How Feminist Foreign Policy Can Drive Change


Feminist fellows from the Global South and North reflect on their study tour to explore how to best implement a feminist foreign policy.

women stand in front of flags at State Department in Washington, DC

Institutions and individuals increasingly seek more inclusive and thoughtful policies for women and girls, from multilateral institutions such as the United Nations and the World Bank to the White House and State Department, to research organizations, NGOs, and academia. One approach that is gaining traction but also encountering obstacles is feminist foreign policy. During the Feminist Foreign and Development Policy fellowship, we, the fellows, explored the pressing issues in feminist foreign policy design and implementation with officials of government and international organizations, representatives of civil society and academia, and with researchers. The discussions covered the range of what feminist foreign and development policy (FFDP) stands for, and revealed where personal and community interests and experiences intersect with regional and global challenges.

FFDP is a relatively new concept and is still being defined and formulated, while at the same time already bearing some fruit from implementation. Ideally, an FFDP approach develops and implements policies not by a majority acting above all, but in concert with and by genuinely including, listening to, and empowering a range of minorities and others who have been silenced and underrepresented. The study tour gave us opportunities to share our personal stories and our communities’ stories, as well as to connect them to global decisions, understanding, and actions within FFDP.

For us, FFDP starts at home. We all come from places of community, and we value respect. We believe that, as humans, as citizens, each of us on this planet has a duty to ensure that all living creatures are cared for. We exist because of others – that is what makes us human. Inclusion is one of the core elements of FFDP, starting from mutual respect and empathy. FFDP serves everyone because it includes everyone. It is about translating our personal stories and our community stories into actions, be those local, regional, or global. FFDP is about achieving a peaceful, equal, and just world for us all – not favoring only the majority, but favoring all. FFDP is about human security.

So is human security different, and how does it connect to overall security and foreign policy ideas? According to United Nations General Assembly Resolution 66/290, which sought to articulate “a common understanding on the notion of human security” and its role, “Human security calls for people-centered, comprehensive, context-specific and prevention-oriented responses that strengthen the protection and empowerment of all people.” Relatedly, FFDP questions the traditional understanding of state security and calls for a people-centered approach to peace and security in domestic policies and in carrying out policies abroad, where a country’s decisions are likely to affect those of various communities. 

While feminism is often seen as a Global North concept, feminist foreign policy (FFP) has gained popularity across the world. Since Sweden famously first adopted FFP in 2014 under Foreign Minister Margot Wallström, other countries have followed. As of July 2022, according to UN Women, they were: Canada (2017), France (2019), Mexico (2020), Spain (2021), Luxembourg (2021), Libya (2021), Germany (2021), and Chile (2022). The Netherlands “has put its feminist foreign policy into action,” according to a November 2022 article on a government website. Discussions are ongoing in other countries.

To be sure, FFP has had setbacks as well. Sweden in 2022 abandoned its landmark feminist foreign policy when a new government took power. Furthermore, the European Union remains behind in developing and implementing a feminist foreign policy. And though the July 2022 UN Women report said Belgium was in the process of developing such an approach, a recent online search didn’t reveal such a policy in place.

Still, some countries around the world that speak of seeking “human security” may in fact be incorporating key tenets of feminist foreign policy in their approaches without using that term, due to the history, misunderstanding, and negative connotations of “feminism.” In fact, one line of discussion throughout various meetings during the fellowship was about whether to stop using the term “feminism” in order to effect bigger changes and reach a wider audience. A number of institutions and individuals from both governmental and non-governmental structures are doing the work in line with FFDP but avoid the term to reduce obstacles, amid a sense of urgency to make progress.

That leads us to question if we should focus rather on global principles and values, on impact and implementation, and make room for communities and institutions to establish their own vocabulary and communications strategies? Surely none of us can decide for others whether or how to announce and implement FFDP; what we can do is to ensure a safe and open space for discussion and for hearing different views, where everyone acts from the perspective of their communities and with respect for others. This is where the personal and community-based issues particularly intersect with global policy questions.

