Amplifying Voices: Why a Feminist Foreign Policy Matters for the Global South and North

Joan Johnson-Freese, Susan Markham 


There are currently two main frameworks regarding gender equality and women’s participation in international policy and conflict resolution: the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) framework, codified in the landmark United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1325 in 2000, and the feminist foreign policy framework (FFP) that became prominent in 2014 when Sweden became the first government to formally adopt a feminist foreign policy. Over the past decade, a tension has existed between the civil society advocates who were/are involved in the development, passage, and implementation of UNSCR 1325 and those academics and practitioners who favor the newer, feminist framework. Surprisingly (or not), an unpublished mapping exercise in 2019 between the two groups found very few people who worked on both frameworks or who were using the WPS framework as a foundation for the newer FFP. What we argue here is that the goals of both frameworks—gender equality and peace—are the same, and that the tension largely rests on differences in approach. In this piece, we provide background on both frameworks, what they have in common, some critiques, how they might approach current events, and recommendations on a way forward. What we suggest is that while these differences in approach are not insignificant, both frameworks would benefit from greater acknowledgement of and closer coordination with the other, so that more progress can be made within the gender equality movement.


Women, Peace and Security

The opening for ratification of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Political Rights (ICESCR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), both in 1966, in many ways represented the heyday of human rights activity at the United Nations. Unfortunately, however, it was quickly realized that many of the countries that had voted in support of those treaties had not assumed and did not recognize that the treaty provisions would also apply to women. Human rights were not inherently considered women’s rights. The United Nations subsequently followed up with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 1979. Though as of 2015, 189 countries have signed and ratified CEDAW (the United States signed but never ratified), many have done so with qualifications that render their commitments toothless. Hence when First Lady Hillary Clinton declared “women’s rights are human rights, and human rights are woman’s rights” at the 1995 Beijing Conference on Women, she was stating what many had thought obvious decades before but had since come to understand as a continuing battle. 

Civil society groups continued to carry on the battle for gender equality through the United Nations, doing so not “just” as a matter of social justice, but as a security issue as well. An increasing amount of case study and empirically-based research demonstrated the multiple roles of women in security-related affairs, the gendered differentiated effects of conflict on men, women, boys and girls, and the linkage between gender equality, stability, and good governance. Regrettably, social justice issues are too often considered “desirable” though expendable issues on governmental agendas, or “just too hard.” Security issues, however, tend to resonate more strongly with decisionmakers. Ultimately, through the efforts of civil society groups, UNSCR 1325 was unanimously passed in 2000.

Implementation of UNSCR 1325 was left to states, through National Action Plans (NAPs). As of 2021, 98 countries have adopted NAPs. Many of the early countries to adopt NAPs were Scandinavian countries already strong in gender equality. It took the United States 11 years to do so, finally accomplished while Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State. Of those countries with NAPs, only 36 percent have budgets attached, evidencing that the Women, Peace and Security framework has seen much more rhetorical than actual support in many countries.

The first iteration of the Women, Peace and Security Act in the United States was introduced in 2012.  It was again initiated by a coalition of civil society organizations that championed the cause to bi-partisan congressional members and staffers. The Act was revised and reintroduced in both the 2013-2014 and 2015-2016 sessions of Congress, eventually gaining bi-partisan sponsorship in both the House and the Senate. In 2017, the U.S. Congress passed the Women, Peace and Security Act. It was signed by President Donald Trump, making it the law of the land. Passage of the Act in 2017 was symbolically important as it provided support for those in government seeking to take action regarding gender equality. It gave them a “hook” on which to hang actions. The Act also required the president to submit a government-wide implementation strategy to Congress.  Initially, however, the Act was passed without funding attached. For a President who was confronted at the White House in 2017 by a crowd of protesting women estimated at three times the number who attended his inauguration, signing the Women, Peace and Security Act was a no-cost act of support for women.

After an implementation strategy for the Women, Peace and Security Act was delivered to Congress in 2019, the federal agencies charged with its execution (the Department of Defense, the Department of State, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and the Department of Homeland Security) began working on their individual implementation strategies. The Defense Department, for example, outlined three objectives: 1) to exemplify a diverse organization that allows for women’s meaningful participation across the development, management, and employment of the Joint Force; 2) that women in partner nations meaningfully participate and serve at all ranks and in all occupations in defense and security sectors; and 3) that partner nation defense and security sectors ensure women and girls are safe and secure and that their human rights are protected, especially during conflict and crisis.[1] Regrettably, in many instances support has been slow and often more rhetorical and performative than actual, as indicated by budgets, policies, and women’s representation in decision-making roles. In performative allyship, those with privilege and position profess solidarity with a cause or policy, often to distance themselves from potential scrutiny or to position themselves for praise. This vocalized support is disingenuous and potentially harmful to marginalized groups by signaling to subordinates that real action is neither needed nor sought and that no one will be held accountable for inaction. That makes active oversight by Congress imperative.

