The emergence of the welfare state on the basis of human rights and equality

Last updated: 24 6 2021

About Sweden – an orientation about Swedish society.

This text is about the emergence of the Swedish welfare state.

It describes the fight for human rights and equality and how that fight has moulded Sweden into the welfare state it is today. It also describes several important events, people and dates in this fight.

Introduction to a timeline of the development of the welfare state

"All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights". That is the first sentence of the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights from 1948. Below are some examples of other rights included in the declaration. All of them have to do with welfare in one way or another:

  • You are entitled to an education
  • You are entitled to good working conditions
  • You are entitled to join a trade union
  • You are entitled to an adequate standard of living (for example, to food and clothing)
  • You are entitled to housing
  • You are entitled to social protection (for example, elderly care)
  • You are entitled to health (for example, through medical care)

These rights shall apply to everyone, without discrimination. Discrimination means that a person is granted fewer rights than someone else due to their gender, skin colour, age or sexual orientation, for example.

The United Nations (UN) has written special texts on the rights of children, people with functional impairments, indigenous peoples, and refugees, as those groups have often been treated unfairly. Other texts have rules on eliminating discrimination against women and eliminating racism, as those problems are also particularly widespread. These texts are known as conventions or covenants, and they are also important for welfare. Things they address include:

  • Protection against gender discrimination in working life
  • Children's right to be heard, and always making the child's best interests a primary consideration
  • The right to the same opportunities as others even if you have a functional impairment

Women have not always had the same rights as men in Sweden. In the 19th century, women were not allowed to vote in elections and not allowed to work in all professions. They were not allowed to decide who they were going to marry, and married women were not allowed to manage their own money. Women have fought to achieve the same rights as men.

Women and men having the same rights and opportunities in life is known as gender equality. Examples might be that women who need medical care have to be given it as quickly as it is given to men, and that women have to be paid the same salary as men for the same work. Gender equality has to apply in all areas of life.

Gender equality illustrated as a pair of scales with a woman and a man on either side and evenly balanced.
  • Questions to think about

    Can you give any examples of areas where there still is not gender equality between women and men in Sweden?

    Why is gender equality important, do you think?

The responsibility of the state

The Swedish state has to make sure that everyone who lives in Sweden has their rights provided for. The government, government agencies, municipalities and regions all have a responsibility in this. But all of us who live in Sweden also have an obligation to contribute so that our public services can function. We fulfil this obligation by working and paying taxes, for example.

If you are not given the same rights as another person, it may mean that you are being discriminated against.

People have fought for their rights and for equality and gender equality throughout the ages. This also applies to Sweden. These struggles have contributed to making Sweden the society it is today.

Important events and years in the struggle for human rights
  • 1800–1850: The king is deposed and compulsory primary education is introduced

    In 1809, the then Swedish king was deposed in a coup. Since then, Swedish kings have not had as much power as they used to. When the people were given greater power to take part in decisions, Sweden changed. More things happened that were good for all people and for the whole country. It was decided, for example, that all children are entitled to learn to read, write and do arithmetic. Sweden had to build more schools and train more teachers so that more children would be able to go to school. But not all children were able to go to school – many families depended on farming, and their children had to help out on the farm.

  • 1850–1900: More people get the opportunity for an education, and people make demands for change

    Schools were also started for adults, and these were a totally new type of school. Universities already existed, but they were not accessible to all – you needed to have a prior education, and in the early days, only men were allowed to study at universities. But the new schools for adults were open to everyone. They were called folk high schools folkhögskolor (folkhögskolor) and they were intended for everyone, for the people. In order to create an equitable society, it is important that everyone gets an education.

    At the end of the 19th century, many workers had long working days and low wages. The workers started organisations in which they could fight together for better working conditions. These organisations, called trade unions, still exist. To protest against unfair working conditions, the workers sometimes refused to work – they went on strike. Going on strike was a way of fighting for improved rights.

    In 1889, a new political party, the Social Democratic Workers' Party (Socialdemokratiska arbetarpartiet), was launched. It was started by workers who wanted to improve their working conditions. They wanted to improve equality in Sweden and have a more just society.

    At this time, only certain groups in society were allowed to vote in elections to the Riksdag. Things like your income and your gender determined whether you could vote. Many found this unjust, and both men and women joined various associations. They fought for the right of more people to vote. It took time, but eventually change came.

  • 1900–1950: The fight for a more equal society, with equal opportunities for everyone, continues

    The fight for everyone's right to vote continued. Step by step, things changed, and finally almost everyone was given the right to vote, rather than just the rich and those with most power in society.

    Workers continued fighting for better working conditions, and in 1909, a major strike was held. A total of 300,000 workers across the country went on strike. In 1931, the military shot and killed five workers who were on strike in Ådalen, during a peaceful demonstration. It was an event that showed the strong antagonisms (disagreements) that existed within Swedish society.

    Another group that has fought for its rights and against discrimination is homosexuals. In the 19th century, a man could be sentenced to two years' forced labour if he had sex with another man. In 1944, it became legal to be homosexual in Sweden, but homosexuality was still classified as a disease. Since 1979, homosexuality is no longer classified as a disease.

  • 1950–2000: More people get improved rights during the second half of the 20th century

    Human rights, of course, also apply to children – all the children in the world. Children's rights are described in a document known as the Child Convention. It says that everyone under the age of 18 is a child, and that all decisions concerning children must make the best interests of children a primary consideration. The Child Convention was written by the UN, and 196 countries have signed it and promised to follow it.

