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Is Asia Ready for a Feminist Foreign Policy?

October 13, 2021

By Diya Nag, Nandita Baruah

The current world order is witnessing tectonic shifts in power dynamics and profound changes in global alliances and priorities. In less than a decade, we have seen a number of countries face political turmoil leading to the replacement of democratic governance by autocratic regimes. These changes have far-reaching effects on the lives of women and other marginalized communities who are disempowered by patriarchy and social stratification.

The empowerment of women and girls leads to better governance, healthier economic growth, better human development indicators, and greater overall stability in any country. It is therefore essential, as countries rethink the global power structure and build new alliances, that they position gender equity and gender inclusion at the very core of these transitions. Several governments have unfortunately done the opposite, proceeding in a gender-blind manner, particularly when it comes to policy issues such as trade or national security that have traditionally been viewed as “masculine.”

What is feminist foreign policy?

A few years ago in Sweden and Canada, the idea of a “feminist foreign policy” (FFP) began to take root, and it has since shaped those governments’ foreign policy and development cooperation agendas. Other nations have followed suit, including Ireland, Mexico, the UK, France, and the first in Asia, Japan. Across Asia, a discourse has been developing on the need to include more women in positions of power in the areas of foreign policy and diplomacy. The application of a gender lens to issues that are considered “soft”—health, human rights, gender-based violence, or migration—versus those considered “hard”—trade, security, and conflict—needs to be reassessed with a balanced gender perspective.

The empowerment of women and girls leads to better governance, healthier economic growth, better human development indicators, and greater overall stability in any country. It is therefore essential, as countries rethink the global power structure and build new alliances, that they position gender equity and gender inclusion at the very core of these transitions.

An FFP framework lets us advocate for countries to institutionalize the application of a gender-balanced and inclusive framing in all the multi- and bilateral diplomatic engagements that define development assistance, trade, peace and conflict, and global and national security interests. It also helps us to identify and critique the ingrained principles of patriarchy that have defined our understanding of state identities, diplomatic norms and practices, and the role of power and authority.

When it comes to gendering foreign policy, academic experts have identified four fundamental commitments for governments to consider: (1) to explicitly practice gender mainstreaming as a policy approach at all levels of foreign policymaking; (2) to ensure that development assistance targets gender inequality and transforms gender relations; (3) to focus on women’s security and human rights; and (4) to introduce institutional or legislative mechanisms to promote women’s leadership within the foreign policy portfolio.

Global engagement on Covid-19 demands feminist foreign policy.

Covid-19 has caused unprecedented disruption of lives and communities and a global economic crisis. Women in Asia, who mostly work in the informal sector, have suffered more than men. In Cambodia, for instance, 77 percent of garment workers are women, who have faced unemployment and rising poverty as factories close, and many of whom face barriers in accessing government relief. The cost in lives lost, jobs and livelihoods lost, rising poverty, and increased economic disparity between men and women will have a long-term impact on economic recovery and growth. As governments consider slowly reopening Asian economies, they must recognize gender equity as a key denominator for a global economic turnaround.

Researchers, academics, and experts from civil society must encourage countries to consciously identify, prioritize, and mainstream principles of gender equity in all aid or development assistance that they provide, trade policies and economic stimulus packages that they roll out, bilateral or multilateral collaborations on healthcare and medical research, clean energy and climate goals, and any other issue with long-term effects on social stability and economic growth.

Uniquely Asian approaches to feminist foreign policies

The status quo is already being challenged. For instance, women’s peace and security issues are central to peace processes and negotiations, and governments and multilateral agencies are more cognizant of that need and are seeking to articulate that perspective in different spheres of foreign policy.

Perhaps the time is ripe for Asian leaders to begin discussions on gender mainstreaming and to craft a gendered foreign policy that is uniquely Asian. Asian nations may not have national action plans, but they have adopted policies, domestic and foreign, that signal a change. Across Asia there is hope for progress, as governments have invested in opening to women opportunities that were traditionally perceived to be “male only.” For example, in Bangladesh and India, women in the defense forces can now participate in frontline combat units.

We need to take our incremental victories on gender equity and ensure that they are reflected in our foreign policy. As India’s external affairs minister was quoted in a recent article:

I agree that we need to look at the world from the perspective of women; we need to gender-balance foreign policy. We need to look at three things here: getting more women to engage with foreign policy issues, reflect[ing] women’s interests in foreign policy, and bring[ing] in a feminist perspective to foreign policy.

Around 35 percent of Indonesia’s diplomats are women, and the government has been considering policies to support women in these roles and postings, including more opportunities for promotion and the appointment of women to high-level positions. The country will be hosting the Fourth ASEAN Ministerial Meeting on Women in mid-October 2021.

In many Asian countries, the feminist movement has created space to push for gender-equitable engagement across sectors. These are hard-won battles, and these victories should not be compromised. As development practitioners, we must push experts, policymakers, our peers, and civil society to make the rights-and-equity discourse a mainstream component of every country’s engagement with other nations. A feminist foreign policy approach can help us do that.

Nandita Baruah is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in India, and Diya Nag is a governance and legal specialist for the Foundation in Cambodia. They can be reached at [email protected] and [email protected], respectively. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, not those of The Asia Foundation.

The article is adapted from a previous essay written by the authors and published in South Asian Voices, from the Stimson Center.

1 Comment

  1. Well written Diya!

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