On March 11, 2020, the Council on Foreign Relations’ Women and Foreign Policy program convened a workshop to discuss recent efforts to advance gender equality in foreign policy, including through feminist foreign policy. The views described here are those of the workshop participants only and are not CFR positions. The Council on Foreign Relations takes no institutional positions on policy issues and has no affiliation with the U.S. government. In addition, the suggested policy recommendations are the views of individual participants and do not necessarily represent a consensus of the workshop attendees.
Research shows that women’s meaningful participation in the economy, politics, and peace and security processes is linked to greater economic growth, a decrease in human rights abuses, and more sustainable peace. Nations seeking to advance global security, maximize the utility of their foreign aid, and bolster stable and democratic partners should prioritize women’s advancement.
In recent years many countries have institutionalized gender equality and women’s empowerment as a foreign policy priority. These efforts have fallen under three primary areas of change: leadership, policy, and resource allocation. Leadership changes include the creation of an ambassador or envoy position for gender equality, public commitments from senior leadership to signal that gender equality is the responsibility of all civil servants in the foreign policy apparatus, and the appointment of women to senior diplomatic, trade, and defense posts. Policy changes include explicit gender equality strategies that guide the work of specific agencies and ministries as well as domestic implementation plans of international frameworks—such as national action plans for women, peace, and security. Resource allocation changes include aid targets, contributions to specific funds and collective initiatives, and government- or ministry-wide gender budgeting to ensure that gender analysis informs how money is allocated.
The most comprehensive effort is so-called feminist foreign policy, which puts gender equality at the center of a nation’s diplomacy, defense, development, and trade. The Women and Foreign Policy program at the Council on Foreign Relations convened a workshop with current and former government officials, civil society activists, multilateral leaders, philanthropists, and scholars to analyze recent efforts to elevate gender equality in foreign policy and offer recommendations to governments on strengthening their commitments.
Feminist Foreign Policies: Government Perspectives
Since former Swedish Minister for Foreign Affairs Margot Wallström first announced a feminist foreign policy in 2014, six other countries have either adopted the designation or pledged to develop a feminist policy in the near future. The workshop session on government perspectives focused on how Canada, France, Mexico, and Sweden—the countries with the most comprehensive feminist foreign policies to date—have developed and implemented their agendas.
Increasing Women’s Leadership
All four countries had varying degrees of commitment to gender equality initiatives in their foreign policy apparatuses prior to their adoption of a feminist foreign policy, but for all four the formal announcement brought top-level commitment and attention that shifted responsibility within the government. All departments within each country’s foreign ministry—and in the case of Canada and Sweden, across the entire government—are now mandated to integrate gender analysis. What was once the purview of a small office became a ministry-wide concern.
For many countries, a feminist foreign policy includes commitments to increasing women’s leadership internally. Certain governments, such as France and Mexico, are using specific, time-bound quotas to advance women’s leadership in foreign ministry posts. Others aim for parity through targets, such as Canada’s public commitment to a gender-equal cabinet and Sweden’s nearly 50 percent female ambassadorial corps.
Given the relatively recent emergence of feminist foreign policies, monitoring their implementation and evaluating their success is an ongoing process for all four governments. Participants discussed the tangible effects they had already seen.
Sweden, the country with the longest-standing feminist foreign policy, surveyed staff and embassies in 2018 about whether this approach made a difference in their work and received an overwhelmingly affirmative response. Reports stressed that the feminist foreign policy had propelled a cultural shift within the foreign ministry. For Canada, declaring a feminist foreign policy pushed sectors that were typically considered gender-neutral—such as trade or disarmament—to recognize the differential effects of their policies on men and women.
Participants noted that, in order to ensure accountability, the countries instituted new reporting requirements to ensure the directives are prioritized at all levels. Several participants highlighted that the development of a feminist foreign policy is a process, with inevitable changes to tools and reporting mechanisms as officials learn what works. All four governments made concerted efforts to consult with civil society throughout the design and implementation process.
Participants emphasized the need for feminist foreign policies to be institutionalized to ensure continuity. Though a sitting government can shape priorities or programs, the commitments of a feminist policy should persist regardless of changes in leadership. Participants cautioned that it can take time for such ambitious policy changes to take root. Participants agreed that more robust evaluation and accountability measures were needed but noted the challenges of creating a framework and monitoring tools while simultaneously implementing new policies and programs.
Some participants were surprised that challenges they had predicted did not manifest. For example, the Swedish government anticipated that some partner governments would not want to discuss gender priorities, but it in fact found its feminist foreign policy opened new conversations and opportunities.
Civil Society and Multilateral Perspectives on Opportunities for Feminist Foreign Policies
Civil society and multilateral experts discussed opportunities for feminist foreign policies, drawing on research and the experiences of local women and women’s groups. Participants laid out a broad framework of priorities and noted the importance of internal cultural change within government apparatuses.
