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Feminist Foreign Policies Increase in Number. Do They Matter?

Annalena Baerbock, Germany’s new foreign minister, stopped in Egypt during a recent trip to the Mideast, meeting Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri, Feb. 12, 2022. Baerbock has announced that Germany will carry out a feminist foreign policy, following numerous other countries down that path, originating with Sweden. But each country takes its own approach as to how such a policy works. GERMAN FOREIGN MINISTRY

BERLIN — The number of countries declaring they are carrying out a feminist foreign policy is quickly increasing throughout the world, with Spain, France, Canada, Mexico, Luxembourg, Libya and now Germany joining Sweden’s pioneering concept, declaring that the countries’ diplomacies will place girls and women at the center of their work.

In a speech to the Bundestag in January, Annalena Baerbock, Germany’s first woman foreign minister (who took office in December), joined the ranks of top government officials who say they will strategize foreign policy through a feminist viewpoint. In her speech, Baerbock noted that Germany will be following the example of other countries that put gender equality and empowerment of women and girls at the core of their foreign policy, pointing to the importance of representation, rights and resources devoted to girls and women around the world.

“If half of the population is unable to participate as equals and do not have equal representation or pay, then democracies are not complete,” Baerbock said on Jan. 12. “Around the world we’re seeing that the erosion of rights of women and girls is a gauge of the growing strength of authoritarian forces.”

Margot Wallstrom originated the concept in 2014, when she was the foreign minister of Sweden, stating that the country’s diplomatic efforts would stand against the systematic and global subordination of women.

The policy was met with “considerable derision,” Wallstrom said in 2015, dubbing that contempt “the Giggle Factor.” Even if she wasn’t initially met with laughter, she encountered confusion in Sweden and beyond, which prompted her to clarify that a feminist foreign policy should be guided by the three Rs: rights, representation and resources. That meant examining whether girls and women have the same human rights as boys and men; whether women are represented throughout local and federal government; and whether a national budget confronts gender matters and has enough resources allocated to address girls’ and women’s issues.

She later added a fourth R: reality — knowing that the policy isn’t going to change things instantly but examining where she and other diplomats can find common ground.

“At every foreign policy meeting, no matter where we were, we started asking, ‘Where are the women?'” Wallstrom told PassBlue in a phone interview from Stockholm in January.

This was particularly notable in 2018, when Wallstrom hosted United Nations-backed peace talks between the Yemeni government and the Houthi opposition forces. She insisted that women be present at the negotiations and that they contribute to the conversation.

Sweden has made gender equality a priority in its development and foreign aid. According to a 2020 Organization for Economic and Development Cooperation report, the country dedicated 87 percent of its foreign aid to gender equality efforts in 2018. (This compares starkly with the United States, which contributed 21 percent of its aid to the same issues that year.) But Sweden has also been criticized for contradicting its feminist policy, particularly regarding arms exports. In 2019, the Swedish news agency Tv4 Nyheterna reported that numerous Swedish-produced weapons were exported for use in the Yemen war.

“We see many countries claim a feminist policy but continue to profit from weapons sales to Saudi Arabia for their barbaric war on Yemen,” wrote Sanam Anderlini in an email to PassBlue. She is the founder and chief executive of the International Civil Society Action Network, or Ican, a nonprofit group that promotes women’s rights in conflicts, among other goals.

A challenge for any country in carrying out a feminist foreign policy is political will, said Aria Grabowski, the deputy director of policy and advocacy at the International Center for Research on Women, or ICRW, a Washington organization.

When countries make such proclamations, they must make sure a feminist perspective “will be a top issue within policy, and not be number 15 on the agenda,” Grabowski told PassBlue. “Gender equality and human rights needs to be intentionally front and center, and not just a nice add-on to something, as long as it doesn’t complicate things.”

Margot Wallstrom, in 2017, when she was foreign minister for Sweden. In that role, she originated the concept of a feminist foreign policy, eliciting snickers at first, she said. She then clarified the policy’s meanings specifically. UN PHOTO

Last year, the Biden administration created the Gender Policy Council, but the US does not come close to referring to its foreign policy as “feminist.” The heads of the council, Jennifer Klein and Julissa Reynoso, are not Cabinet members, but its stated intent is to “instill, advance, and oversee this Administration’s commitment to a government-wide approach to gender equity and equality.”

The announcement of the council also said that it engages with the United Nations and the G-7 “to rejoin allies from around the world to advance gender equality,” though little news has surfaced as to how the council works with the UN. Last fall, the US also announced what it called the country’s first National Strategy on Gender Equity and Equality.

The Center for Feminist Foreign Policy, an international research, advocacy and consulting organization established in 2016, describes feminist foreign policy on its website as a “political framework centered around the wellbeing of marginalised people and invokes processes of self-reflection regarding foreign policy’s hierarchical global systems.”

The policy, it says, “takes a step outside the black box approach of traditional foreign policy thinking and its focus on military force, violence, and domination by offering an alternate and intersectional rethinking of security from the viewpoint of the most vulnerable.”

“Feminist foreign policy is utopia. . . . It’s where we want to get to in the long-term,” said Kristina Lunz, a co-founder of the Center for Feminist Foreign Policy, which is based in London and Berlin. “It means completely dismantling all patriarchal structures within foreign and security policy. Those patriarchal norms of using violence to achieve one’s goals — they need to end.”

