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Within the next few months, Canada is expected to release a feminist foreign policy (FFP). In doing so, it will join just two other countries that have formally adopted FFPs – Sweden and Mexico.

As the Government of Canada prepares its FFP, WILPF Canada and Canadian members of the WILPF International staff team have been working alongside representatives from a wide range of feminist organisations to submit recommendations for its design. Many of these recommendations are captured in the report Be Brave, Be Bold: Recommendations for Canada’s Feminist Foreign Policy

But what exactly is a feminist foreign policy? What do governments hope to achieve through an FFP? And do they even work? 

In this blog post, we’re examining the answers to these questions and more. 

First: The problem with traditional foreign policy 

Before we can understand the concept of a feminist foreign policy, it’s important to first understand the notion of foreign policy. 

“Foreign policy” is a general term used to describe a country’s interactions with other countries. Foreign policies generally strive to protect national interests – primarily economic, military, or cultural interests – and guide a country’s involvement in international affairs, such as participation in trade agreements or humanitarian aid efforts. 

The problem? Traditional foreign policies typically focus on the use of military power and violence to threaten or dominate people and nations, and they prioritise the protection and expansion of neoliberal economic practices that deepen poverty, erode communities, and destroy the environment. 

They are also deeply rooted in colonialism, with the original concept of foreign policy first established to protect the interests of the 18th century English monarchy as it sought to expand its worldwide colonial empire. 

Women and people from marginalised communities are uniquely impacted by traditional foreign policy practices. The combined effects of conflict, economic injustice, and environmental destruction – all of which are rooted in foreign policy – have disproportionate and differential impacts on women, who represent the majority of those living in poverty and are less likely to have regular access to healthcare or education. 

Women from marginalised communities – including those from Indigenous, racialised, LGBTQ+, migrant, and refugee communities, as well as older women and those with disabilities – are at particular risk of bearing these impacts. 

This is where the concept of feminist foreign policy comes in. 

What is a feminist foreign policy?

A feminist foreign policy is a framework for international relations that is centred around the social and economic well-being of marginalised individuals and communities. 

Creating a feminist foreign policy challenges governments to re-think the meaning of security from the perspective of the world’s most marginalised – and the role countries can and should play in building a safer, healthier, and more peaceful world for all. 

As the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy states, “a feminist approach to foreign policy provides a powerful lens through which we can interrogate the violent global systems of power that leave millions of people in perpetual states of vulnerability.” 

Feminist peace activists and organisations have identified the following core principles as among those that should be central to an effective, holistic FFP: 

  • Designing rights-based policies that work toward gender equality, including through the intersectional inclusion of women and other underrepresented, historically oppressed populations in multilateral decision-making spaces.
  • Advancing human security and human dignity through de-escalation of conflict, disarmament, demilitarisation, and peacebuilding efforts that centre the experiences of women and marginalised individuals. 
  • Economic policies that serve the interests of all people, strive to end poverty, and protect the environment. 

A brief history of feminist foreign policies 

Feminist foreign policies are a relatively new concept, built on a long history of feminist activism and advocacy. 

Although the past few decades have brought progress for the inclusion of gender-sensitive approaches in policies and resolutions adopted by multilateral institutions – for example, UN Security Council Resolution 1325 (2000) on Women, Peace and Security – no country had formally established its own comprehensive, feminist approach to foreign policy until just a few years ago. 

In 2014, Sweden became the first country in the world to launch a feminist foreign policy. In 2017, Canada created a feminist international assistance policy, specifically focused on directing foreign aid in a way that promotes gender equality and protects the human rights of women and girls. 

Although France similarly adopted a feminist foreign aid policy in 2019, neither Canada nor France have yet created a comprehensive feminist foreign policy to guide international relations beyond the realm of foreign aid. Similarly, Luxembourg has incorporated some feminist concepts into its foreign policy – although it hasn’t released a comprehensive FFP – while Spain has updated its foreign policy strategy to include a feminist foreign policy lens. 

And in early 2020, Mexico became just the second country to adopt a formal feminist foreign policy. 

Are feminist foreign policies achieving their promises?  

It’s complicated. 

While the creation of feminist foreign policies by Sweden and Mexico – and, soon, Canada – is an important step toward a global reimagining of foreign policy, there are fundamental disconnects between each country’s actual global and domestic activities and the promises laid out in their FFPs. 

For example, although Sweden’s FFP seeks to drive progress for women’s rights through conflict prevention, its continued role as a significant arms exporter – including to countries where women are being denied many of their most basic human rights – is directly at odds with its commitment to promoting peace and human security through a feminist lens. 

Similarly, although Mexico’s FFP promotes gender equality and the elimination of gender-based violence for women around the world, the country’s own domestic policies and norms continue to put the lives and well-being of women severely at risk. Approximately 11 women are killed in Mexico every day, primarily at the hands of a partner or another family member. Yet the Mexican government has so far refused to take meaningful action to address the country’s growing crisis of gender-based violence. 

And both Canada and France – which have yet to release formal FFPs but have each established feminist foreign assistance policies – have deeply problematic track records of systematic discrimination against marginalised populations at the domestic level and as major contributors to the global arms trade. For example, in 2017 the Canadian government finalised a lucrative $12 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia – one of the most anti-feminist countries in the world – around the same time that it released its feminist foreign assistance policy.

This disconnect points to another major roadblock in the effective design and implementation of feminist foreign policies: failure to incorporate – whether wilfully or due to ignorance – policies that are truly feminist and not simply focused on uplifting women. A feminist foreign policy that is truly feminist seeks to build a future of equality, human security, and justice for all people; it does not say it is working towards progress for some while supporting and enabling conflict, destructive economic practices, and environmental destruction – all outcomes that perpetuate poverty, insecurity, and injustice for women and for everyone. 

A call to action: Be brave. Be bold. 

As we await the release of Canada’s FFP, WILPF calls upon all governments to consider adopting a feminist foreign policy – one that is rooted in a deep understanding of feminist peace and invests meaningfully in the work needed to build a better future for people and the planet. 

And we call on those governments with existing feminist foreign policies or feminist approaches to foreign assistance to go further – to consider how current policies can align more closely with the true meaning of feminism, to take steps towards a future of genuine peace and not away from it. 

As the Feminist Foreign Policy Working Group demands: Be braver. Be bolder. 

Learn more about feminist foreign policies

This blog post provides just a brief overview of an incredibly complex and wide-ranging topic. To learn more about feminist foreign policies, check out the following resources:

Be Brave, Be Bold: Recommendations for Canada’s Feminist Foreign Policy (Feminist Foreign Policy Working Group)

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