Identifying Priority Sectors
Although recognizing the cross-cutting nature of feminist foreign policy, experts identified specific sectors in which governments should concentrate resources or reform policies to accelerate gender equality. First, participants emphasized legal gaps. Discriminatory laws exist in every country in the world and have a deleterious effect on women’s abilities to fully participate in the economy. Laws that limit women’s ability to own or inherit property, access citizenship or government identification cards, or fight sexual harassment in the workplace make it harder for women to be financially independent. Participants noted that countries with a feminist foreign policy should also look inward and evaluate how their own laws and policies could harm women.
Another priority area is women’s access to decision-making processes and institutions. According to participants, the vast underrepresentation of women in positions of power at all levels of government makes the legislation of gender-responsive policies less likely.
Other participants noted the importance of cultural norm change. Even countries with highly progressive constitutions—such as South Africa—fall far short in delivering the legal protections they offer to women. The legal framework can provide an environment in which change is possible and a tool for activists to advance equality, but the framework alone is insufficient for changing the status of women. Participants emphasized that feminist foreign policies should deliver for women in practice, not only on paper.
Other issues that pose major barriers to women’s full participation in the economy and decision-making are limited reproductive rights and violence against women. Participants noted that without control over the spacing of their pregnancies or safety in their own homes, women’s contributions to their communities are constrained.
Participants agreed that countries prioritizing gender equality should reform their aid and funding practices to glean the benefits that advancing gender equality promises. According to the Development Assistance Committee (DAC) of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), only 4 percent of bilateral aid by OECD nations in 2015–16 was dedicated to gender equality programming, and barely 0.5 percent of the funds allocated to gender equality made it into the hands of local women’s rights groups. A feminist foreign policy should direct funding to grassroots organizations, which are often the most effective drivers of change. Participants highlighted research showing that feminist movements are associated with stronger democratic institutions and are a significant contributing factor to passing legislation that promotes equality, such as laws strengthening protection from violence. Yet donor country aid restrictions—such as anti–terrorist financing regulations or the United States’ global gag rule—can have a disproportionately inhibitive effect on women’s rights organizations.
Participants noted that the ways in which aid is deployed are as important as the total amount. Participants emphasized the need to restructure aid practices so that marginalized groups have a greater voice in deciding how and where funds are spent. Rather than program-based funding that puts a heavy administrative burden on local groups, donors should consider aid to women’s groups as a long-term investment. Furthermore, foreign government aid can pose security risks for women’s rights organizations, which already face scrutiny for promoting what some conservative policymakers and extremist groups condemn as a “Western” agenda.
Participants noted that if a feminist foreign policy promises to dismantle existing power structures, reimagining aid practices is a critical step. Many regional networks and women’s philanthropic groups have already piloted innovative models for funding trusted local partners. The Netherlands, which is already working with women’s organizations in the Global South to direct and distribute funds, provides a possible model for other nations. And Canada’s Equality Fund catalyzes direct support for local women’s groups abroad and domestically by committing government seed money and encouraging investment from the philanthropic and private sector that will be administered by a consortium of nongovernmental organizations that have direct relationships with women’s organizations.
Participants concluded by reiterating the need to ensure feminist foreign policies become more than words on paper. In addition, even governments without explicitly feminist diplomatic, defense, development, and trade policies should enact reforms to advance gender equality in meaningful ways. Government officials offered successful examples of leadership, policy, and aid reform, and civil society leaders and other experts advised on how to close the implementation gap. The recommendations below do not necessarily represent a consensus of workshop attendees.
Governments should lead by example and pursue gender equity in staffing and leadership positions by strengthening internal personnel mechanisms. A public commitment from top-level leadership can signal that advancing gender equality is the responsibility of civil servants at all levels. Governments should provide training to ensure all personnel have the technical expertise needed to conduct gender analysis and implement gender equality programs.
Promote Gender Equality Policy
Whether defined as feminist or not, nations should instate government-wide policies establishing gender equality as a foreign and domestic priority. These policies should be bolstered by ministry implementation plans and should require accountability to the national legislature in the form of public annual reports on government efforts to implement gender equality policies, reporting against time-bound and measurable goals.
Commit the Resources
Governments should close the gender equality financing gap by creating budgetary targets for funding that advances the status of women and girls as a principal objective across budget priorities, and earmarking specific funds to directly support local women-led organizations. Governments should explore avenues to include civil society voices in funding decision-making. Governments should regularly report funding for domestic and global efforts to advance gender equality and launch an independent mechanism to track global spending on gender equality. In addition to funding programming, governments should support research and global data collection, encouraging annual national reporting on the status of women’s leadership in particular.