Feminist foreign policy is not just about ensuring human security but about viewing the situation through a more holistic lens that looks at power imbalances within societies.
As Ukraine expends all its energies in a for survival against Russia’s invasion, it is tempting to say: “there is no time for feminist foreign policy.” After all, geopolitics and “realpolitik” seem to be back on the agenda in debates about how to end the war, and Ukraine needs to focus on securing weapons to keep fighting and to gain our territory back, and on ensuring humanitarian and financial support to keep the country going. Feminism is commonly thought of as strictly opposed to weapons and violence. So, is it a futile undertaking to even bring up feminist foreign policy in Ukraine right now?
Inherently, feminist foreign policy is about human security. In the case of Russia’s war in Ukraine, in addition to immediate humanitarian aid, weapons are key to survival for Ukrainians. Ukrainian feminists are joining – often leading – protests and official delegations all around the world appealing to Western governments to provide Ukraine with weapons, as one of the means to protect their people. The Russian full-scale invasion has targeted civilians from the beginning. So, if someone still does not understand why Ukrainians are fighting, not giving up, and why they are in need of weapons, one need only look at pictures, videos, and stories of diverse Ukrainians -- women and girls, ethnic minorities, LGBTQI representatives, and others -- from already de-occupied cities, such as Bucha, Irpin, Kherson, and others that illustrate the devastating sweep of the impact of the war. Massive missile attacks on a daily basis destroy lives, livelihoods, and critical infrastructure, as well as natural parks, agricultural land, and even entire cities such as Mariupol and Bakhmut and many more, swaths of which may be rendered uninhabitable for decades.
Inaction does not increase human security and peace – it creates more violence and war crimes. Giving up control over territory leads to human trafficking and sexual and gender-based violence, and to humanitarian, food, and energy crises that can have consequences far beyond Ukraine.
Ukraine proves the point that weapons are, in fact, necessary in certain instances to ensure human security. Moreover, Ukrainians are fighting for such human security not only for themselves but essentially for all of Europe and the rules-based order that the democratic world says it wants to uphold. The rules-based order should apply to all and should not exclude those who have what we in traditional terms understand as power, whether economic or military. Feminist foreign policy is not just about ensuring human security but about viewing the situation through a more holistic lens that looks at power imbalances within societies. It gives those who are traditionally being ignored, overlooked, and overheard a voice.
Feminist foreign policy in Ukraine is not only about weapons; it takes a more holistic approach, based on the needs of the whole society and each person in particular. Ukrainian society is diverse. Ukrainian women, men, and children are diverse. They have different roles and different needs – they are fighting directly at the frontline; those volunteering to provide humanitarian aid; taking care of children, elders, or people with disabilities; stepping in to keep the economy running and feed their families while the traditional wage-earners are at the front. Some had no choice but to leave the country yet hope to come back. As such, feminist policy at home and feminist foreign policy are inextricably linked, as Ukraine seeks to ensure that all parts of society have the representation, rights, and access to resources that they need, especially those most vulnerable.
At the same time, in this context of war, feminist foreign policy is about more than ensuring a country defending itself against an aggressor has the weapons it needs. It means considering the varying impacts of the war based on gender and other forms of diversity. In the case of Ukraine, this requires a foreign policy that can help mitigate the immediate effects of the war on Ukrainians, with assistance from abroad to meet basic humanitarian needs such as food, water, energy, healthcare, sanitary products, and education. Aid is also needed to help the country address war-related (and other kinds of) domestic abuse, human trafficking, sexual and gender-based violence, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
In the aftermath of the war, too, sustainable peace and security in Ukraine will only be achieved through a whole-of-a-society approach, in which everyone is represented and meaningfully included as equal. This is surely work that Ukraine must do internally, as these efforts start at home. That means mainstreaming an understanding of and respect for feminist policy and its values domestically and externally.
Considering the support that Ukraine and Ukrainians already receive, including from countries that have officially declared feminist foreign and development policies, this could be a moment for Ukraine to start such a dialogue and internal cooperation to promote the development of feminist approaches in the government’s domestic and external policies. Ukraine and its donors should work together to, for example, apply feminist approaches to recovery packages that Ukraine and its partners are developing already.
Yet, Ukraine unfortunately cannot ensure its peace and security alone. Any interest in restoring human security and a rules-based global order requires seeing Ukraine’s defense and future sovereignty and resilience as a shared responsibility, for example with those countries committed to FFP. It is the responsibility of the global community to ensure that autocrats like Putin and those who surround him do not have the power that allows them to commit such violations. Such world “leaders” and their thinking represent exactly what FFP seeks to counter – “colonial, patriarchal, and sexist underpinnings,” as Ukrainian Ambassador to the United Nations Serhiy Kyslytsia has so aptly described the roots of their behavior.
And the world’s immediate response to such actions should be more assertive and faster. It might be more costly financially in the short term, but nothing is more costly than the lives of humans and their economic futures. How many times have we favored the (temporary) economic wealth of a few over the well-being and even survival of a majority? We are all more interconnected than we think. The consequences of the Russian invasion of Ukraine are felt globally -- food insecurity, energy crises, gender inequality, ecological and environmental degradation. All of these are important and must be addressed simultaneously.
To me, feminist foreign policy is the way to achieve that. It is the approach that will end the war and create a sustainable peace in Ukraine, and globally.