Story so far: Germany on March 1 introduced new feminist guidelines that will guide its diplomacy and developmental goals. Its Centre-left government will lobby for gender equality, centring women’s rights and uplifting women’s participation in foreign policy.
Germany’s first female Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock also emphasised that the feminist foreign policy (FPP) is meant to help all “marginalised” groups who have been pushed to the margins of society on account of, among other things, their origin, religion, disability, gender or sexual identity. An FPP will ensure people “have the same right to representation and access to resources”, she said.
The decision has reanimated conversation around the feminist foreign policy movement, which started in 2014 with a leftist Swedish government. Other nations — including Canada, Chile, Mexico, France, Mongolia, Luxembourg and the Netherlands — have since embraced a feminist approach to foreign policy, making equal rights and equality a cornerstone of their international dealings.
What does Germany propose?
The 88-page-long guidelines cut across foreign policy measures including peace missions, funding for humanitarian aid and education policy. The government will allocate 8% of Germany’s development funds – almost $12.8 billion – to projects that directly work towards gender equality as a primary goal. 85% of the funds must flow into projects where gender equality is a secondary goal, and those which “acknowledge the needs of women and marginalised groups”.
Value is placed on meaningful representation and inclusion of marginalised groups in decision-making processes. Ms. Baerbock stated the need to “raise the proportion of women in senior roles” for the diplomatic arm of the government to have a “more female face”.
The feminist policy mandates that gender equality be at the fulcrum of every diplomatic engagement, reiterating that women, girls and marginalised groups must be protected from violence. The document states, “Equal political, economic, and social participation, the strengthening of sexual and reproductive health and rights of women and girls, and unrestricted access to equal education and health care are central to us.”
“We are not calling for a revolution here, but we are doing something that is self-evident,” said German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock.
What makes a foreign policy feminist?
The early contours of the movement began in Sweden in 2014, when Sweden’s former Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom stressed on the importance of the three ‘R’s in moulding domestic and international policies: rights, representation and resources. In a nutshell, this posits that women globally should have universal rights and remain safeguarded from violence; they should be represented and meaningfully partake in political decisions; while adequate resources are committed by nations to overcome structural inequalities.
The Swedish Ambassador for Gender Equality Ann Bernes referenced the need for a fourth R, Reality, indicating that feminist measures can never be a one-size-fits-all approach, and will need a reality check while implementing policies such that they match the local context.
There is no singular, cohesive definition of a “feminist foreign policy” for governments. The International Centre for Research on Women in 2021, while noting that the FPP is a constant and evolving approach to international relations, proposed this working definition: “Feminist foreign policy is the policy of a state that defines its interactions with other states... in a manner that prioritises 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...”
In practice, an FPP involves allocating funds to human rights organisations or condemning international violence. The Netherlands, for instance, has applied its FPP by speaking out against homophobia and discrimination in Slovakia after two LGBTQ+ people were murdered, and has also supported sanctions against Iran for violence against women. Ms. Baerbock also demonstrated an FPP’s use in humanitarian aid: when rebuilding a Nigerian village, a feminist approach would urge officials to ask the women where necessities like toilets should be constructed. Put differently, an FPP “strives for more than the absence of violent conflict”, the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy noted in a brief.
What is the need for a feminist foreign policy?
In 2020, while announcing the first FPP in the Global South, Mexican Vice Minister Martha Delgado wrote, “To be effective, in addition to SDG 5 on gender equality, the agenda for the protection of women and girls needs to cut across all the SDGs and all spheres of government and society, the reason why Mexico has revised its foreign policy from a feminist perspective...”
Similarly, Canada has promoted an explicitly “feminist international assistance policy” to address global poverty, France is using foreign aid to promote female empowerment as part of its FPP and Mongolia has targeted “expanding the role of women in the foreign service”.
Gender inequality runs like a ragged thread through global conflicts and crises. Taliban has mounted human rights violations against women and girls since its takeover of Afghanistan last year. Women are victims of sexual violence across zones of unrest, be it the war-torn regions of Ukraine or Syria. Domestic violence against women became a “shadow pandemic” during COVID-19. Research increasingly shows that environmental crises disproportionately impact marginalised groups, who face higher degrees of poverty, violence and displacement.
Women and minorities also wrestle with lack of representation at work and political machineries. Between 1992 and 2019, women made up only 13% of negotiations and 6% of signatories in major peace processes globally, per statistics from UN Women.
A feminist international policy prioritises equal treatment and equal opportunity, while being gender-responsive across policies. Gender equality is an objective in itself, but also one that is “essential for achieving the government’s other overall objectives, such as peace, security, and sustainable development”, the Swedish government said. If the foreign policy toolbox wields tools like aid, immigration, trade, disarmament, defence and diplomacy measures, a feminist understanding of security argues for training this framework to focus on sustainable safety and security of marginalised groups.
The German policy document also noted an FPP is “not a magic wand that can make all obstacles disappear – but it is an important and long overdue step in the right direction.”
What is the incentive for countries?
Research has cemented a link between gender equality and national goals such as economic growth, peace and international prosperity.
Women’s participation – either during conflict prevention or resolution – helped improve outcomes and advance stability. The chance that a peace agreement will hold even after 15 years is 35% higher if women take the lead, research shows. The United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 also acknowledges the gendered impact of conflict on women, and mandates that states increase their “representation of women at all decision-making levels in national, regional and international institutions and mechanisms for the prevention, management and resolution of conflict”.
Moreover, countries with committed FPP in place have performed well on development indices such as the Global Gender Gap Index — which measures economic participation, healthcare access, education and political empowerment. While no country has achieved full gender parity, Sweden and Germany ranked 5 th and 10 th in 2022 respectively; countries without a dedicated FPP, such as the U.S. (47th) or India (135th), featured lower.
Advocates thus argue that an intersectional feminist approach is not only a moral imperative for nations, but is to their benefit as it is inextricably tied to advancing security and economic outcomes.
Is there any criticism?
In October 2022, the new right-wing Swedish government ditched the movement. “We will always stand for gender equality,” explained Tobias Billstrom, Sweden’s Foreign Minister. But “labels on things have a tendency to cover up the content,” he added.
The leading issue is the lack of a coherent articulation of a “feminist” foreign policy— there is incongruity over whether policies prioritise women or people across all minoritised groups. Sweden, for instance, faced criticism for its binary focus on women, and not people of all genders.
Canada, Sweden and Germany have weathered criticism for continuing arms trade with non-democratic countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, that are guilty of human rights abuses.
Feminist activists also take umbrage at an evident mismatch, noting that if nations commit to feminist policies in international power corridors, such inclusive and intersectional frameworks should be articulated and advanced domestically too.
Critics also flag that policies like these are “woke”, exclusive tools wielded by Western nations which are embroiled in histories of colonialism, racism and exploitation of indigenous groups. Canada announced an FPP in 2017, but received flak for offering financial support to private-sector companies which routinely extract and exploit local ecosystems while displacing indigenous communities and attacking women’s rights defenders, an Oxfam report noted. The ICRW in its policy brief cautioned that FPPs while “well-intentioned”, risk being “ultimately equally uninformed by the perspectives of those on the receiving end and removed even from the realities of their own domestic policies”.
Moreover, while FPPs place heft on the aspect of providing resources to marginalised groups, grassroots activists say there is no clarity on when and where funding will come from, leaving it an “open question”.