FFDP is still perceived primarily as a pursuit of the Global North, as the institutions there tend to have the resources and opportunities to focus on these issues. Yet, there is a clear need and interest in engaging Global South perspectives and realities, not only in the implementation stage but also in the ongoing process of policy conceptualization and design. It is fundamental for policy formulation and implementation to provide a truly inclusive platform for expression, supported with the required and justly distributed resources for the implementation stage. Just distribution of resources would require flexibility. This means that for FFDP to work we need to reach grassroots levels that are not always fully engaged in policy implementation; therefore, rather than making resources contingent on predefined ideas and frameworks, programs should allow for alteration and adaptation depending on community needs. Such cooperation would require building equal and mutually beneficial partnerships, engaging everyone on equal terms.

FFDP is about an interdisciplinary approach, diversity of personal experiences, intersectionality, inter-generational perspectives, and so much more. While there is general agreement on those kinds of broad parameters, the approach of FFDP advocates in the Global North tends to focus more on terms, practices, theories, strategies, and concepts, while Global South perspectives hone in on experiences, consequences, and real people effects and feedback, and is community oriented. These distinctions don’t mean there is no policy-making, feminist practice, or conceptual theorizing happening in the South; it's more that the methodological approaches of the South are often ignored by the North, especially considering the rapid global changes today. The power imbalance between the North and South shapes global policy-making, often marginalizing, for example, southern women's voices. Global policy-making traditionally has been exclusionary, and FFDP presents an alternative centered on solidarity and the global experiences of all women, irrespective of geographic location, race, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, culture, etc.

Considering this reality that the Global North has imposed, taught, and defined for centuries, it might be time to step back and learn, listen, ask, and yield the floor to those who were silenced, not heard, ignored, paternalized, and colonized. FFDP requires learning from our mistakes, questioning existing power structures, and challenging our biases -- and that is where FFDP starts. It starts with us. 

Clearly many obstacles remain to arrive at the goal of a feminist foreign and development policy. Is there a peaceful way to get there? How can we ensure that we are all on board?

FFDP is about challenging and changing traditional ways of thinking and standard approaches to foreign and development policy. Changes are still slow, and some institutions still lag considerably. There is a lot of pressure on women to do all the work in pursuit of such a policy, to be the so-called “gender people'' and to be the ones who care. In doing so, we constantly come up against those who are used to the status quo, who are afraid of change and innovation, who do not want to share their power, who do not want to open doors or share a seat at the table. Yet the revolutions, wars, and other conflicts around the world speak for themselves – we cannot keep doing business as usual. Something must change, through increased engagement and cooperation worldwide. FFDP opens that possibility to listen, learn, and DO things differently.

Policy Recommendations

The fellows of the Feminist Foreign and Development Policy (FFDP) study tour developed the following recommendations for how individual professionals and government and non-government institutions can get involved in FFDP and accelerate the needed changes to constructive effect in today’s rapidly changing and conflict-prone global environment:

  • Continue implementing existing gender equality, diversity, and inclusion standards and strategies that align with the vision and values of feminist foreign and development policy; increase the transparency and accountability of these efforts.
  • Incorporate civil society, women-led organizations, marginalized groups, and all those most affected throughout all processes of formulation and implementation of feminist foreign and development policy.
  • Go beyond quotas. While they can be a good start where necessary, true inclusion is the goal -- more than just a “seat at the table.” That requires favorable conditions, equally dedicated speaking and engagement time, and inclusion throughout all the processes of foreign and development policy.
  • Coordinate formal and informal practices by formalizing some initiatives (such as in law) to ensure their implementation, while retaining and connecting informal mechanisms such as spaces that are safe from repression, where participants can exchange experience, to ensure utmost efficiency and protection.
  • Conduct highly inclusive training, including workshops, for all those involved – not only those who should be included but also those who already are -- to internalize the understanding that feminist foreign and development policy is done not only by women or “gender people,” but rather becomes the way anyone develops and implements foreign and development policy.
  • Form a sustainable base for feminist foreign policy by starting at home, ensuring domestic and internal policy is feminist, too.
  • Provide needed resources for the outlined goals, objectives, and action plans, including but not limited to financial support and staff.