Before becoming the foreign minister, Wallstrom was an under secretary-general and UN special representative on sexual violence in conflict, a new office in the upper echelons of the UN. She said the experience — bearing witness to the aftermath of such abuse toward women and children — greatly motivated her to create a feminist foreign policy.

“I carried this experience in everything I did and do,” Wallstrom said. “These women don’t want to be seen as victims. They are survivors and they want to have a role and say in the peace negotiations. When women are involved in peace negotiations, those agreements last longer and they have a better chance of being sustained. We know this: More women means more peace.”

According to UN Women, women’s participation increases the probability of a peace agreement lasting at least two years by 20 percent, and by 35 percent the probability of a peace pact lasting 15 years. A study conducted by Desirée Nilsson, which was published in the journal International Interactions in 2012, found that the participation of civil society groups, including women’s organizations, makes a peace agreement 64 percent less likely to fail. Women’s political and societal engagement also has been proven to improve societal health and economic growth and stability.

Wallstrom pointed to Colombia’s 2016 peace accord, which ended five decades of conflict with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a militia group, as a successful example of women’s involvement in peace processes. When negotiations began in Cuba in 2012, only one woman sat at the negotiating table. A year later, civil rights groups rallied to demand proper women representation in the process. By 2015, women made up 20 percent of government representatives and 43 percent of FARC delegates.

Still, while peace overall has been celebrated in Colombia since the accord was signed, Afro-Colombian and Indigenous people, especially women, have continued to experience violence and displacement, according to the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs. Human-rights defenders from these communities experience increasing threats and violence, with 226 community leaders killed in 2018 alone, according to the nonprofit organization Madre.

While Anderlini of ICAN said that a feminist foreign policy “is a great lens through which to assess and determine a country’s interactions with the world,” she worries that so far “it has been very reductive and somewhat just a politically correct public stance that is not reflected in the actions, strategies, policies or even the bulk of the financing related to foreign policy.”

Feminist foreign policy has also been met with the same criticism that has followed feminist movements in general throughout history — that the advocacy often focuses solely on white women and fails to tackle the Venn diagram of oppressions that nonwhite women experience, including issues with race, class, sexual orientation and migration status.

In a paper published in 2020 in Canada’s International Journal, the researchers — Sam Morton, Judyannet Muchiri and Liam Swiss — criticized Canada’s proclamation of its Feminist International Assistance Policy (FIAP), enacted in 2017 under then-foreign minister Chrystia Freeland. The researchers noted its failure to take a holistic approach to diplomacy.

Canada’s feminist policy, they wrote, “does not clearly identify how Canadian aid might work to address inequalities experienced by people with disabilities; the elderly; youth; and lower-caste, lower-class, or other marginalized groups in the context of gender inequalities. In this respect, the FIAP is divorced from intersectional feminism.”

The authors also criticized Canada’s budgeting of resources after its feminist foreign policy announcement: “Whereas the FIAP arrived with no promised increases in budget allocation, the Canadian government has committed an additional C$14 billion [about US$11 billion] over 10 years for the Canadian military.”

Some countries that have enacted such policies have been criticized for their lack of emphasis on women’s rights in their own backyards. Mexico, for example, has some of the highest rates of violence against women in the world. A 2021 Amnesty International report found that at least 10 girls and women are killed every day in Mexico, and authorities often fail to investigate properly, leaving the victims’ families to use their own resources to investigate the murders.

The Spanish government, which announced its feminist foreign policy last year, is trying to tackle all these issues head-on by acknowledging the need for an “intersectional” feminist approach to domestic and foreign agendas and offering clear language to guide it.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, who was re-elected to a second term in January 2020, has ambitiously created socially progressive policies, along with efforts to give women a greater role of representation both in his own country’s government and now outside it. With 14 women and eight men in Spain’s cabinet, its government is a world leader in achieving gender parity in ministerial posts. But Sánchez hasn’t been completely free of faults when it comes to feminism, some advocates  say. His plans to outlaw sex work in Spain has been criticized by organizations that support sex workers, with their spokespeople lambasting politicians who equate the criminalization of sex work to feminism.

Spain has developed an action plan to carry out its feminist foreign policy. Aspects like resources, timelines, partners and baselines are all being considered to measure progress in relation to the policy’s five thematic priorities: peace and security, violence against women and girls, human rights, participation in decision-making and economic justice and empowerment.

This approach “must therefore be a constant in our outward action, a compass that points to equality and serves as a reference where Spain wants to be present,” María Jesús Conde Zabala, Spanish Ambassador in Special Mission for Feminist Foreign Policy, wrote to PassBlue by email from Madrid. These places include in the European Union, in bilateral relations, in the UN as well as in development cooperation, economic diplomacy, security and defense of human rights.

Anderlini of ICAN said that there is a lot of potential in the feminist foreign policy movement, and that it can kickstart change, “but those leading the movement have to have clear values and vision of what they stand for and hope to achieve, and be committed to the comprehensive, integrated approach — not silos,” she wrote.

“[One must] look at the intent and the actions. . . . It has to deliver a different approach and results than what we’ve seen so far. Otherwise it is old wine in a pink bottle.”


We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Mikaela Conley is a freelance journalist currently based in Berlin. She has worked a senior editor and producer for Yahoo News and previously as a health reporter and producer for ABCNews.com. Her work has also appeared in the BBC, The Los Angeles Times, Condé Nast Traveler and other publications. She has received numerous health-focused fellowships and is a graduate of Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and has a B.A. in international affairs from Fairfield University in Connecticut.

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