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Feminist Foreign Policy Advocates Go to Washington


A new advocacy campaign started by Madre, an American nonprofit group, aims to introduce women in the developing world to lawmakers in Washington to explain how US foreign policy affects women at the receiving end. Life in Burkina Faso, above, can entail battling bad air, terrorist threats and poor maternal health. DULCIE LEIMBACH

“To reboot the world, we need to change the way we make policies,” says the New York-based advocacy group Madre, whose latest goal is nothing less than to “bring global women’s voices and solutions to progressive policymaking in the US.”

Madre is not the only organization wanting more women at the world’s most-powerful tables. But it may be the only American group with a campaign, called the Feminist Foreign Policy Jumpstart, aimed at brokering face-to-face meetings between women from the developing world and people in Washington who determine foreign policy.

As the Trump administration aggressively curtails the reproductive health rights of women and girls across the world, for example, the Madre campaign can possibly provide a window on the effects of such US policies in poor countries.

“Our goal is to ensure that US foreign policy is operating in support of the positions of progressive social movements in the global south, instead of working to undermine those, which is a much more familiar scenario,” said Yifat Susskind, Madre’s executive director.

To reach key influencers in its new project, Madre is partnering with the Congressional Progressive Caucus Center, a nonprofit group that helps open doors on Capitol Hill. Working with the similarly named Congressional Progressive Caucus, the center has set up meetings for Madre so far with such lawmakers as Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a Democrat from Washington, and a staff member for Rep. Hank Johnson, a Democrat from Georgia.

It also helped to arrange an off-the-record meeting on March 19 for Charo Mina-Rojas, a Colombian human-rights leader, with members of the Caucus Center and their staff. In addition, the center worked with Madre to distribute a gender analysis fact sheet to lawmakers before Congress’s vote on a recent bill to end US support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, the center’s communications director, Jessica Juarez Scruggs, said. (The bill was vetoed by President Trump on April 16.)

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A membership group with 2017 revenue of $5.8 million (latest figures available), Madre has timed Jumpstart to coincide with the arrival of newly elected progressive Congressional representatives who “are really willing to listen to activists from communities in the global south,” Susskind, the head Madre, said. Women in the global south — from Latin America to Asia to Africa — have long raised their voices about the “oftentimes destructive” effects of US foreign policies in their countries, Susskind said, but with little sense of being heard.

“That’s what feels different right now,” she added.

The 98-member Congressional Progressive Caucus grew by almost a quarter in 2018, the largest-single election gain in its history. While it still has only one Senate member, Bernie Sanders (D-Vermont), Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota) is the caucus’s whip and sits on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Representative Jayapal co-chairs the caucus and founded an organization that helped stop the deportation of Somali immigrants; she also sits on the House budget committee.

Jumpstart has three goals: to offer a gender-justice perspective on the Green New Deal, advance the voices of female peace-builders and confront the crisis of gender violence against migrant women. The meetings in March and the Yemen fact sheet were part of Jumpstart’s work addressing the needs of women peace-builders on the frontlines of war.

“Charo spoke to what a progressive US foreign policy towards Colombia could look like, focusing on ensuring implementation of Colombia’s peace agreement and the meaningful participation of, and protection for, Afro-Colombian women, girls and human rights defenders,” said Diana Duarte, Madre’s policy and communications director.

Charo Mina-Rojas, a Colombian human-rights advocate, center, and Yifat Susskind, Madre’s executive director, right, meeting in Washington with staff members of lawmakers on the Congressional Progressive Caucus.  

That advocacy includes pushing to divert funds from coca eradication — which the Trump administration has said it will increase — into aid to Colombian women, many of whom “suffer the worst consequences of the lack of access to property rights, low incomes from rural activities or unpaid work,” says the Washington Office on Latin America, an advocacy group.

Meanwhile, coca cultivation offers the most reliable — if not the only — source of income to hundreds of thousands of Colombians, according to the Brookings Institution.

Susskind of Madre acknowledged that influencing US policymaking on women in developing countries will require data-driven arguments to show, for example, that when women participate in peace negotiations, positive results are more likely to last.

The Green New Deal is a nonbinding resolution that highlights the disproportionate effects of pollution and climate change on indigenous people. Madre hopes to inject the perspective of these people into binding legislation as well.

While the US may have a long way to go before feminist foreign policies are widely embraced, a few countries are leading the cause. Since 2014, Sweden has adopted an explicitly feminist foreign policy, with Canada following suit to a lesser degree. Norway, as another example, considers its national policies gender equal without calling them such. (Sweden helps fund Madre, but only its projects outside America.)

You won’t find “feminist foreign policy” on Congress’s official website. Characteristically, women trail far behind men as witnesses who are called to testify before committees in the House of Representatives, much less global south women sharing their perspectives on foreign policy.

Still, signs of progress exist.

“Gender analysis” was cited as a way to improve program design in the US Women, Peace, and Security Act of 2017. And the Women’s Entrepreneurship and Economic Empowerment Act of 2018, which includes a lengthy definition of the term, ordered Usaid to ensure that “strategies, projects, and activities of the Agency are shaped by a gender analysis.”


Kevin Pinner is a researcher and resident correspondent for Sankei newspaper at United Nations headquarters. He previously worked as a journalist in China. He’s also a freelance writer; @KevinPinner.

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