from The Internationalist and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

Violence Against Women: Beyond Multilateral Virtue Signaling

Women during a demonstration against gender violence at Angel de la Independencia monument in Mexico City, Mexico, on December 13, 2019.
Women during a demonstration against gender violence at Angel de la Independencia monument in Mexico City, Mexico, on December 13, 2019. Edgard Garrido/Reuters

Multilateral institutions often focus on rhetoric over action in countering violence against women. States inclined to do better should take matters into their own hands and adopt feminist foreign policies. 

December 17, 2019

Women during a demonstration against gender violence at Angel de la Independencia monument in Mexico City, Mexico, on December 13, 2019.
Women during a demonstration against gender violence at Angel de la Independencia monument in Mexico City, Mexico, on December 13, 2019. Edgard Garrido/Reuters
Blog Post
Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

The following is a guest post by Chelsea Thorpe, former intern for International Institutions and Global Governance at the Council on Foreign Relations.

For at least two decades, the UN Security Council has recognized the growing prevalence of gender-based violence in conflict, including rape, child marriage, human trafficking, and female genital mutilation/cutting. But such violence too often remains unchecked for women worldwide. Occasional nods to gender parity on the part of international institutions have proved inadequate in addressing these issues to date. Despite the unanimous adoption of a gender lens via UN Security Council Resolution 1325, the United Nations has documented limited progress in relation to women’s political participation and victimization in conflict-affected regions. International cooperation alone cannot solve these problems—individual countries need to centralize women in their diplomatic efforts across the board, an aim best achieved through the formal adoption of feminist foreign policies.

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Sexual Violence

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Gender-based violence is a global phenomenon, yet many of its trends remain poorly understood due to the lack of sex-disaggregated data. According to a 2017 World Health Organization (WHO) report, about 35 percent of women worldwide are survivors of sexual violence, with the prevalence of intimate partner violence being approximately 50 percent higher in Global South regions such as the Eastern Mediterranean and Southeast Asia than it is in high-income countries. Prior to 1999, between 10 and 52 percent of women claimed to be assaulted at least once in their life. These figures rose to between 29 and 62 percent by 2005, as reporting increased alongside financial autonomy, education quality, and political empowerment.

Multilateral institutions and their member states have long recognized many of these issues and have taken some measures to address them. Many international organizations, “deeply concerned by the frequent under-representation of women in many formal processes and bodies,” have pledged zero tolerance of sexual violence. An abundance of lofty rhetoric, however, obscures a paucity of actual change. UN peacekeepers have often contributed to the violent phenomena against which they are tasked to fight, as demonstrated by the rise in allegations against the United Nations as of March 2019. A 2017 Associated Press investigation concluded that, during the twelve-year UN Mission to Haiti, more than 100 peacekeepers were responsible for some 2,000 sexual abuse cases, more than 300 of which involved children. Only a handful of alleged perpetrators received jail time. A similarly infamous case involved international troops assaulting female and youth populations for food and money in the Central African Republic in 2014. Women continue to be unduly victimized by war and, simply put, current top-down approaches are inadequate to the task at hand.

States inclined to move beyond mere multilateral virtue signaling are beginning to adopt explicit feminist foreign policies. A feminist foreign policy (FFP), according to the International Center for Research on Women, “prioritizes gender equality and enshrines the human rights of women and other traditionally marginalized groups, allocates significant resources to achieve that vision and seeks through its implementation to disrupt patriarchal and male-dominated power structures across all of its levels of influence (aid, trade, defense, and diplomacy).” Since systemic violence is often rooted in social injustice, a whole-of-government approach that empowers women at all levels of foreign policymaking and implementation could prove quite effective in countering patriarchal violent behavior.

A few countries have already taken the leap. Sweden was the first to do so in 2014, and Canada and France followed suit in 2017 and 2019, respectively, with hopes to also tackle issues outside of gender-based violence, such as social welfare and climate change. The current rarity of feminist foreign policy presents many countries with an opportunity to reorient their goals more towards correcting structural inequalities and uplifting women and other marginalized groups. Sweden, for instance, has allocated almost 90 percent of its overseas development assistance (ODA) to bolstering gender equality, while Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has appointed a more ethnically diverse cabinet, 50 percent of whose members are women. France, for its part, has committed to “feminist diplomacy,” highlighting issues of sexual/reproductive healthcare and violence against women in their international cooperative efforts.

