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Feminist Foreign Policies Make Headway Among Countries While the Originator, Sweden, Drops Out

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International Women’s Day, celebrated in the UN General Assembly, March 8, 2023. More countries are slowly adopting a feminist foreign policy, placing women and girls at the center of their work. Yet how they carry out the ambition depends entirely on the respective government. RYAN BROWN/UN WOMEN

Although nobody knows exactly what a feminist foreign policy should look like, numerous countries continue to adopt the banner ever since it originated in Sweden, in 2014, when Margot Wallstrom, the foreign minister at the time, announced the pioneering concept.

The number of countries declaring that they are carrying out such a policy has only risen, with Canada, Chile, Colombia, France, Germany, Libya, Luxembourg, Mexico, Netherlands and Spain joining Sweden in the last several years, saying that the countries’ diplomacy will place girls and women at the center of their work. [Update, March 8: Slovenia announced it was adopting a feminist foreign policy]

Although it’s a concept that has no firm definition, feminist foreign policy has become a heading that some countries use to force the international community to at least imagine what it means and how to carry it out. The discussion that continues to be centered around such a policy has become more urgent as women’s rights suffer brutal setbacks in countries like Afghanistan and Iran and as gender equality gains seem to be slipping away in the industrialized world. One of the most glaring examples is abortion access in the United States.

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A conversation about feminist foreign policies took place on March 9 during the Commission on the Status of Women’s annual meeting at United Nations headquarters. A panel was organized by the UN missions of Chile, Germany, Mexico, Netherlands and Spain, on behalf of the Feminist Foreign Policy + Group, an informal network that until January 2022 counted 16 members. (Just in time, a new index has been produced by the International Center for Research on Women to measure a country’s progress toward such a policy.)

During the discussion on Thursday, Belgium and the Netherlands announced that they were joining the informal group, which actually lost Sweden when the new conservative-leaning government announced last fall that its foreign policy will no longer be “feminist.” The coinage apparently didn’t sit well with the new leadership, which didn’t relish the associated hashtag on Twitter, #FFP, for starters.

Broadly understood as an approach that aims to address barriers to gender equality and include a gender perspective in all policy development and decision-making, a feminist foreign policy could also be understood more ambitiously, according to Lyric Thompson, the founder of the Feminist Foreign Policy Collaborative, a nonprofit, as “the policy of a state that defines its interactions with other states, as well as movements and other non-state actors, in a manner that prioritizes peace, gender equality and environmental integrity; enshrines, promotes, and protects the human rights of all; seeks to disrupt colonial, racist, patriarchal and male-dominated power structures; and allocates significant resources, including research, to achieve that vision.”

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The aspiration is not only an ethical imperative but also benefits global prosperity and security, according to scores of research. Closing the gender gap in workforce participation could add as much as $12 trillion to global economic growth, while ensuring that women’s meaningful participation in peace processes can make agreements more likely to last. Additionally, equalizing access to agricultural resources for women could reduce global hunger for up to 150 million people.

However, even acknowledging such a platitude as “women’s rights are human rights” is still a faraway achievement, some feminists, scholars and other experts concede, especially considering Afghanistan, which has become the most repressive country in the world for women’s rights, according to the UN; or Iran, which is experiencing the largest, longest protests since its 1979 revolution, triggered by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, while in police custody for not wearing the hijab properly.

To respond to these crises, the minister of women and gender equality of Chile, Antonia Orellana, said in a video message at the UN event that its office promoted a joint declaration with the Organization of American States (OAS) “about the worrisome situation of women and girls in Afghanistan and Iran, calling these countries to guarantee the full respect for human rights.” Orellana added that Chile has promoted the inclusion of gender perspective in the agenda of the OAS.

A concerted global effort is needed to tackle such problems, although even offering humanitarian aid with a gender perspective is challenging, said Asa Regner, a Swede and the deputy executive director for policy, program, civil society and intergovernmental support at UN Women. To direct aid to women, who are often the main victims in a crisis, is still a notion that is “very difficult to handle both in the United Nations and for some governments.”

