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  • Caroline Pinder

Why Labour needs to adopt a Feminist Foreign Policy

By Caroline Pinder

Another International Women’s Day passes with many governments claiming commitment to gender equality and upholding women’s and girls’ rights, but often failing to say how they will put resources into the policies and services needed to achieve this. Conveniently the Tories used the Day this year to launch the FCDO’s latest International Women and Girls Strategy 2023-2030.

Although this fulfils the Tories’ commitment to prioritise gender equality in the context of international aid and development, it is most definitely not a feminist foreign policy. The new strategy sets out 3Es of Educating girls, Empowering women, and Ending violence against women and girls, but in so doing continues to imply “women and girls” are a vulnerable group, rather than seeing them as active agents of change. These new E’s also diminish the focus of earlier strategies on women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights, which are currently being challenged across the world as part of a backlash against gender equality in favour of “a return to family values” (i.e. in which women are returned to their position in the kitchen and kindergarten).

As Labour’s National Policy Forum concludes its consultations and moves into drafting the next Manifesto, based on its vision for ‘A Stronger Future for Britain in the World’, there is an opportunity for Labour to make a clear statement that return of a Labour government would place empowerment of all marginalised groups at the heart of foreign policy, by adopting a Feminist Foreign Policy.

Feminist foreign policy (FFP) is not simply “all about the girls,” but it does go well beyond the “add-women-and-stir” tokenistic approach. FFP is about inclusion of all groups marginalised in some way (e.g. by gender, race, disability, age), and transforming institutionalised and embedded patriarchal power structures and polices to create truly equal societies. It involves applying a feminist lens to policies in order to identify and acknowledge the different outcomes and impacts that foreign policy can have on these groups, whose lived experience is rarely taken into account in conventional models of foreign policy.

The Tories may like to treat women and girls as “vulnerable”, but they are not vulnerable by their own making, and nor are they a minority group to be singled out as “vulnerable”. Yet in almost all cultures, economic, political and social contexts they are marginalised, and they intersect with all other marginalised groups. Focusing on how a policy impacts on women and girls, therefore, enables understanding of how it intersects with, and impacts on, those other marginalised groups.

Although in many societies status and access to land and property are no longer conferred only on men, or solely passed on by fathers to sons and managed by men, it is the case that worldwide society largely continues to be organised around sustaining male power and privilege. Despite all the talk, little has changed for many women over the past couple of decades. The continuation of patriarchal institutions and structures has, in some parts of the world, led to increased oppression of women, resulting in a global decrease in their economic and social position, increased gender-based violence, and a dilution of their human and sexual health rights.

Women continue to comprise the majority of the world’s poor and people living in camps for refugees and internally displaced people. They continue to bear the burden of climate change when they have to walk further and further for water and firewood. Their role as the prime carers of families was evident throughout the COVID pandemic. The WHO recently reported that of the 690 million people who are food insecure in the world right now, 60 percent are women and girls.

The Tories’ cuts to the aid budget over the past couple of years, and the swallowing up into FCDO of our development expertise, has had serious implications for poor women and girls across the globe. Reduced support for programmes pertaining to maternity and childcare, prevention of sexual violence, and food security is just one of the ways women and girls have been adversely affected.

So what would a FFP look like? Ideally, FFP should be integral to domestic as well as foreign policy, recognising that what happens within a state is often influenced by external forces, and conversely the actions a state takes towards other nations is often influenced by what is happening at home. For example, climate change has shown how nationalistic approaches are not enough to tackle the challenge; only when all countries act together to reduce harmful climatic impacts will there be any improvement. Similarly, COVID showed the need for a global approach to tackling health crises, and how the failure of wealthy western and northern nations to make the vaccinations accessible to poorer nations meant the virus was able to mutate and continue to cause severe loss of life around the world.

FFP would cut across trade and defence policies, diplomatic relations and approaches to aid and development. In the same way that gender budgeting looks at what will be the impacts on women of fiscal policies, so FFP will look through a feminist lens at what will be the impacts on women – and thereby on all marginalised groups – of how we engage with other nations through our trade, diplomacy, defence and development policies.

For example, FFP acknowledges that many trade and international investment policies are highly gendered, often hiding inequalities in pay, poor working conditions, regulations and cultures that limit the role women can play in expanding business opportunities. In diplomacy, the Tories have put national interests before ethical values and concerns for human rights, so that we provide food and medical aid to Yemen’s citizens who are the victims of the Saudis’ use of the weapons we have sold to them.

Under the Tories, Britain has lost much of its soft influencing power, and our reputation as a nation that could be trusted to support human rights and fairness has been seriously damaged. A Labour led FFP would defend the rights of people to demonstrate against power abuse and challenge the failure of global institutions to prosecute perpetrators. It could also counter the anti-gender movement now arising in some parts of the world (e.g. against women journalists in Iran, education of girls in Afghanistan, anti-abortion movements in central European countries) through diplomacy and trade sanctions.

In 2019 a framework for FFP was initiated under the leadership of the International Centre for Research on Women (ICRW), involving over 100 organisations from more than 40 countries. Although the incoming right-wing Swedish government sadly ditched FFP last year, FFP has been taken up in other countries, notably Canada, Mexico, Spain and France, adapting it to their specific country context. More recently the incoming German government has been looking at how they can apply FFP, and Chile is to unveil its FFP in the coming months.

As we move into a post-Tory era, adopting a feminist lens is an opportunity for Labour to champion a new approach to foreign policy that really will help build a stronger future for our citizens and marginalised groups across the world.


Caroline Pinder is an international development consultant, member of Oxford East Labour Party, Labour’s Foreign Policy Group and Campaign for International Development.

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