These initiatives are promising, but reliable empirical testing requires more time for FFPs to take effect, as well as new mechanisms for monitoring and evaluating country-level progress. So far, only France has mandated an annual evaluation of its policy progress, which entails such concrete targets as scaling ODA to gender equality from 30 percent in 2018 to 50 percent in 2022. But these laudable efforts are not indicative of improvement across all areas. French diplomatic discussions of sexual and reproductive health in conflict-affected regions, for example, largely ignore LGBTQ+ communities. Similar lapses are apparent in other countries’ FFPs. Sweden courted backlash with its two percent increase last year in arms exports to Saudi Arabia, a country notorious for its decriminalization of violence against women. Despite claiming to consider the “democratic status of the receiving country” in trade decisions, Sweden has prioritized perceived national interests over gender parity, which only reinforces the entrenched patriarchal frameworks that FFP aims to dismantle.

More on:

Women and Women's Rights

Sexual Violence

Diplomacy and International Institutions

Inequality

Sweden

To date, no country has created a foreign policy that is truly feminist. But that does not mean that FFP is without merit. Countries today allocate only four percent of their aid budgets  principally to gender parity on average, a number that could well increase as FFPs become more commonplace. The current bar for prioritizing women is quite low, so even minimal steps in the direction of FFP would constitute a significant improvement.

Creating truly comprehensive and effective FFPs requires numerous actions on the part of national governments. Gender-based violence intersects with countless societal issues and shared threats, such as infectious disease spread, forced displacement, and economic decay. For this reason, feminist efforts should extend beyond investments in women, peace, and security. A 2013 WHO study concluded that survivors of physical or sexual assault were 1.5 times more likely than those who had never been assaulted to acquire a sexually transmitted disease and twice as likely to suffer from depression or alcoholism. The study also found that women living in communities subject to such violence experience structural wage discrimination. A successful FFP should aim to stem violence against women, as well as associated risk factors, by prioritizing the human rights of all groups marginalized by conflict.

The protection of all marginalized communities is pivotal to strong FFPs, because feminism is not only about women. To be feminist, a foreign policy needs to address intersectional power dynamics and examine all aspects of personal and collective identity, including race, sexual orientation, class, and religion. Violence disproportionately discriminates against women who also identify with other marginalized groups, given that white men have historically used foreign policy rationales to justify invading and exploiting communities of color. Deconstruction of the patriarchal policy lens requires FFP to assume a broader focus on power relations outside of gender parity to ensure that women and other marginalized groups worldwide benefit.

To be effective and take account of local knowledge, FFPs should also entail a cosmopolitan, multistakeholder approach.While many countries could benefit from greater collaboration with civil society organizations (CSOs), the need for such collaboration is most salient among countries without significant presences in conflict-affected areas. Sweden, Canada, and France in particular have not experienced intense intrastate conflict in decades, so their FFPs should facilitate close collaboration between government officials and CSOs working in pertinent areas. Even with a whole-of-society-approach, marginalized groups are sure to remain under-represented, since CSO representation often reflects the upper echelons of society.  Nevertheless, it could induce governments to lend greater priority to non-elite interests in formulating their foreign policies.

In other words, FFP should better harmonize human rights with national interests to avoid favoring one over the other and risking the promulgation of violence against women and marginalized communities. Sweden struggles with this dilemma, as demonstrated in its controversial arms trade with Saudi Arabia, and Canada has arguably failed to safeguard its own indigenous populations in the face of mass corporate expansion. Gender and other forms of parity among policymakers would help break down outmoded paradigms and reshape global leadership to accurately reflect the diversity of the communities that foreign policy affects.

The task is daunting, yet moving beyond multilateral declarations and the like to harness FFP could help mitigate gender-based violence and benefit society as a whole. This reimagination of conflict prevention and resolution should start at the country-level, since nations themselves are often perpetrators of violence against women and marginalized communities. If implemented well, FFP can revolutionize not just foreign policy, but world affairs.

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