Eve of a foreign policy revolution

Marissa Conway charts the growth of feminist influence in foreign affairs and outlines the challenges still to be overcome to create a safer, more just world

The World Today Published 4 February 2022 Updated 29 September 2022 5 minute READ

Marissa Conway

Co-Founder, Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy

Feminist foreign policy is in its infancy. The United Nations recognized the critical role of women and girls in peace and security when it passed Resolution 1325 some 22 years ago. While international development has focused on the rights and services for girls and women as a pathway to social and economic development for some time, foreign policy is just catching up.

Sweden consistently ranks at the top of league tables as one of the most feminist countries in the world, with a high proportion of women identifying as feminists, as well as scoring highly for gender equality in employment, rights and wellbeing. In an extension of its feminist credentials, Margot Wallström pioneered this gendered approach to international relations when she was Sweden’s foreign affairs minister by launching the first feminist foreign policy in 2014. 

‘Our whole diplomatic corps, our embassies around the world, they had to understand what we meant by calling it a feminist foreign policy,’ said Wallström in 2019, reflecting on its rollout. ‘At its centre, it was a policy built on solid research and observation, and always with one question in mind: where are the women?’

The best predictor of a state’s peacefulness is its level of gender equality

While some may bristle at the use of the F-word, the data is clear about the importance of protecting women’s rights. Research shows the best predictor of a state’s peacefulness is its level of gender equality. Conversely, the wider the gap in gender equality, the more likely a state will resort to violence in its initial response to conflict and the more it will participate in conflicts internally and with other countries. 

My own ‘penny drop’ moment happened nearly a decade ago. I was working at a safe house for women survivors of human trafficking in California where we provided tailored support for each resident. Nearly three-quarters – 71 per cent – of all people who are trafficked are women and girls, with the UN noting a strong link between armed groups and human trafficking. 

During my time there, California began to enact new state laws addressing human trafficking to better protect survivors. While supporting these women through the legal system, I witnessed first-hand the positive, life-changing effect that a shift in policy can bring when the needs of marginalized people are prioritized. 

Survivors were finding it easier to access the justice system, protect themselves and hold their abusers to account.

When Sweden launched its feminist foreign policy it set a new norm for foreign policy agendas driven by values, not based solely on self-interest. For the first time, a government was explicitly engaging with feminism. 

The ‘feminism’ label has been virtually taboo for most of modern history

The ‘feminism’ label has been virtually taboo for most of modern history, with more ‘palatable’ terminology such as ‘gender equality’ preferred by the international community. To demonstrate how bold Sweden’s shift was, the same year it launched its feminist foreign policy, the actress Emma Watson gave her famous HeForShe speech at the UN encouraging men to embrace feminism. Watson, a UN global goodwill ambassador, later revealed that she had been strongly discouraged from using the term ‘feminism’ because it was so loaded but she used it anyway.

A foreign policy milestone

There are important distinctions between ‘gender equality’ and ‘feminism’, however. Feminism refers to a set of values tied to rebalancing unequal power dynamics, which includes gender but also race, class, and sexuality, among others. Gender equality has a more tailored focus on ensuring everyone has access to rights and opportunities regardless of gender. 

An explicitly feminist foreign policy agenda, then, marked a milestone. The first iteration of Sweden’s policy was formulated around three Rs: the rights of women, resources for gender equality initiatives and representation of women in politics. 

While ground-breaking in its own right, I was curious about the potential for an even broader agenda. We live in a world in which women still experience violence walking home at night, where people of colour are still victims of police brutality, where refugees seeking asylum are turned away or detained and where access to healthcare and reproductive rights is limited. 

Relying on existing systems to solve these problems will not work as these issues are symptoms of the systems themselves. I wanted to see a feminist foreign policy that concentrated on preventing harm and addressing the causes of inequality. 

With this conviction, I had the initial idea to build the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy in 2016 in the UK. Kristina Lunz brought CFFP to Germany in 2018, and Nina Bernarding joined forces with both of us in founding CFFP in its current professional form. Over this time, I have seen the methodology of feminist foreign policy move from a fringe agenda into a growing movement of states and political parties.  

An intersectional lens is necessary to ensure all marginalized people are looked after

As it continues to develop, feminist foreign policy needs to seize the opportunities now presented to it to become truly effective and support thriving societies while responding to some of the world’s big challenges such as the climate crisis or extreme poverty.

Frameworks for feminist foreign policies tend to focus on ‘women and girls’. While their rights are fundamental to a feminist agenda, this sole focus limits its effectiveness.  An intersectional lens is necessary to ensure all marginalized people are looked after. The concept of intersectionality stems from the work of Kimberlé Crenshaw, a leading Black feminist legal scholar, in the late 1980s. 