    Sweden was the first country in the world to decide to make it illegal to beat children. That decision was made in 1979.

    In 1994, a law called the Act on Support and Service for Persons with Certain Functional Impairments (Lagen om Stöd och Service till vissa funktionshindrade, or LSS) was introduced. It is a law that gives people with functional impairments the right to support and service.

  • 2000–today: Rights in the 21st century

    Sweden is home to many different nationalities and groups of people. Five of these groups have existed in Sweden for a very long time. They are Jews, Roma people, Sami people, Sweden Finns and Tornedalians. These are Sweden's five recognised national historic minorities. The Sami people are also recognised as an indigenous people. The Sami have for a very long time had a strong connection with a large territory stretching across northern Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia, which is known as Sapmi.

    The Sami and other national minorities have not always had the same rights as other Swedes and have been treated unfairly. It has been more difficult for them to get a job, for example, and some have not been allowed to attend the same schools as others. The Swedish government has acknowledged that there has been discrimination, rights violations and other abuses against these groups. The rights of the national minorities have improved in the 21st century.

    In 2009, it became illegal to discriminate against or treat someone worse than others due to their gender, ethnic origin, religion, functional impairment, sexual orientation, or age. It was also in 2009 that same-sex couples, that is, two men or two women in a relationship, became allowed to adopt children.

    In 2013, a law was repealed that forced a person to get sterilised in order to be allowed to change their legal gender. A person's legal gender is the gender that is specified in the population register, in your passport and in other documents from government agencies.

    In 2020, Sweden decided that all of the articles of the Child Convention will also apply under Swedish law. This means that anyone who breaches the Child Convention can be sentenced to fines or prison.

  • Questions to think about

    Why are schools for adults a good idea, do you think?

    In what ways can it be easier for workers to fight for their rights if there are many of them fighting together?

    In some countries, workers are prohibited from forming trade unions. Why is that, do you think?

    Did you know that having sex with someone of your own gender is still illegal in 78 countries around the world and that it is punishable by death in five countries?

    Is it legal or illegal in the country or countries where you lived previously?

    Did you know that there were ethnic groups in Sweden who have not always had the same rights as other Swedes? What are your thoughts about that?

Important events and years in the fight for gender equality
  • 1800–1850: Fredrika Bremer – a champion of women’s rights

    Fredrika Bremer was a woman born in 1801. She fought for women's right to education, their right to emancipation (to manage their own affairs) and to other rights that men already had. It was a difficult struggle in those days, and Fredrika Bremer became a model for many women. She got other women to join the fight for changes to the lives and conditions of women and girls.

  • 1850–1900: Women’s right to manage their own affairs

    Earlier, men had decided most things in women's lives, but over the course of these fifty years, women gained a greater right to decide things for themselves. For example, married women became allowed to manage their own money. Women also gained the right to decide who they wanted to marry, and it became illegal for a man to beat his wife.

  • 1900–1950: Political rights and better conditions for women with children

    In 1919, women gained the right to vote in national elections. In the 1921 election to the Riksdag, women could be elected as members of the Riksdag for the first time. Women politicians have been important over the years, particularly on issues such as gender equality and children's rights.

    In the 1930s and 1940s, several new policies were adopted that were important for women with children. It became free of charge to have your baby in hospital, and it became illegal to fire women from their jobs because they had become pregnant. Special healthcare centres for children opened, and better family housing was built.

  • 1950–1980: Equal pay for equal work and more gender equality in the home

    In 1960, a law was passed under which women have to be paid the same as men for the same work.

    In the 1960s, women also gained greater rights in making decisions about their own bodies. They were given the right, for instance, to take contraceptive pills (the pill) in order not to become pregnant. It became unlawful for a married man to force his wife to have sex with him. In the 1970s, a law was passed that gave women the right to end their pregnancy. This is known as having an abortion.

    Until 1974, women with children could receive what was known as maternity allowance (moderskapspenning). This was a financial compensation to mothers who were at home with small children. In 1974, this was changed to a parental allowance (föräldrapenning), which meant that men who stayed at home with children could also receive the allowance. More preschools and recreation centres for children were built. This made it easier for women to go back to work and earn their own money after having children.

    It was also decided that each individual should pay tax based on their own salary, which is called separate taxation (särbeskattning). Before that time, married couples had paid taxes based on their combined incomes. The new law meant that women got to keep more of their salaries.

  • 1980–today: Political rights and better conditions for women with children

    Women have not always been allowed to have the same professions as men. The last profession that women could not have was that of soldier. But since 1989, women are allowed to work in the armed forces as well. This means that women can now work in all professions in Sweden.

    In 1999, it became illegal to pay for sex.

    In 2018, a law was passed on consent in sexual relations, meaning that a person who wants to have sex with someone has to make sure the other person wants to as well. It is illegal to have sex with someone unless you are sure they want to.

    Parental allowance payments have continued to improve, and more men now stay at home with their children when they are small. However, women still use more of the days for which they are entitled to parental benefit than men do.

  • Questions to think about

    Why do you think women did not have the same rights as men earlier?

    Women's fight for their rights has in many ways been about freedom. How did women become more free when they gained rights that had only been for men earlier?