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Prioritizing Feminism in Foreign Policy for Gender Equality

Gender equality in foreign policy

Australia’s forthcoming International Development Policy is generating significant anticipation within the international development community. Simultaneously, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) is discreetly crafting a fresh approach to gender equality on the global stage, expanding upon the foundation set by the 2016 Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment Strategy. The inaugural public consultation for this strategy commenced with Pacific feminist advocates convening in Fiji in May, where they collaboratively established a regional gender equality agenda ahead of the Women Deliver 2023 Conference in Rwanda. Notably, DFAT’s engagement with feminists, both domestically and internationally, aims to root the strategy in movement-led priorities and respond to the voices of those on the front lines.

Amidst these efforts, an intriguing question looms: will the Strategy officially embrace the term “feminist“? Despite intentional collaboration with feminist movements, there remains uncertainty about whether the strategy will adopt this label.

Why the opposition?

Opposition to incorporating the term “feminist” in international policy exists for various reasons, ranging from insincerity to well-meaning but misguided concerns. Among the latter, one particular argument stands out: the idea that the term could be “alienating” to allies and potential supporters in Australia’s neighboring region.

At first glance, this argument seems to disregard the fact that autonomous feminist movements are active in the immediate vicinity, with women human rights defenders playing pivotal roles in struggles against shrinking civic space (e.g., Cambodia, Indonesia), democratic reform (Myanmar), and political inclusion of women in parliament (Solomon Islands, Fiji).

However, at a deeper level, this argument is grounded in a misunderstanding: that an explicitly feminist policy is something imposed on others, rather than an expression of a country’s core values and principles. This peculiar standard doesn’t apply to other policy formulations. Realist diplomacy is not concerned with whether “realism” is being foisted upon counterparts, and when discussing liberal internationalist policy, no fretting occurs about imposing rules or orders unduly. Perhaps this should be a consideration, but that’s a discussion for another occasion.

When Australian diplomats advocate for the abolition of the death penalty, there’s no extensive concern about imposing Western values on partner countries. Instead, nuanced approaches are used – listening to local experts and employing culturally resonant language. For those who argue that this matter pertains to life and death, it’s worth pondering the life-threatening consequences of gender inequality for women and girls.

The crux of the matter

Gender inequality stems from a power imbalance between genders. Achieving equality necessitates acknowledging and addressing this power dynamic without hesitation. So why does feminism diverge from these approaches? Do we support gender equality, but only quietly? Are we advocating for parity between genders but avoiding openly stating so in diplomatic relationships?

Australia is not the sole country shying away from the term “feminism.” Many Nordic countries adopt a gender perspective in policy without labeling it as feminist. Similarly, the United Kingdom and the United States increasingly prioritize gender in their development policies without explicitly adopting the term. Conversely, an expanding number of nations proudly proclaim feminist foreign policies to counter anti-rights movements undermining decades of progress in gender equality.

But does it truly matter?

We contend that it does matter, precisely because of the controversy it stirs; it delves into the heart of power dynamics. Gender inequality is born from an imbalance of power between genders. Achieving equality necessitates acknowledging and addressing this power dynamic without hesitation or equivocation.

This underscores the issue with implied rather than explicit feminism. In the absence of explicit commitment, the Australian government lacks substantial accountability for how its actions impact the power imbalances causing gender inequality. Amidst trade-offs, gender equality might become viewed as a desirable but non-essential goal, easily sidelined by more pressing priorities. This highlights the significance of Australia’s international gender strategy embracing not just a well-meaning approach to gender equality, but a truly feminist one.

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