It recognizes that different social categories – such as gender, race, sexuality, class and religion – interact to shape whether someone has access to power or whether they are prevented from accessing power. Focusing attention solely on women and girls doesn’t allow for a nuanced and contextualized understanding of the oppression that a disabled woman of colour might experience. An intersectional eye on inequality means that the many needs of marginalized people can be formally recognized and addressed. 

How does it work? Using cybersecurity as an example, policy currently focuses on the protection of digital devices and services. When an intersectional lens is applied, the key question becomes: how do people’s social identities influence their safety online? The abuse experienced by women, people of colour and LGBTQI+ people then becomes of primary concern for cybersecurity policy.

During my time at the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy, I have noticed a pattern arise among states and political parties engaging with feminist foreign policy. 

First, there is an announcement of intention to adopt the methodology, which often comes as a surprise to the feminist community. Next, there is a process of unpaid, one-off consultations with that feminist community to determine what precisely the government or political party has just committed to.  Such a top-down process runs counter to the models of collaboration that feminism prioritizes. It means the state has the final say on what ‘counts’ as a feminist foreign policy. 

Strong collaboration between feminist civil society and policymakers is necessary to produce systems of accountability for government action

Foreign affairs has historically been something from which feminists have been excluded. Now, feminist ideas are being welcomed, but the community they originated from is still sidelined. 

Strong collaboration between feminist civil society and policymakers is necessary to produce systems of accountability for government action. 

First, this means that when a political party or state is considering adopting a feminist foreign policy, it should consult feminist activists and academics before committing to it. Once it has been adopted, forming civil society advisory groups will provide opportunities for the monitoring and evaluation of feminist foreign policy frameworks. Most importantly, all of these interactions should be sufficiently funded. 

Balance short and long-term thinking

There are many different types of feminisms, but all are united by a common goal: to establish new and more equitable norms. The process of doing this includes a mix of both short-term and long-term goals. 

Short-term ones tend to focus on inclusion in existing systems, such as increasing women’s representation in politics. While important steps forward, these often fall in alignment with existing political aims. Long-term goals are oriented around systems change and reducing sexism, racism and classism. 

In the context of feminist foreign policy, this requires restructuring the institution of foreign policy including looking at who is allowed to participate, who is taken seriously and what the purpose of policy is. 

Current feminist foreign policy frameworks overwhelmingly focus on short-term goals. This comes as no surprise, as engaging with long-term feminist goals requires a restructuring of power dynamics. Yet many with power are not inclined to give it up. 

Without a balance between the two, feminist foreign policy isn’t in full alignment with feminist principles. This tension is perhaps the most critiqued aspect of current frameworks. Many academics have said that without a focus on changing the system, the policy merely acts as a ‘virtue signal’ to the international community, especially when states such as France and Canada brand their foreign policy as a feminist, yet fail to publish any sort of policy guidance or agenda. 

To appease concerns about appropriation, feminist foreign policy frameworks must address the root causes of inequality and not just the symptoms.

Feminist foreign policy frameworks must address the root causes of inequality and not just the symptoms

For example, the development of a reparatory justice system would address the harm caused by British colonization. Foreign policy typically looks outwards. Feminism emphasizes the connectedness of the local and global. Applying such a lens to foreign policy brings attention to the domestic sphere, yet feminist foreign policy frameworks have not done this. 

When Mexico adopted its own feminist foreign policy, feminist groups were critical of the disconnect between its ambitions on the global stage and the reality for women and girls within the country. While Mexico co-hosts international forums on gender equality, its own women continue to be subjected to violence: an average of 10 women are killed each day in Mexico. 

This contradiction between global leadership on a feminist agenda and the challenges of inequality at home are troublesome. Feminism becomes an ideology exported to others, but internal implementation is lacking. To rectify this imbalance, feminist foreign policy frameworks must implement feminist values across all policy areas. Such initiatives must be adopted throughout government and not just in the foreign affairs department.  

When it comes to a feminist foreign policy agenda, we are at a fertile time to plant the seeds that can lead to robust systems changes that produce thriving and mutually beneficial societies. It is important to act now, when small course corrections can be more easily made. 

We are at a fertile time to plant the seeds that can lead to robust systems changes 

A crucial step is to connect feminists working in the realm of theory to those who are practising policy at the coalface. To that end, after more than five years at the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy, I will be stepping away to focus on connecting feminist foreign policy to the grassroots activism from which it developed. 

Among a variety of projects, I am working with a coalition of feminists to launch the Feminist Foreign Policy Collective, a network united by a common interest in intersectional feminist solutions to foreign policy problems. 

The tide of foreign policy is turning feminist. While the specifics of a feminist foreign policy framework continue to evolve, it is clear that an intention to prioritize equality and sustainable peace is moving the foreign policy landscape in a better direction.