Feminist Foreign Policy : Lessons for Africa

The concept of a Feminist Foreign Policy is a relatively new concept, which has been embraced in some European countries albeit with criticism. This policy speaks of moving from a perspective that only considers issues such as violence, domination and the military by considering a school of thought that is intersectional and a framework in policy that considers women’s experiences and looks at forces of patriarchy, capitalism, racism, and militarism. Sweden is one of the countries that have been at the forefront of the feminist policy, when the Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom launched the first feminist foreign policy handbook.  The objective of this policy is to stand against the systematic and global subordination of women” and a “precondition” for achieving Sweden’s wider foreign development and security policy, and contribute to gender equality and the full enjoyment of human rights by women.

Sweden’s feminist foreign policy is a working method and a perspective that takes three R’s as its starting point. The implication is that the Swedish Foreign Service, in all its parts, strives to strengthen all women’s and girls’ Rights, Representation and Resources, based on the Reality in which they live. Sweden’s feminist foreign policy is a transformative agenda that aims to change structures and enhance the visibility of women and girls as actors. In essence, the handbook highlights the full enjoyment of human rights by women, the promotion of women’s participation and influence in decision making processes at all levels, and the equitable distribution of resources.

At first glance, Africa may be seen as a continent that is in dire need of a feminist policy, considering gender imbalances that span years post the liberation of many African countries. 5% of women are said to be at management positions in corporate companies in Africa. Furthermore, in South Africa for example, the pay gap is still 15%-17% which points out gender imbalances. Similarly, staggering statistics show a high level of domestic violence in Africa, with one in five women having experienced domestic violence. A feminist policy seems to be a solution to contributing effectively to the reduction of these incidences. African countries are in essence faced with systematic and gender related conflicts. The lack of representation, violation of rights, and adequate resources to realise the three “R’s” show an underlying fibre of resistance and the continued disempowerment of women.

Another aspect that adds to the supposed importance of developing a feminist foreign policy is how gender is not prioritised in issues such as post conflict management, peacekeeping, and the initial involvement of women in making key decisions in terms of Foreign policy. For African countries, it goes further than just the issue of women, but further marginalization in as far as black women are concerned. The narrative of feminism and its roots in history has managed to exclude the black female voice because the custodians of feminism are white middle class women, which is similar to the current feminist Foreign Policy. In as far as international security is concerned, gender concerns and sensitivity has not been at the forefront. The “buy in” from black women has never been in question when signing things like a peace treaty in Mali. In negotiations around the issue of peacekeeping, black women are never really there or considered as part of a necessary voice that will make a difference in the outcome. This may be a downside of a pure adoption of the blueprint of the feminist foreign policy, unless it is adopted and customized to fit the needs of African women. This would mean the consideration of women in influential political positions in order to play a central role in the development of the policy, or any other policy, and consider the gender aspect as it has certain implications on the outcome of what is being developed for parties concerned.

On the other hand, there is an issue of how global politics at play make such a policy a pawn in the game of political agendas under the mirage of improving women’s status globally. For example, in Sweden, post the adoption of the feminist foreign policy, signed an arms deal with Saudi Arabia, which is notorious for impeding on women’s rights by regarding them as male dependants. The rationale seems to be aligning to the United Nations Arms Deal treaty through responsible exporting, in order to decrease the risk associated with exporting weapons for human rights violations.

Africa being a continent with countries that are notorious for the violation of women’s rights, can take a few lessons from the adoption of Sweden’s feminist policy, and also ensure that it is not merely a symbolic , rhetorical PR stunt and something to be adopted as a pawn in party politics. First and foremost, should an African country decide to adopt a Feminist Foreign Policy, it has to do so in a way that is consistent with the core needs of marginalized groups, especially black women. The issue of representation is key in this. Black women should be at the forefront of developing the policy, and also key role payers in voicing out gender specific concerns in Foreign Ministries in order to have integrated perspectives. The conversation cannot be about voices that are not affected. Secondly, the policy should be breeding ground for active participation in international arenas such as Foreign Ministries being part of international bodies that play a role in generating reports on the violation of women’s rights as well as vulnerable women in war zones, and then take the relevant action. For Sweden, this meant joining the Security Council of the UN, to prioritise the safety of women internationally, in the most vulnerable areas. Adoption of such a policy will mean more than just believing in the values enshrined in the policy and what it represents, but acting on it. There is a high population of African women, who should take part in conversations about their own experiences. Excluding them is a pure injustice and will end up in the Policy not serving its beneficiaries’ needs, as they know them.

It is inevitable that our highly conservative states may not be for the idea of adopting such a policy, as the concept of feminism in Africa has not been welcomed by many, due to cultural perspectives and thriving patriarchy. However, for states that are willing to be pioneers, this will have an influence on how other conservative states may possibly adopt aspects of a foreign feminist policy and prioritise the representation, rights, and resources for women. This is evident in Sweden’s pioneering spirit which as encouraged other countries to adopt aspects enshrined in the policy. For example, Turkey has actively provided free legal aid to states and security forces, with specific focus on vulnerable transsexual women. Furthermore, Canada has managed to host their 1st ever female foreign ministers meeting, in order to prioritize women’s issues under their G7_ government, in order to drive representation from just the 30 women in the world leading their countries’ diplomacy. This shows how influential such a policy can really be if it is prioritised.

The Western system of governance has left a bitter taste in the mouths of most Africans, due to colonialism. Most of what has been central in building healthy black communities fell between the cracks of being misunderstood and disregarded, with an agenda of pushing Western Ideals. The true measure of the effectiveness of such a policy will lie in effectively aligning such a policy to the cultural and legal context of African communities and states. It is without a doubt that every African state seeks the protection and equal enjoyment of rights by every citizen, including previously disadvantaged groups. To say such an approach is a measure in advocating for this, needs a thorough consideration of the African context and a balance scorecard to measure what is central in regarding such a measure as being successful in protecting women.


Featured image | Margot Wallström, prime minister of Sweden | The Irish Labour Party | flickr

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Best of Africa.

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