Feminism is a project for radical transformation of society. But it can also take the shape of reform, whereby rights and resources are granted step-by-step to women through laws and national public policies. In the last few years, governments have also sought for foreign policy to advance recognition of equal status between women and men, and to do the foreign policy of some countries has undergone a deconstruction of gender-based stereotypes, prejudice, discrimination, inequality, and violence.
One outcome of this is the “feminist foreign policy” which has been established in some Western countries and in major international organizations. It has arisen out of an ethical imperative, an objective of resolving conflicts and wars more effectively, and a goal of expanding economic and social progress. Transnational women’s movements, such as those involved in feminist peace activism, have also played a role in this change, as seen especially by the fourth UN World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995 and the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1325 in 2000.
Another significant factor behind the rise of feminist foreign policy is academia’s contribution to women and peace studies and to feminist peace research, which is helping to stimulate reflection on the gender-based implications of war, peace, foreign policy, and diplomacy. Meanwhile, organizations such as WILPF (Women’s International League for Peace & Freedom), which positions itself at the crossroads between research and activism, is working to make the role of women be taken into account systematically in conflict-prevention processes.
Targeting and promoting women better in foreign policy
The aim of feminist foreign policy is to focus certain aspects of a country’s foreign policy on particular issues. These include promoting women’s rights, constantly considering how each of the country’s geopolitical choices (i.e. items on its political agenda) impact young girls and women, and supporting women’s access to positions of responsibility (especially in the country’s diplomatic service) and if possible decision-making positions (positions of governance).
Girls and women are often vulnerable population segments. To target them better in development assistance and in the promotion of access to jobs, education, health care, culture, and sports, more equitable sharing of positions of power between women and men is essential. At this time when the COVID-19 crisis has exacerbated inequality, international organizations such as the United Nations regularly remind us that no continent can aspire to sustainable development if women remain in the background.
More holistically, feminist foreign policy can also adopt the objective of analyzing and taking into account the gender-based dimension of the items on its agenda. That’s why—increasingly though hesitantly—feminist foreign policy is responding to other, new needs: promoting social justice for all women and men, fighting global inequality in access to resources, fighting all forms of violence, promoting environmental protection, fighting corruption, as well as defending democracy. This way, when geopolitics takes on a gender approach, its aims become more universal.
Feminist foreign policy… especially in the North
There is no definitive definition of the term “feminist foreign policy” (or “feminist diplomacy”, as it’s known in France) even when certain countries or organizations that implement it use it to refer to their own foreign policy. Research in political science, above all in the English-speaking world for now, has striven to analyze the initial experiences in their feminist foreign policy.
The countries of the so-called Global North, as well as the European Union and NATO, tend to put this feminist perspective into action in their foreign policy more than do the countries of the Global South, although the African Union has taken up the issue.
Agence Française de Développement considers gender to be a cross-cutting issue for all its development policies; and to advance gender equality, it’s focusing on evaluation and monitoring of the initiatives it supports. As for the UN, it has, for example, adopted the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda, which has helped inspire several of its members.
Sweden and Canada at the forefront of feminist foreign policy
Sweden was the first country to adopt an explicitly feminist foreign policy, in 2015. Since then, it has sought to include new feminist concerns in its diplomatic choices, by making commitments to ethical principles such as inclusion, security, cosmopolitanism, and gender.
The example of Canada is also emblematic: it has included feminist initiatives in its foreign policy agenda, particularly in security, trade, and development. In 2017, it defined its policy as a “Feminist International Assistance Policy,” by focusing, for example, on several goals: obtaining continual parity in decision-making bodies, empowering girls and women and promoting of gender equality (in other words, the 5th Sustainable Development Goal of the United Nations Agenda 2030), and targeting women as population segments that are more vulnerable to poverty and to the effects of climate change.
Canada is also encouraging participation by women in its peace processes to make these latter “more inclusive and more effective.” Finally, it’s thanks to Canada that a council for gender equality in the G7 was created in 2018 to promote parity in its commissions and committees. France likewise highlighted “feminist diplomacy” when it headed the G7 in 2019, but for now its form and structure are rather vague.
However, when we look at the impact of feminist foreign policy, the question arises as to the true roles that women have been granted in these governance processes. Research has shown that the visibility and presence of women in high-level diplomacy and in defense have certainly grown in the last 20 years, but that the great majority of decision-making positions are still held by men, especially at the top of the pyramid.
Strengthening coherency between foreign and domestic policies
Rather than question the comprehensiveness of such policies (which can advance only by stages), we should examine their coherency. Indeed, a feminist foreign policy has little meaning if, in the domestic policy of the countries that implement it, there is no large-scale program promoting laws or measures against the discrimination and violence suffered by women—or if, internationally, certain measures promoting women’s rights obscure the fact that other measures have been neglected.
In Canada, the government of Justin Trudeau has set up a system of parity and passed a budget that takes into account gender equality issues. But, on the other hand, Ottawa has been criticized for not protecting First Nation women against discrimination and violence due to their gender and origin.
Meanwhile, Sweden often presents itself as an egalitarian country and one of the countries in Europe with the greatest parity in terms of female members of parliament. Nevertheless, through its immigration policies, it has penalized female migrants with restrictions on family reunification.
In addition, in 2015, when then Prime Minister Margot Wallström criticized the repressive regime of Saudi Arabia, Sweden was highly criticized for its weapons sales to Riyad. Since then, the country has stated that it has put an end to this trade.
Academic research’s decisive contribution
Furthermore, as some research findings have highlighted, the countries of the North that have opted for a feminist foreign policy have not always managed to avoid the pitfall of a postcolonial approach. This may take the form of top-down development or of policy contradictions, and this despite warnings by transnational feminist movements about the risk of feminist foreign policy adopting the same codes as traditional diplomacy.
Some weak spots do remain. That’s why gender, class, race, and other issues must be examined in a cross-cutting way. It’s also crucial to promote a gender-based approach to all the subjects of the international agenda, in particular by taking into account the needs and expectations of people and governments in foreign policy, in order to avoid interference into affairs.
An essential contribution comes from academic and participative research, via scientific protocols that call on stakeholders on the ground, citizens, and associations. By giving priority to human dignity, equality, and inclusion—all the while avoiding the pitfall of cultural relativism—their work helps us understand the cross-cutting nature of reality on the ground. This is the only way to resolve the tension between idealism and pragmatism.
For a “gender-conscious” foreign policy
Essentialist stereotypes may persist, according to which, in particular, women are more pacifist and men more violent, and women the main victims of violence in the world. Yet, many men are exploited economically and are victims of violence — including on the basis of gender – as in some war situations. That’s why it’s important to take into account the questions of masculinity as much as femininity in diplomacy that could be called “gender-conscious foreign policy,” and to involve men.
Feminist foreign policy is, nonetheless, an interesting social laboratory for change. It includes new paradigms for public policies (approaches, methods, and agendas) that break with gender-based hierarchies in international policy, promotion of inclusive and sustainable growth for all women and men, and involvement by people and intermediary bodies. Here as well, feminism demonstrates its powerful capacity to transform social relations.
Marie-Cécile Naves’ new book La Démocratie féministe. Réinventer le pouvoir (in French) was published by Calmann-Lévy in October 2020.
The opinions expressed on this website are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of their institutions or of AFD.