Margareta Wahlström fighting for more women at the Red Cross

Published 10 December 2019 in:

Margareta Wahlström, President of the Swedish Red Cross. Photo: Magnus Glans.

At a time characterised by complex challenges – devastating civil wars, large migration flows and climate change – the need for humanitarian operations is acute. Since 2017, Margareta Wahlström has been President of the Swedish Red Cross. She has many years of commitment to international humanitarian work behind her, within both the UN and the Red Cross. She describes the world as more fragmented than before and says that crimes against international humanitarian law are on the rise.

“The Red Cross must inspire confidence and play a major role in this difficult climate,” says Wahlström.

Need for more women leaders

Female leadership has long been a priority issue for Wahlström. She is one of the 15 senior experts in the Swedish Women’s Mediation Network, which was established by the Government in 2015. The Mediation Network works to strengthen women’s role and active participation in peace processes. Wahlström sees a great need within the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement to increase women’s influence and participation. Despite the fact that many competent women are active within the movement, including as national presidents, very few are represented in the top echelons of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC).

“I was quite dismayed when I took on the role and saw that there were almost no women at all at the top.”

Since taking on the role of President, she has been a driving force behind the establishment of an international network for women within the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. The result is Glow Red – the Global Network for Women Leaders in the RCRC Movement. It already has more than 130 members from 80 different countries and comprises women in senior positions in the national societies.

“Our goal is simple: we want to change the face of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement at the highest level.”

The network is working to change the statutes of the IFRC and the national societies. The network also encourages women to present themselves for elected positions, including in the election to the IFRC’s next board in 2021. Wahlström believes that improvements in the organisation are already apparent and that women are taking more space, but she also warns that the underlying structures remain in place.

“Women must be seen. We will not rest until the system has been fundamentally changed.”

International conference in Geneva

At the beginning of December, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the IFRC, the national societies and representatives of world states came together for the 33rd International Conference of the Red Cross and the Red Crescent in Geneva. The conference, which is held every four years, deals with and takes decisions on humanitarian challenges. Ever since the first conference in 1867, there has been a special focus on international humanitarian law and the laws of war, which the conference works to strengthen. At the conference, the Swedish Government and the Swedish Red Cross have one vote each.

This year’s theme is better implementation of international humanitarian law at national level. The Swedish Red Cross has the task of supporting the state to work for respect for the laws of war and to spread knowledge about the regulatory framework.

“Sometimes it can be something as basic as explaining the meaning of the Red Cross symbol,” says Wahlström.

The Swedish Red Cross will pursue a number of issues during the conference. One important issue is the search for family members and the right to family reunification for migrants and refugees whose families have been separated in armed conflict. Another issue is mental ill health and psychological support in wars and disasters, and how both states and the Red Cross can increase their commitments.

In addition, the Swedish Red Cross has taken the initiative for a resolution urging national societies, the IFRC and the ICRC to increase the representation of women from different backgrounds. The objective is to achieve gender parity at all levels by 2030. Wahlström hopes that the resolution will strengthen the role of women in the Red Cross in the same way that Security Council resolution 1325 on women, peace and security did within the UN system. The Swedish Government has already said that it supports the resolution.

International humanitarian law – a priority for Sweden

International humanitarian law has long been a high priority for Sweden, which was especially clear during Sweden’s tenure on the UN Security Council in 2017–2018. Through its humanitarian aid, Sweden has been supporting the ICRC’s work since the end of the Second World War and Sweden is currently the organisation’s eighth largest bilateral donor, providing core support of SEK 105 million in 2019. Moreover, the ICRC is the largest humanitarian partner of the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency and thus receives more than SEK 500 million per year for its humanitarian operations. The IFRC Secretariat also received core support from Sweden in the amount of SEK 70 million in 2019.

For the Swedish Government the conference will be an opportunity to demonstrate its support for the ICRC and stand up for respect for international humanitarian law by prioritising the issues of protection of health care in armed conflict, humanitarian access and a gender perspective throughout the conference.

This is the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement

The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement is made up of three different components, all of which work in close cooperation and are led by the same fundamental principles. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has the special task of operating in armed conflicts on the basis of a unique mandate set up in the Geneva Conventions.

The 192 national societies, whose mandate is also based on the Geneva Conventions and the statutes of the movement, work to alleviate suffering in war and other crisis situations, as well as in society in general. All of the national Red Cross societies coordinate their work, for example in disasters, through the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC).