A trend that’s catching on? Feminist foreign policy and international efforts to end violence against women

Johanna Nelles reflects on the contours of feminist foreign policy as it approaches its ten years of thinking. Feminist foreign policy, in its very foundations, recognizes the structural nature of violence inflicted upon women and could provide a solid foundation to spur transformative change within existing social hierarchies.
Image by the author, Johanna Nelles, in Montreal, Quebec.

It has been almost 10 years since Sweden’s Foreign Minister at the time, Margot Wallström, proclaimed that the Swedish Government would be pursuing a feminist perspective in its foreign policy. Canada famously went second in 2017, declaring to be applying a feminist perspective to its international foreign assistance. Since then, several countries around the globe have followed suit. Canada, Chile, France, Germany, Libya, Luxembourg, Mexico and Spain are now counted among those that officially pursue a feminist foreign policy agenda. Others place greater attention on gender equality and women’s rights in many aspects of their foreign policy. Their number seems to be growing. So is the research interest in and advocacy work around feminist foreign policy.  

What is feminist foreign policy and how does it help with ending violence against women? 

Comprehensive articulations of what feminist foreign policy means are rare, and there is no universal definition. The original elements put forward by Sweden in 2014 consisted of three ‘Rs’: Rights, Representation, and Resources for women, to which a fourth ‘R’ was later added, referring to ‘reality check’ to ensure respect for local contexts and actors. Although the current Swedish Government decided to drop the feminist label (but to continue to pursue strategic gender equality efforts in foreign policy), the idea is gaining ground. Through consultations with civil society actors, past or planned, and international conferences to “shape” or  “understand” feminist foreign policies, the concept is being staked out. A growing number of non-governmental organisations and think tanks are contributing to the discussion, promoting feminist and intersectional perspectives across the full range of foreign policy areas that are transformative, gender-inclusive, rights-based and informed by an intersectional understanding of the discrimination and marginalisation of women and girls, including on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender identity. The need for clearly established policy objectives and ways to measure progress, as well as adequate funding – including for women’s grassroots organisations – are equally among the elements being put forward.  

Some governments seem to apply a feminist lens more readily to official development assistance, while others seek a more extensive application across foreign policy fields that include peace and security, trade, migration and asylum, human rights, climate action and defence. As an approach that is still very much in the making, it has been met with criticism about policy incoherence, prioritising national interests over the promotion of women’s rights, disregard for intersecting forms of discrimination and oppression, and promoting liberal rather than transformative feminism.  

Many states that promote a feminist foreign policy or elements thereof share a commitment to a rules-based international legal order and an inclusive understanding of international human rights norms and frameworks. Advancing the rights of women and girls on this basis is the aim, with growing recognition of their exposure to multiple forms of discrimination that intersect with race, ethnicity, migrant status, religion, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity and many other factors. Often, this approach is set against a reality of increasing violent conflict, rising populism, the growing rollback of women’s rights and attacks on the rights of LGBTIQ+ persons, among other factors.  

Three ways to boost efforts to end violence against women through feminist foreign policy  

First, a feminist approach to development co-operation can help situate the human rights of women and girls at the centre of programming, project design and implementation, including their right to be free from gender-based violence. Women’s representation in this process and respect for local realities will more readily lead to projects that address the root causes of violence against women and investment in women’s social and economic empowerment, while involving men and boys in the process. Developing an inclusive, intersectional and rights-based approach to development co-operation can drive change on the ground for marginalised members of society. 

Second, countries that support gender equality in foreign policy can provide a much needed boost to the United Nation’s Women, Peace and Security Agenda in order to increase efforts to address sexual violence in conflict. Growing levels of conflict and militarisation affect women and girls disproportionately. This is reason enough to ensure their experiences, perspectives and concerns are part of peace-brokering, peace-building and peace-keeping efforts. A feminist foreign policy can help address women’s shrinking participation in peace negotiations and ensure that women’s voices are heard on all matters related to peace and security. It allows the connection to be made between violence against women and the increasing military spending, arms proliferation, and militarisation.  

Third, feminist foreign policy approaches can increase respect for international legal standards to protect women and girls from gender-based violence. By placing respect for a rules-based international order high on the agenda, feminist foreign policy approaches can help push back on attempts to question the legitimacy of women’s rights standards, especially on violence against women and sexual health and reproductive rights. In Europe, promoting the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (Istanbul Convention) through foreign policy is gaining traction. As an innovative treaty that promotes the right of all women and girls to live free from gender-based violence without discrimination on any ground, and that recognises gender as a social construct, it has been targeted by anti-gender actors and their opposition to women’s and LGBTIQ+ rights.  Calls to embrace feminist foreign and security policy approaches, and in that context, to ratify the Istanbul Convention in order to promote women’s rights, are being made, for example by the European Parliament. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe issued a similar resolution to its then 47 member states, as well as its five observer states (including Canada), and those enjoying partner for democracy status with the Assembly. France, as a country that is pursuing a feminist foreign policy agenda on the basis of its international strategy for gender equality, is actively promoting wider ratification of the Istanbul Convention. It is joined by Finland, which promotes this treaty  its human rights policy. Germany just published its intention to work towards the European Union’s ratification of the Istanbul Convention as part of its feminist foreign policy. 

Maturing the concept to speed up global efforts to end violence against women 

Violence against women is widespread, in times of peace and in times of conflict. It takes on many forms and operates on a continuum throughout the lives of women and girls. It is a violation of their human rights that needs to be addressed nationally and internationally. A feminist foreign policy approach offers an important lens to recognise and address the structural and therefore pervasive nature of violence against women by working towards transformative change in gendered power structures and social hierarchies. The nearly ten years of thinking that have gone into bringing feminism to foreign policy offer a solid basis on which to help mature the concept.  

Johanna NellesJohanna Nelles is a human rights professional specialised in preventing and combating violence against women. She is currently on sabbatical from her role as Executive Secretary to the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence and is spending a semester as an O’Brien Fellow in Residence at the Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism at McGill. 


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