For such targeted ambitions, more money is needed. Without Sweden on board in the feminist foreign policy arena, Germany seems to be leading the way in earmarking its national budget for such aid. Helga Barth, the director for human rights and global health in Germany’s Federal Foreign Office, said that 85 percent of her country’s foreign policy budget will be allocated in a “gender-sensitive way.” This will bring changes “in a very visible way,” she added. — MAURIZIO GUERRERO

The March 9 meeting at the UN included the Feminist Foreign Policy Collaborative, an advocacy group. FFPC/TWITTER 

Women-Led Cities, Here We Come

Households led by women are growing in number much faster than any other kind of household worldwide, but only five percent of mayors globally are women. Among the 193 member states of the United Nations, only 24 have women heads of state or government. Considering the data, a new alliance, Women-Led Cities (WLC) — consisting of women business owners, women mayors and other women leaders — was launched at the UN on March 9. The alliance was created “to foster the growth and development of women in positions of authority,” said Maimunah Mohd Sharif, executive director of the Nairobi-based UN-Habitat, in a video at the event. Organized by UN-Habitat, the UN Capital Development Fund, SDG Cities and EllaImpacta Alliance, the new league aims to improve safety for women in cities and their access to basic services, “while supporting women entrepreneurship, equal work rights, and political empowerment,” Sharif said.

Rohey Malick Lowe, the mayor of Banjul, the capital of the Gambia, said that “most of the competencies necessary to local government are similar to the role of women in every household,” noting that the alliance could be a platform to unite women worldwide, including helping them with political and economic empowerment and improving their living conditions. Sharing her experience, Lowe said she was “morally prepared” for the hardships and bullying she suffered when she ran for mayor — successfully — in 2018. She described how more developed countries with women leaders, like former Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand or former German Chancellor Angela Merkel, inspired her to work in social media advocacy and grassroots initiatives, going door to door in Banjul to talk to women about their needs and ambitions. Liane Freire, a Brazilian businesswoman, said that Women-Led Cities will be fueled, like the SDG Cities collaborative, by “high impact local actions that empower women in business” and measures that improve the safety of women in cities. Nora Libertun de Duren, a representative of the Inter-American Development Bank, said that private and public sectors need to work together on three main areas for women in cities: housing markets and infrastructure, including neighborhood safety; services that ease burdens on women such as child care; and leadership opportunities. ELENA LENTZA 

Hard to Find: Women Leaders in Multilateral Institutions

Women are still “vastly underrepresented” in most of the powerful global institutions as the world marks another International Women’s Day. A new report reveals that women have led the top jobs at the largest multilateral institutions only “12% of all the times” their leadership has changed since 1945. The report, published by GWL Voices for Change and Inclusion, an advocacy group of 62 current and former senior women leaders at some of the multilateral institutions, scrutinized the largest ones and the four major development banks. GWL mapped out 33 of the organizations and found that since 1945, they have collectively had a total of 382 leaders. Only 47 were women. Despite recent progress, only a third of the entities are currently headed by a woman. That includes the United Nations, which has never had a woman secretary-general, even though in 2016, when seven women competed against six men for the job, António Guterres, an ex-prime minister of Portugal, was selected by the most powerful members of the Security Council.

María Fernanda Espinosa, the head of GWL and a former Ecuadorean foreign minister who was president of the UN General Assembly from 2018-2019, said there had been slow gains in gender balancing across the organizations. Five have had a woman president only once in their history, the report said. The World Trade Organization’s current boss is Nigeria’s Ngozi Okonjo Iweala. Thirteen institutions have never been led by a woman, including the World Bank, the International Atomic Energy Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization. 

That’s why it is so important to have the data, the numbers, the oversight responsibility of monitoring and raising red flags when we see it,” Espinosa told PassBlue. GWL calls for proportional representation of women at all levels of multilateral bodies, from field offices to headquarters, as well as in secretariats and governing bodies. The report noted that “data shows that women’s representation is slightly better at the organizations in charge of areas such as children, food, population, and health,” or “soft” topics, as GWL said during its presentation on March 6 at the Ford Foundation in New York City. — DAMILOLA BANJO


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

Maurizio Guerrero is an award-winning journalist who for 10 years was the bureau chief in New York City and the United Nations of the largest news-wire service in Latin America, the Mexican-based Notimex. He now covers immigration, social justice movements and multilateral negotiations for several media outlets in the United States, Europe and Mexico. A graduate journalist of the Escuela de Periodismo Carlos Septién in Mexico City, he holds an M.A. in Latin American, Caribbean and Latino Studies from the City University of New York (CUNY).

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Feminist Foreign Policies Make Headway Among Countries While the Originator, Sweden, Drops Out
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Sylvia Hordosch
Sylvia Hordosch
1 year ago

Remember also that we have had only four women president of the GA. None from Western Europe/Other States or Eastern Europe.

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