengthen global security efforts.

This is a development that Sweden must affirm – and lead.

We will pursue a feminist agenda in the EU, not least because we know that gender equality promotes growth. We will pursue a feminist agenda in the process of drawing up the UN’s post-2015 goals, because we know that gender equality is the basis for sustainable development. Right now, as I speak, Minister for Gender Equality Åsa Regnér is on a plane on her way to the UN Commission on the Status of Women with the very aim of strengthening the gender equality goals in the post-2015 agenda. Quite simply, we will pursue a feminist agenda in every forum in which Sweden appears.

This is part of fulfilling our promise to be a feminist government. This promise is binding. But what does it mean for Sweden? What aspects of our work does it affect? The short answer is: everything. That is the whole point. We shouldn’t have a separate feminist policy – all policy should be feminist. In exactly the same way it should not only be on 8 March that we engage in feminist debate – we should do so all year round.

Feminist analysis should be at the root of all of our actions, all of our reforms, all of our proposals. And this is also why we are now working to introduce gender-equal budgeting, whereby all budgetary proposals are analysed from a feminist standpoint.

But one area I would like to highlight in particular is working life. Work is the foundation of our society and our economy. It creates our standard of living and it can be a source of development and affirmation, an opportunity to improve society or push your knowledge to the limit.

Yet we have a working life created by men, for men, that systematically puts women at a disadvantage.

Not only does it deprive women of SEK 4 500 in pay each month and force them into involuntary part-time hours that result in even lower wages; it also risks costing them their health and their lives.

Just last week, the Swedish Work Environment Authority published a new report showing how shortcomings in the work environment pose a threat to women. They compared the home-help services of 59 municipalities – where the majority of employees are women – with their technical administrations – where the majority are men.

In all aspects – from workload, staffing, IT equipment, premises and vehicles to influence, control, stress levels and missed breaks – the men in technical administration had better working conditions than the women in home-help services.

The Swedish Work Environment Authority concludes: “The pattern is the same in almost all municipalities we have inspected, irrespective of size.” Friends, this is not the way it should be! It is precisely this that is making sick leave levels amongst women soar. We cannot have a society that is built on women’s bad backs. We must have a working life that does not crush dreams, but fulfils them.

And this situation demands that we show our frustration – but also our reaction. Now it is time to improve women’s working environment. This is why we want to invest in working life research with a focus on women’s ill health, and to strengthen preventive measures.

Now it is time for unpaid work in the home to be shared equally. I know that the fathers of Västerbotten County are the best in the country at spending time at home with their children – according to the fathers index of TCO (the Confederation of Professional Employees). But there is still a long way to go. This is why we are phasing out the child-raising allowance and reserving a third month of parental insurance for each parent, as a step towards a more gender-equal take-up of parental benefit days.

And now it is time to close the pay gap. We are therefore making full-time employment the norm in the labour market – part-time hours should be a possibility but not an obligation – and we are putting an end to the plague of divided shifts: unpaid and long gaps in the middle of the day.

We now have a red-green majority in the Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions, and we will start work on the key collective agreements in the municipalities and county councils throughout Sweden. We will also introduce an annual pay survey, and we have instructed the National Mediation Office to more closely analyse the issue of pay from a gender equality perspective.

The Government is now beginning, step by step, to roll out its feminist agenda for working life. And the goals are clear: Fair pay. Fair working conditions. Fair opportunities to shape one’s own life. Nothing else will do!

The situation in working life is, of course, linked to the structures in the rest of society. An order in which men, as a group, are superior to women, as a group, is formed as early as in preschool – so gender equality work has to begin there.

The reason that working life benefits men is, of course, linked to the fact that the business sector is governed by men – so if the proportion of women on the governing boards of listed companies is not at least 40 per cent by 2016, we will present draft legislation on quotas. And the fact that more and more women are working themselves into the ground is linked to a welfare system that is failing.

According to the trade union Kommunal, approximately 100 000 people, a majority of them women, have been forced to reduce their working hours or to stop work entirely to care for a relative – simply because care of the elderly has not been up to standard. This affects the person who has to take on the care – but also the person being cared for, who becomes dependent on their children.

When we read such reports, we realise how far off track the debate on Swedish welfare has gone.

We often talk about how we can save welfare. But if we are to implement feminist policies, we need welfare not only to be saved and freed from the pursuit of profits, but also to be developed and to grow.

We need to expand the preschool system and ensure that it respects everyone’s working hours. We need to develop care of the elderly so that it creates both security and freedom for our elderly. And we need to ensure that the welfare professions are attractive so that we can cope with the major generation shift that is coming.

And this requires Sweden to choose which path to follow. We cannot continue with the substantial tax reductions of the last decade. We need to invest in one another, and in our children’s future.

This is the only way we can give some weight to the fine words about feminism. This is the only way we can place human dignity at the forefront. This is the only way we can create a Sweden to be proud of!

I would like to conclude by saying a few words about pride – and about shame. Some time ago I read Maria Sveland’s book, ‘Hatred’, about anti-feminism in Sweden. In it she quotes a number of letters she received after having participated in the political debate. I don’t think I need to repeat what was said in them.

But the hatred conveyed is the same hatred that we see in the harassment of young women in schools, in hatred on the internet, in violence in close relationships, in rapes and murders of women.

It is a hatred that makes me feel frustrated and angry, as Prime Minister, as a man and as a feminist.

And I feel strengthened in my conviction that it is the task of this Government to tackle anti-feminism and male chauvinism in society: to support women’s shelters, to combat hatred and to never tolerate violence.

But we need your help. We must stand together, men and women, sisters and brothers. Together we will show that an attack on one is an attack on us all. Together we will change this society at its core. Together we will create the equitable and gender-equal society that our children deserve.

Thank you.