Gender equality: The Swedish approach to fairness

Creating an ombudsman institution to provide recourse to victims of discrimination

In Sweden, the Discrimination Ombudsman (DO) is a political institutional body that was created to allow citizens to assert their right to be protected against discrimination and to provide both advice and litigation power. The DO is one of four Ombudsman offices that are used to strengthen political and social protections for those victimized by discrimination.

Sweden has a generous immigration policy and employers have an obligation to actively prevent discrimination. However, the Government of Sweden has acknowledged that a pro-active approach is required to do away with old patterns in the work place that perpetuate discrimination, and that immigrant rights must also be actively protected in order to ensure equality.

To address this, the DO was created in 1986 and was initially limited to gender discrimination. In 1999, its mandate was specifically expanded to ethnic discrimination. In addition, the DO now has jurisdiction over all areas including government, business, labor and other areas of civil society, instead of just the work place. The DO functions on a dual level by allowing individuals subjected to discrimination to get redress through the courts and also by providing education and outreach on the issue of discrimination to expand the public’s awareness and decrease discrimination throughout society.

The DO assists those subjected to ethnic discrimination by providing advice and also asserting their rights through litigation power. It recognizes the importance for an individual to get redress through the courts: whether or not the case is won and the amount of money rewarded is not as important as the recognition that a wrong has occurred. Therefore, for an individual claimant, having the DO supporting his/her claim means a lot in itself. At the operational level the DO receives complaints from individuals and agrees to take these cases to court. In addition, the DO pays the case costs; this reduces the sacrifice for the person filing the case and justifies their assertion that they have been wronged. Publicly acknowledging that discrimination has occurred in turn makes discrimination visible and raises awareness throughout society. Furthermore, the DO directly employs a more collective approach by using cases as examples to educate the public in order to have a wider impact.

The DO is appointed by the government but is an independent body that is also competent to investigate and sue the government as an employer. However, the resources of the DO are too limited to reach all areas of the labor market. Given such constraints, the DO uses incentives (good examples) and punishment (litigation) to discourage further discrimination. It also provides outreach to immigrant organizations to educate their members and to provide educational support to NGO initiatives that have resulted in other government-supported anti-discrimination bureaus.

The three other Ombudsman of Sweden, the Equal Opportunities, Disability and Sexual Orientation Ombudsman, function similarly to the Discrimination Ombudsman but have different mandates.