The UK actively promotes gender equality both at home and abroad but it falls short of defining itself by a feminist agenda. At a time when it is not clear what does define UK foreign policy, other than the looming exit from the EU, promoting a feminist foreign policy could be an opportunity for the UK to provide leadership and to promote its human-rights based values abroad at a time when both are being challenged on the world stage.
Gender equality features prominently in some parts of UK foreign policy. The International Development (Gender Equality) Act 2014 for example, promotes gender equality when providing development and humanitarian assistance to countries outside of the UK. The Department for International Development’s Strategic Vision for Women and Girls has put women and girls at the centre of its development assistance programme.
In February, Joanna Roper became the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s (FCO) first ever special envoy for gender equality, a role created with the aim of increasing the UK’s leverage and influence among others to address gender equality in their own domains. In addition to the FCO’s Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative, these initiatives are in line with research that suggests that the prioritization of gender equality, and human rights more generally, can be a more effective way of boosting economies and creating more peaceful and less violent societies.
The UK’s approach is not consistent, however, and gender considerations are ostensibly not at the centre of all foreign policy decisions it undertakes. This has noticeable consequences, particularly when compared with a country like Sweden, which was the first country to declare that it has both a feminist government and a feminist foreign policy.
Sweden, which, like the UK, recognizes the importance of educating and empowering women and girls, has advocated the necessity of applying a feminist lens to foreign policy which prioritizes human rights and emphasizes the need for gender equality as a means of full access to those rights. This has had a discernible impact on the way Sweden interacts with other countries.
In 2015 Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström was applauded and condemned in equal measure for her decision to cancel an arms sales deal with Saudi Arabia, after Wallström’s planned opening speech at an Arab ministers’ meeting was blocked due to content stressing women’s and human rights. By contrast, the UK courts recently upheld the government’s decision to sell arms to Saudi Arabia, a decision human rights groups see as fuelling the brutal conflict in Yemen that is amassing huge numbers of civilian casualties.
For Sweden, their decision was considered in keeping with the government-backed commitment to a feminist foreign policy, and despite significant criticism from the arms industry, who suspected the action may 'jeopardize Sweden’s reputation as a trade and cooperation partner', Swedish arms exports rose by 45% to $1.21 billion in 2016. This suggests that trade, security and a feminist framework for foreign policy may not after all be mutually exclusive, but rather mutually beneficial, and the Swedish government is ahead in recognizing this link.
Other countries, like Canada, do not appear to have made that connection. Canada recently launched its feminist international assistance policy, directing 95% of bilateral international development assistance initiatives to gender equality and empowering women and girls, but it remains to be seen how serious the government is about implementing it. While it committed to an over 70% increase in defence spending in the next 10 years, additional funds have not been committed to foreign aid to assist in implementing its new feminist policy. In the UK the same disconnect exists between the government’s stated support for gender equality and policies that actually effect change both internationally and domestically. For instance, the House of Commons Library report that austerity measures in the UK disproportionately negatively impact women.
Foreign policy is typically predicated on two things: security and trade. The UK is well placed to show leadership in advancing a more equal global society, not just because it is the right thing to do but because it is the smart thing to do. Feminist attitudes, whether found in women or men, have been shown to correlate with support for non-violent conflict resolution and ensuring the advancement of gender equality at home and abroad will lead to more stability and security. Indeed Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has himself said that ‘all evidence confirms that whenever women are empowered and educated there are immediate improvements in the prosperity of that society…’
Brexit could provide an opportunity to showcase a UK trade policy that puts gender considerations and human rights at its core: under the International Development (Gender Equality) Act 2014, the UK government requires the secretary of state for international development to consider, among other things, how development assistance contributes to reducing poverty in a way that is likely to reduce inequality between persons of different genders. It could be feasible to apply a similar test to trade policy that considers the gender impacts of foreign trade deals in the same way. This would require careful negotiations with countries that do not prioritize gender equality; negotiations that would have to aim for long-term gains (gender equality) over short-term wins (trade deals).
A feminist foreign policy would mean putting women and girls, and all human rights, not just at the heart of UK aid delivery to other countries but at the heart of all UK foreign policy decisions. The UK is going through a period of change particularly with regards to its place in the world. This change can be an opportunity for the UK to redefine itself as a champion of a foreign policy that prioritizes gender equality and human rights in every decision it makes – not just in words, but with the policies and actions to back it up.
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