In 2014, Margot Wallström, the former foreign minister of Sweden, announced the adoption of a groundbreaking foreign policy approach termed “feminist foreign policy,” making Sweden the pioneer in this area. Since then, several other nations, including Canada, France, and Mexico, have followed suit. More recently, Luxembourg, Malaysia, and Spain have also committed to developing similar policies. These declarations have sparked inquiries among foreign policy experts, raising questions about the precise objectives of these policies, the significance of conducting foreign affairs through a feminist lens in an era of increasing gender equality activism, and whether emphasizing gender equality during times of economic uncertainty is a needless diversion.
A Natural Alignment
Recent research indicates a strong correlation between women’s status, a country’s prosperity, and its security. Given this, prioritizing gender equality as a foreign policy objective appears to be a rational choice. Bridging the gender gap in workforce participation could potentially contribute up to $28 trillion to the global GDP. Ensuring women’s active involvement in peace processes enhances the durability and implementation of agreements. Higher female representation in a country’s parliament corresponds to lower instances of human rights abuses and relapses into conflict. Achieving gender parity in access to agricultural resources might lead to 150 million fewer people suffering from hunger worldwide. In essence, research confirms that nations striving to bolster their security, enhance the efficacy of foreign aid, or support stable and democratic partners should emphasize women’s advancement.
Efforts to promote women’s rights have been present in public policymaking since at least the late 1970s, facilitated by both international and numerous local institutions across over 100 countries. However, most national reforms have primarily concentrated on domestic concerns. A feminist foreign policy offers something different—it places gender equality and women’s empowerment at the core of national security strategies, including diplomacy, defense, aid, and trade.
Sweden, with its feminist foreign policy introduced in 2014, has been at the forefront of this comprehensive approach. Nonetheless, the Swedish policy builds upon previous endeavors of various nations. These efforts typically concentrate on effecting change in three main domains: advancing women’s leadership, endorsing policies that promote equality, and allocating resources in ways that support these commitments. While the specifics of the initiatives differ among governments and the extent of their implementation varies, all aim to prioritize gender equality in foreign policy, albeit not always explicitly labeled as “feminist.”
Over the past decade, many countries have increased the inclusion of women in foreign policy decision-making and placed greater emphasis on gender equality in their international affairs. Presently, a record number of 34 countries have female foreign ministers, 84 have female trade ministers, and 20 have female defense ministers. Certain countries have also introduced ambassadorial roles dedicated to promoting women’s issues on the global stage or within their foreign policy apparatus. Not all these countries have committed to an unequivocally women’s rights-oriented foreign policy, but these shifts in leadership have diversified foreign policy dialogues and resulted in effective strategies.
Both countries with explicit feminist foreign policy agendas and those without have pursued policies and allocated resources to further gender equality. Some have adopted specific plans to address women’s rights within diplomacy and development cooperation. Eighty-three nations have established national action plans to enhance women’s participation in peace and security processes. Donor countries, such as Australia, Canada, and the United Arab Emirates, have pledged a portion of their foreign assistance funds to initiatives promoting women’s advancement, and some have even created pooled funds supporting women’s rights organizations. Collectively, these endeavors signify a significant shift in resources and political determination.
Efforts to prioritize gender equality in foreign policy have encountered skepticism. Critics argue that focusing more on women’s rights and gender equality distracts from advancing other national interests abroad. Even those who acknowledge the value of gender equality might question its institutionalization as a foreign policy priority.
Yet, this perspective neglects evidence suggesting that gender equality is not just a fundamental human right, but also a means to improve a nation’s economic and security prospects. Elevating the status of women and girls has been shown to enhance GDP, global health, counter radicalization and extremism, contribute to lasting peace, and reinforce democracy. In a world grappling with poverty, insecurity, authoritarianism, and violence, overlooking the potential and contributions of half the population is a luxury no nation can afford.
Other skeptics argue that a genuinely feminist foreign policy would necessitate a profound transformation in international relations. They contend that the feminist policies adopted by countries like Canada, France, and Sweden fall short of reshaping aid structures, reducing militarism, addressing root causes of inequality, or genuinely incorporating the experiences of women and girls. However, valid as these critiques might be, they risk allowing the perfect to obstruct the good. Additionally, these policies, which emphasize gender equality in the realm of national security, are relatively new, and it’s premature to fully grasp their effects, both in terms of improving women’s lives and generating the political will for further change.
Turning Theory into Action
A foreign policy framework openly identifying as feminist brings the advantage of making gender equality an explicit and implicit priority. However, Sweden’s path isn’t the sole approach. By adopting and executing a meticulously crafted policy that ties women’s advancement to national security, economic, and diplomatic goals worldwide, nations can potentially reap the benefits of increased parity.
To reinforce prosperity and stability, governments globally, including the United States, should work toward advancing gender equality in foreign policy. They should establish high-level councils to coordinate efforts promoting the status of women and girls both domestically and abroad. Each cabinet agency should appoint a high-ranking, dedicated official who reports directly to the cabinet minister, responsible for fostering gender equality. Governments and their agencies should integrate gender balance in staffing and establish effective mechanisms for addressing workplace harassment and abuse, thereby including their workplaces in this endeavor.
National leaders should formulate high-priority, comprehensive policies aimed at advancing gender equality through diplomacy, development, defense, and trade. Metrics evaluating a country’s prosperity and stability should encompass the status of women and girls. For example, economic health should involve a level playing field for women, free from discriminatory laws, while security should encompass freedom from intimate partner violence and sexual assault. Parliaments can support these policies through legislation promoting gender equality and directing government ministries to enhance related initiatives.
Gender equality offers tangible benefits not only for a nation’s economy but also its national security. To realize these benefits, governments must invest in this cause at levels sufficient to make meaningful strides for women. Nations capable of providing foreign assistance should allocate funds in ways that directly aid local, female-led organizations, which have proven to drive change but often lack funding. A multinational partnership for gender equality, modeled on initiatives like the Open Government Partnership, could encourage additional funding from governments, multilateral organizations, the private sector, and civil society institutions.
Rhetoric and promises alone won’t yield the dividends of real progress toward gender equality. Nations should be held accountable for their actions—or lack thereof. Public annual reports assessing progress toward well-defined and measurable goals on the path to equity should be mandatory. The United States, in particular, should ratify the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), committing it to join other nations in submitting reports every four years detailing efforts to advance gender equality.
Feminist foreign policy seeks to unleash the potential of half the world’s population. This isn’t merely a moral duty—it’s an economic and security necessity. To achieve this, nations must demonstrate authentic leadership, establish robust policies, and allocate substantial resources. By doing so, they can not only improve the lives of women and girls, but also enhance the stability and prosperity of entire economies and nations.
The writer is an author and Journalist Farazchandio1@gmail.com Twitter: farazchandio1