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Paulina Brandberg – the Minister for Equality who wants to take a tough stance

Paulina Brandberg – the Minister for Equality who wants to take a tough stance

| Text: Björn Lindahl, photo: Marcus Gustafsson

What can the Nordics bring to inspire other countries to improve gender equality? Sweden’s Minister for Equality Paulina Brandberg has two rather surprising examples: High divorce numbers and changing tables in the gents.

On 11 March, Paulina Brandberg will host the annual Nordic event in New York at the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), the UN’s largest international conference on gender equality and women’s rights. 

Thousands of delegates gather at CSW every year and the Nordic governments’ delegations include experts and voluntary organisations. This year’s theme is women’s economic independence and economic violence. 

This is why Brandberg starts her meeting with the Nordic Labour Journal by saying she does not think rising divorce numbers are a negative thing.

”Over time, the number of divorces has risen a lot. We talk about this as if it were a negative thing. But I can see this as a positive sign.

Photo: Marcus Gustafsson

Paulina Brandberg worked at the Public Prosecutor's Office at the National Unit against International and Organized Crime between  2010 and 2022. She is also a former legal policy expert for the Liberals. 

“When we look at previous generations, it was far more common for the men to be the main breadwinners while women ran the households. For women of my grandparents’ generation, it was really difficult to break free from a relationship.

“Today, thankfully, more people are able to do so. Therefore, I can see rising divorce numbers as a positive trend – even if we of course would like to see people living happily together ever after.”

Paulina Brandberg’s name was a surprise when a centre-right three-party coalition was announced on 18 October – with support from the Sweden Democrats. She was working as a prosecutor and was known both for handling several high-profile cases of gang crime and for writing about the issue on social media. She belongs to the Liberal Party and is also the Deputy Minister of Working Life.

Is being a government minister like you thought it would be, compared to being a prosecutor? 

“I’m not sure what I was expecting, because I didn’t think I was going to become a minister. But of course, there is a great difference. As a prosecutor, you are very close to people’s actual lives. As a politician, you work more on the bigger structural issues. Both jobs feel incredibly meaningful.

“What I find to be a big difference, and a frustrating one, is that politics move so slowly. There is so much you want to change, but it takes time. Working as a prosecutor, things move relatively fast. If you decide to detain a certain person, you can do it that afternoon. Politics don’t work like that.” 

Has any of your proposals been seen through the entire process yet?

“Well, I wrote a criminal justice report for the Liberals during the election campaign, and parts of that report are now included in the Tidö Agreement.”

The Tidö Agreement is a deal on seven projects of collaboration between the government coalition partners the Moderates, the Christian Democrats and the Liberals, with support from the Sweden Democrats. The name of the agreement is taken from the castle where the negotiations took place. 

Photo: Marcus Gustafsson

Paulina Brandberg wants to value the interests of crime victims much more than has been the case before.

Point three in the agreement centres on crime and gang crime, described as Sweden’s biggest social problem. But there is also proposed legislation in the area of gender equality.

“There are things in the Tidö Agreement that I am very pleased about, such as the change in legislation regarding restraining orders.

“Another part of the agreement is a shift that I consider to be absolutely necessary. We will now value the interests of crime victims much more than has been the case before.

Wants to take action against perpetrators

“One of the reasons I entered politics in the first place was that I felt so frustrated about the fact that we are too reluctant to take action against perpetrators.

"The result is that we have many crime victims in Sweden who are living with great insecurity and lack of freedom because they are afraid. Their lives are being limited by someone else. The state does not intervene to take charge and fix this.”

UN Women, the organisation’s entity for gender equality, has been fighting strongly against violence towards women. This has also been a so-called Spotlight project in the EU for seven years. 500 million euro has been spent in countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia to try to reduce the number of women who are victims of violence. But according to the European Court of Auditors, the measure has had limited impact

One of the criticisms against the project is that far too much of the money was spent on UN bureaucracy. So how efficient is UN Women, which is also funded by Sweden to work with these issues?

"I do think there is much left to do. There is also a very clear focus on carefully monitoring aid to different countries to make sure that it is not all eaten up by bureaucracy. It is important to weigh up where it will make more sense to give state-to-state support and where you will get more out of focusing support on civil society.

"This area is the responsibility of our Minister for International Development Cooperation, Johan Forsell, but I definitely believe there are many things we can do better when it comes to making sure that the money is making a real difference.”

During the foreign policy debate after Minister for Foreign Affairs Tobias Billström’s foreign policy speech to Parliament on 14 February, it was pointed out seven times that Sweden has halved its support to UN Women. What is your comment?

“We are still the world’s second-largest donor to UN Women, which I think is worth keeping in mind. It is not down to Sweden alone to support UN Women. I think we should be clear that Sweden expects other countries to take more responsibility.”

