The Pandemic Underscores the Need for Feminist Foreign Policy
By Daniela Sepúlveda Soto | July 27, 2021
Daniela Sepúlveda Soto is a PhD student in political science at the University of Minnesota.
The pandemic has widened gender-based inequalities around the world. UN Women estimates that 47 million women and girls have been pushed into poverty by COVID-19. The Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy reports that the pandemic has fueled an increase in domestic violence, intensified gender labor inequality, postponed sexual and reproductive health care, and limited migrant women’s access to health care.
The countries that have adopted a feminist foreign policy have been particularly aware of these disproportionate impacts on women, especially regarding non-economic impacts. What can we learn from their response to the pandemic? Has the time come for the United States to adopt a feminist foreign policy?
A Growing Movement in Foreign Policy
A traditional and dominant approach to foreign policy is based primarily on military power and the dynamics of domination. In this context, women not only tend to be a marginalized and underrepresented community in the conduct of foreign policy, but they also tend to suffer differential impacts in all policies and decisions adopted by governments and international organizations.
In general terms, a feminist approach to foreign policy makes this diagnosis explicit and denounces the persistence of gender blind policy responses. Although there is no single, universal definition, a feminist foreign policy promotes gender equality and the development of groups historically marginalized from high politics, stressing the traditional power structures that, under strongly male-dominated schemes, have exacerbated discrimination and inequality at the political, international, and diplomatic levels.
Although there is no single, universal definition, a feminist foreign policy promotes gender equality and the development of groups historically marginalized from high politics, stressing the traditional power structures that have exacerbated inequality at the political, international, and diplomatic levels.
The development of feminist foreign policy has meant a new paradigm in foreign relations, cooperation, humanitarian assistance, and trade between states. In 2014, Sweden became the first country to formally adopt a feminist foreign policy, and to date, five more countries have followed suit (Canada in 2017, France in 2019, Mexico in 2020, Luxembourg in 2021, and Spain in 2021). In addition, several other countries and political communities have started discussions about incorporating a feminist approach in their diplomatic networks, including the European Union, Chile, Denmark, Malaysia, Norway, New Zealand, South Africa, and the United Kingdom.
The United States, for its part, has not formally adopted a feminist foreign policy. However, it has made progress in specific efforts to incorporate a comprehensive and cross-cutting gender approach in certain critical areas, such as diplomacy, development, international assistance, security, and defense. This last area has been, in fact, a scenario of essential advances through the strengthening of the Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) agenda.
Under the WPS framework, the United States has been an active promoter of the incorporation of women in peacebuilding, peacekeeping, and post-conflict processes. Nevertheless, President Biden has warned that the pandemic has heightened the inequities that the most marginalized groups experience, hindering sustainable peace development. This demonstrates how an international health crisis can have unpredictable impacts in sensitive areas, such as global security.
COVID-19 and Feminist Foreign Policy
The pandemic has represented the first significant test of feminist foreign policy, forcing the international community to dispute budgets and priorities between different foreign policy approaches. The six countries that have adopted a feminist foreign policy address different strategies to confront gender blind policy responses to the pandemic, but share a common thread of targeting systemic gender inequality.
Sweden, for example, has allocated significant sums of money to support Ethiopia’s response to COVID, providing assistance to protect women from domestic violence. At the same time, it has redirected its foreign policy resources to support the COVID mitigation effects in low-income countries, especially those with a higher proportion of women living in poverty. Canada, meanwhile, has focused on donations to promote reproductive and sexual health in different regions. Echoing this concern, Mexico has activated its feminist diplomacy to ask the United Nations for a resolution that allows more transparent and equitable vaccine access to combat the pandemic, given that women represent about 70% of the health care workforce. Spain, for its part, recently announced that its international cooperation would have a gender focus, subsidizing feminist organizations groups in Africa.
The management of the pandemic among countries with a feminist foreign policy has meant rethinking global engagement in terms of human security, sustainable peace, reduction of economic injustice, and multilateral cooperation.
As an immediate effect, the management of the pandemic among countries with a feminist foreign policy has meant rethinking global engagement in terms of human security, sustainable peace, reduction of economic injustice, and multilateral cooperation. As Margot Wallström, Sweden’s former Minister for Foreign Affairs, has pointed out, the pandemic “has brutally displayed the lack of equality and discrimination in the world and at home.” This outcome was one of the main discussion topics of the Generation Equality Forum, a meeting organized by Mexico and France during the first months of 2021. In this platform, the countries with a feminist foreign policy have played a prominent role, promoting a gendered lens to understand and face the impoverishing and marginalizing effects of COVID-19.
Feminist Foreign Policy in the US?
This pandemic has had overwhelming impacts on the international configuration of power, trade, and defense. It has involved a reconfiguration of mitigation efforts, development aid, south-south cooperation, relationships between the global north and global south, and strengthening institutional capacities both domestically and internationally to respond to this health emergency. As a result, the great powers have had to reorient their strategies around new standards of influence measurement no longer exhausted in conventional power.
Together with hundreds of experts and advocates, the Coalition for a Feminist Foreign Policy in the United States has prepared initial drafts of a U.S. feminist foreign policy, taking as reference the experience of Sweden, Canada, and France. While some believe that the Biden-Harris administration presents an opportunity to review America’s foreign policy foundations, others believe that strengthening the WPS agenda would be the only practical manifestation of these changes. However, the empowerment of historically marginalized groups is not played out solely at the level of international peacebuilding. Advocates must continue to demand an intersectional feminist approach that provides solutions to other underrepresented communities, such as Indigenous or immigrant women.
The “she-cession” triggered by the pandemic provides a stark reminder that none of the significant issues on the international agenda can be successfully resolved without an inclusive perspective.
The “she-cession” triggered by the pandemic provides a stark reminder that none of the significant issues on the international agenda can be successfully resolved without an inclusive perspective. Climate change, poverty and hunger, constant economic crises and restrictions, and even the response to future pandemics must have an inclusive roadmap. For this reason, it is in the United States’ strategic best interest to quickly and publicly adopt a feminist foreign policy or risk losing the moral and strategic advantage it possesses over its growing hegemonic rivals.