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Words of Wisdom from the WILPF Sweden Secretary General

November 12, 2014

 Josefine Karlsson has been WILPF Sweden’s General Secretary since 2012, and has worked tirelessly on the intersection of human rights and security issues. In light of the end of her time there, we spoke with her about her career and experiences.

WILPF: You have had quite a career at WILPF. Starting as an intern in Geneva and Stockholm, you then worked at the Swedish office as a Project Manager focusing on 1325. In 2012 you became WILPF Sweden’s Secretary General. What first drew you to WILPF?

Josefine-KarlssonJosefine: I’d say WILPF has been the best thinkable school. I came to WILPF as a person who had always wanted to work for change, believing that it is possible. I got involved as a member during the work for a ban on cluster munitions and WILPF gave me the tools to see the world from a clearer perspective. For those who have seen the film “The Matrix” I have sometimes compared it to the scene in which the main character is asked to choose between two pills. One will make him stay unknowing of the reality, the other will make him see the real challenges, but he can never go back to not knowing. For me the feminist perspective opened up a reality underlying all security politics, and that’s what WILPF provided me with.

WILPF: After several years, you have had a wide breadth of experiences at WILPF. What has been the most rewarding experience of your career? What have been some of the biggest challenges?

Josefine: The biggest challenge I’d say is convincing donors, and the regular person you meet that we need funding and resources to address the root causes. Take the Ebola outbreak for instance. Many now send funds and resources to organisations such as Doctor without Borders, and they’re doing an amazing job, their work is admirable, valuable and key. But! As many women’s organisations have stated the problem is that the post conflict reconstruction and peace building of Liberia is what is really lacking and could have prevented the outbreak of growing so fast and exponentially.  I’d say the handling of the Ebola crisis puts the colonial power structures of the world to the forefront.

The world’s eyes always turn to crisis. How can we move more funding to the prevention, to the small shifts that go unheard of? WILPF is doing amazing work but we need to do more to explain our results, rationale and why we need support.

WILPF: During your time at WILPF Sweden, the organisation has become more visible in the media, through op-eds and TV, as well as in the feminist movement, as you have served as its public face. How has the organisation been received? What progress have you seen in Sweden during your time there?

Josefine: Sweden is in a very interesting time, worrying and to some extent positive at the same time. The fascist, racist party the Sweden Democrats were elected to parliament as Sweden’s third largest party which is a development we unfortunately see around Europe. At the same time there is a stronger counter movement of feminists and antiracists, with a feminist party “Feminist initiative” in many ways at the forefront. The growing support for the racist party has sparked an internal discussion in WILPF on our role in combatting these developments as did our foremothers before the Second World War. I also mentioned a positive trend. “Feminist initiative” has in many ways pushed for feminist security politics in line with WILPF Sweden’s work. The fact that the party came close to being elected into parliament (they got 3.2 percent of the 4 percent needed), was elected to several municipalities, and to the European Parliament for the first time, with Roma Soraya Post as its representative, has affected the broader agenda. Our new foreign minister Margot Wallström, a Social democrat, has also declared that her policy will be a feminist foreign policy. WILPF Sweden is well positioned to take up an even bigger role in forming that policy through advocacy and awareness raising. We are very timely in our analysis as more and more come to understand that the old fashioned security politics is not doing the trick.

WILPF: You have truly underlined the “international” aspect of WILPF’s work by working with sister Sections, particularly in Colombia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Nigeria. How have the partnerships between different Sections helped in achieving WILPF’s goals?

Josefine: It’s really been a cooperation and collaboration. We’ve learned so much from our sister Sections on how we need to modernise WILPF’s work in a new global world, at the same time as many of our challenges haven’t changed since 1915. The women of 1915 are now in Cameroon, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nigeria, Pakistan and other conflict ridden areas. For us, we need to think about how we work and communicate externally in relation to addressing the world’s colonial heritage. Everything is a learning curve, a process. What we have been able to provide, I think, is what it can mean to be a WILPF Section, having been one ourselves for soon 100 years. Sometimes we’ve also been able to contribute financially. As a Section in the North we need to be very aware of how our arms industry, and global policies, affect the countries of our sister Sections. One way forward could be to do that much more systematically across all our Sections.  To work with our sister Sections has been one of the most challenging but also one of the most rewarding parts of my work. I will miss them all so much, even though we will of course keep in touch.

WILPF DRC, WILPF Nigeria and WILPF Sweden meet in Nigeria in 2013.

WILPF DRC, WILPF Nigeria and WILPF Sweden meet in Nigeria in 2013.

WILPF: Do you have any advice for young WILPFers? What do you hope to see WILPF achieve in the future?

Josefine: WILPF can be a bit tricky to grasp at first, so get yourself involved in one specific issue to get to know the organisation. WILPF in many ways works as a perspective on a very broad agenda. It might depend on where you live, for example in a conflict country or not. One issue that is really exiting now though is the work WILPF does with ICAN to ban nuclear weapons, it’s a pivotal moment in history. Or get prepared for the 100 year anniversary by arranging a study group in feminism and discuss how that can effect and apply to a global organisation such as WILPF. From our perspective, start at home. Look into your countries’ foreign policy and military industry. For example, which countries are you selling weapons to? We live in a world with complex global structures and we know that policies and actions have an affect far beyond national borders.

It doesn’t have to be very complicated, but key to WILPF surviving is constant development, trying to live up to our own standards, and being relevant today. Other than that – just do it. Or as Jody Williams said when visiting the Swedish Section: “Complaining and worrying doesn’t change anything – get off your ass and do something”.

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