Women’s rights should not be just a “side event,” experts say in discussion on feminist foreign policy
Putting women at the centre of foreign policy decisions is essential for creating lasting change on the ground, especially when it comes to protecting women human rights defenders, experts said at a panel discussion organized by the Right Livelihood Foundation on Thursday, March 4.
The speakers, including Right Livelihood Laureates, decision-makers and activists, called for the implementation and strengthening of feminist foreign policy, which takes gender equality into account for all policy decisions.
Implementing a women-centred foreign policy needs to begin with listening to women’s voices on the ground, said Egyptian women’s rights defender Mozn Hassan, who received the 2016 Right Livelihood Award.
“Our existence is important because it’s really hard to set laws and policies for your foreign policy without listening to us and without understanding what’s happening in our countries and contexts,” she said.
2012 Right Livelihood Laureate Sima Samar, who had previously served as Afghanistan’s Minister for Human Rights and Minister of Women’s Affairs, urged pushing for tangible results.
“When it comes to representation, it’s really important to have women and feminists not to make the table colourful, but to make a real representation of women,” Samar said.
Women and their perspectives need to be present at the table where decisions are made. She said that she had once pointed out to an EU official that having a side event at an international conference to discuss women’s rights in Afghanistan was far from enough.
“We should not be in the side event – we should be in the [main] event,” she recalled telling the official.
Sweden was the first country to adopt a feminist foreign policy in 2014. Since then, five other countries have also joined: Canada, Mexico, France, Luxemburg and Spain.
“The idea in 2014 was to adopt a systematic gender equality perspective throughout our foreign policy,” said Anna Jardfelt, Swedish Ambassador to the UN in Geneva.
“The starting point was that gender equality in itself is an objective, but also that this kind of policy is essential for achieving the government’s overall objectives such as peace, security and sustainable development.”
The policy is based on ensuring rights, representation and resources for women.
Åsa Regnér, Deputy Executive Director of UN Women, who had also been involved with the implementation of Sweden’s feminist foreign policy, said that commitments, recommendations and obligations to gender equality are already in place.
“What we need now is action, accountability, implementation and funding,” she said.
Regnér warned that women human rights defenders are increasingly under threat in many regions, which makes taking a gender equality lens to foreign policy all the more important.
“Many times, what they advocate for is actually international agreements,” she said. “They’re doing the UN’s job.”
Hassan specifically brought up fellow Right Livelihood Laureate Nasrin Sotoudeh, an Iranian lawyer who is currently in jail for advocating for human rights, including women’s rights.
“I just wish that Nasrin would be with us now to see this solidarity and respect for her work,” Hassan said.
Hannah Neumann, a Member of the European Parliament, said that decision over foreign policy must always take gender equality into account, especially for women fighting for human rights and democracy.
“We don’t fail intentionally because we don’t want to support women human rights defenders – but because sometimes we don’t take the specific context into account and use this gender lens,” Neumann said.
“Don’t just look at it through the economic lens or the geopolitical lens, but let’s take a gender lens and see what it means.”
However, for that, women’s voices need to be heard.
“We are really struggling with how people internationally are seeing us and how it’s affecting our daily lives,” Hassan said of women’s rights activists in the Middle East and North Africa region.
To show the plethora of viewpoints within the region, she has recently co-founded the Doria Feminist Fund. It aims to challenge the prevailing narrative of women and present the diversity of voices.
“Our stories are producing knowledge,” Hassan noted.
Women-led and women-focused organisations – like the Doria Feminist Fund – are essential for feminist foreign policy to be successful, said Kristina Luntz, the Executive Director of the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy.
“We urgently, really need to bring transformative, radical, feminist thinking into international policy,” she noted. “And it is, and it can only be driven by feminist grass-roots organisation.”
The panel discussion was moderated by Gunilla Hallonsten, a Board Member of the Right Livelihood Foundation. It was co-sponsored by the Permanent Mission of Swedish to the United Nations in Geneva, the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy, PEN America and the Doria Feminist Fund.