89 000 killed

According to UN statistics, one in three women in the world have been victims of physical or sexual violence after the age of 15, and nearly 89,000 women were killed in 2022 in what is known as gender-related violence. 

In Swedish politics, Paulina Brandberg has primarily been engaged with the issue of restraining order legislation.

"We need a change here, partly by introducing the new restraining order legislation, but also by introducing higher penalties for violent and sexual crimes.

Photo: Marcus Gustafsson

It is not allowed to take pictures directly into other people's homes, points out Paulina Brandberg's employees.

"We want to see more detentions, and for the victims of crime to be taken into consideration when perpetrators are granted leave from prison, making it illegal for them to be near the homes and workplaces of the victims. This may seem obvious, but it is not the case today.”

In what way will the restraining order legislation be expanded?

"The main rule today is that a restraining order only applies to a specific individual. There is no geographic area linked to the order. You might use what is called an expanded restraining order. In a best-case scenario, you might be able to designate a residential area as part of the restricted zone.

“What is now being proposed is to consider entire municipalities as restricted areas. This would give these vulnerable people a new level of freedom; they could for instance go and shop in a different part of the municipality or go to watch their children play football matches.”

Will these be restrictions that the person has to follow up on their own, or are we talking about some kind of digital monitoring?

“It is also part of the proposal to increase the number of restraining orders with electronic tags. With one of those fitted, a signal goes to the police and the order becomes efficient on a completely different level.”

“Economic violence” is also a theme during CSW in New York. What does this entail?

“Economic violence is a way of controlling your partner through money. You might have relationships where the man takes out loans in the woman’s name so that she gets into a lot of debt. This in turn makes it very hard to find somewhere else to live. 

“It is a way to control the other person. This, sadly, is more common than you might think. You also see examples of economic violence even after a relationship has ended.

"One problem I have dealt with often is very draw-out property disputes, when one partner resits so that the process might last for several years. In the end, the economically weaker party – most often the woman – can no longer defend their right because the judicial process to win what is owed to them is too costly.”

So your advice to young couples would be not to have a shared economy?

“I wouldn’t say that. But I would say that no matter how much in love you are and how convinced you are that you will live together for the rest of your lives, you must have a plan for your finances if things don’t work out.” 

Is this a message that is hard to sell in Catholic or Muslim countries? 

“It can be in countries where divorce is more commonly seen as a betrayal or a failure. There can also be religious aspects linked to a divorce. It can be very taboo even to discuss the possibility of divorce at some stage in the future.

“When marriage is fresh, it is particularly difficult, and it might ruin the mood, to talk about divorce already. But I wish more people thought along those lines. Even if it is not romantic and even if it is the last thing you want to talk about before a wedding, it is necessary to think along those lines to maintain your economic independence.”

Photo: Marcus Gustafsson

Paulina Brandberg was born in 1983. She lives in Stockholm, is married and has two children.

Finally, Paulina Brandberg points out another issue which sets the Nordics apart from many other countries when it comes to gender equality: the fact that men play a bigger parenting role.

“Gender-equal parenting is key to economic growth. In Sweden, we have a relatively small gender pay gap, until a family has children. Then, the man often pulls away on the pay scale. That is why I believe it is important to talk about the value of gender-equal parenting. We also need to talk about it beyond an economic perspective.

“We must never assume that the person who stays at home with the child has drawn the shorter straw. We ought to highlight the advantages of having both mother and father as active parents. This way we improve gender equality not only economically but also within families. 

“I would argue that fathers who do not have the same close relationship with their children as the mother are at a disadvantage. This is equality that we need to work on.

“Many in Sweden see it as natural for fathers to stay at home with their children, unlike in many other countries. We do still have much to do, but we are far ahead of other countries. This is an important issue that I gladly highlight in international settings. 

“This is visible in many ways in Sweden, like the fact that you find changing tables not only in women’s toilets. It permeates Swedish society and I hope that other countries can be inspired by this,” says Paulina Brandberg.

Equality and working life

Paulina Brandberg is both Minister of Equality and Deputy Minister of Working Life.

How do you divide your time between the two?

"I guess it's around 50-50, but the two issues are also linked to a certain extent. Working life is such a big part of most people's lives and there is a lot of equality linked to it."

Both the Nordics and Europe

Paulina Brandberg 2

Paulina Brandberg hosted the big 2023 work environment conference in Stockholm, held by Sweden as part of its EU Presidency. The participants visited a safety park for the construction industry near Arlanda Airport. Among them was the EU Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights Nicolas Schmit.

Born in Lund in the south-west of Sweden, she has always felt close to Denmark:

"In the Nordics, we feel like a family. We have so much in common. There's the language, of course, but there are many other things that are similar between the countries. And I feel that in politics, it's very natural for me to look a lot at our neighbouring countries to see how they solve the same type of societal problems that we have."


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