Feminist Foreign Policy

Feminist foreign policy theory was born of the academic ideas of ethical foreign policy and feminist international relations and became prominent in 2014 when the Swedish coalition government, led by Sweden’s Foreign Minister Margot Wallström, adopted a feminist foreign policy.[2] In this first practical application, feminist foreign policy is posited on the conviction that sustainable peace, security, and development cannot be achieved if women, who comprise half the world’s population, are excluded. As the Swedish Foreign Ministry’s website states, “The policy is a response to the discrimination and systematic subordination that still characterises everyday life for countless women and girls all over the world. Feminist foreign policy is an agenda for change to strengthen the rights, representation and resources of all women and girls.”[3] Regarding rights, the Swedish Foreign Service promotes all women’s and girls’ full enjoyment of human rights, which includes combating all forms of violence and discrimination that restrict freedom of action. Regarding representation, the Swedish Foreign Service promotes women’s participation and influence in decision-making processes at all levels and in all areas, and seeks dialogue with women representatives at all levels, including in civil society. With respect to resources, the Swedish Foreign Service works to ensure that government resources are allocated to promote gender equality and equal opportunities for all.[4] In the first three years of implementation, Sweden worked to raise the visibility of and combat destructive masculine norms and to strengthen countries’ capacities to prosecute perpetrators, assist crime victims, and reintegrate soldiers. Sweden also contributed to a growing body of knowledge about the link between the uncontrolled spread of weapons and sexual violence against women.[5]

Since 2014, several countries have announced different versions of a feminist foreign policy. Norway has developed both an Action Plan for Women’s Rights and Gender Equality in Foreign and Development Policy 2016-2020 and a National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security.[6]Canada’s feminist International Assistance Policy, announced in 2017, targets gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls at its core: “This is a matter of basic justice and also basic economics. We know that empowering women, overseas and here at home, makes families and countries more prosperous.”[7] The French government’s feminist foreign policy, adopted in 2019, says that gender equality should be considered in all issues, from poverty reduction to sustainable development, peace and security, defense and promotion of fundamental rights, and climate and economic issues.[8] Other countries have followed suit (Mexico in 2020, Luxembourg in 2021, Spain in 2021, and Germany in 2022).

In addition, there are discussions about incorporating a feminist approach to foreign policy taking place in the European Union, Chile, Denmark, Malaysia, Norway, New Zealand, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and the United States.[9]Governments, however, are many-armed creatures, sometimes with activities of one arm having no relation to another. Interest in or adoption of a feminist foreign policy does not inherently mean a gender-equal society, or even full government support of women. Mexico, for example, has expressed interest in a feminist foreign policy, though it has one of the highest global rates of violence against women.

The International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), a non-profit center headquartered in Washington, D.C., hosts both the Coalition for a Feminist Foreign Policy in the United States and the Global Partner Network, which consists of more than 30 governments and leading civil

society groups who are working to advance the field of feminist foreign policy. The working definition the Coalition for a Feminist Foreign Policy in the United States uses for feminist foreign policy: “Feminist foreign policy is the policy of a state that defines its interactions with other states, as well as movements and other non-state actors, in a manner that prioritizes peace, gender equality and environmental integrity; enshrines, promotes, and protects the human rights of all; seeks to disrupt colonial, racist, patriarchal and male-dominated power structures; and allocates significant resources, including research, to achieve that vision. Feminist foreign policy is coherent in its approach across all  its levers of influence, anchored by the exercise of those values at home and co-created with feminist activists, groups, and movements, at home and abroad.”[10]

In 2020, ICRW separately released a global framework for feminist foreign policy that was developed following more than a year of research and global consultations with over 100 organizations in more than 40 countries. In order to inform the fledgling field of feminist foreign policy, this framework attempts to provide an outline, including five key ingredients necessary for countries considering a feminist foreign policy: the purpose of the policy within the government’s specific context; the definition of feminist foreign policy for the government; the scope or reach of the policy (what parts of the government will be impacted?); the  intended outcomes of the policy and benchmarks to achieve over time; and a government plan to operationalize it.[11]


While there are differences in the WPS and FFP frameworks, both seek to expand global peace and security, increase women’s participation and leadership, integrate gender into humanitarian responses, and change the political and governance structures that reinforce gender inequality.

Peace and Security

One major commonality between the WPS and FFP frameworks is a redefinition of the concepts of peace and security. Norwegian peace activist Johan Galtung first differentiated negative peace and positive peace in the 1960’s. Negative peace is defined as the absence of violence but without a society’s tendencies toward harmony and stability, whereas positive peace is more lasting and built on sustainable investments in economic development and institutions and characterized by societal attitudes that foster peace.[12] WPS exemplifies positive peace through inclusiveness and consideration of gendered perspectives of policies and programs that lead to increased stability of all political orders.  Yet a critique of the WPS framework is its focus on the protection of women and girls. The argument is that the WPS framework not only solidifies the militarized state but, in some cases, provides justification for conflict. The U.S.-led War on Terror, for example, was at least in part framed as a “fight for the rights and dignity of women.”[13]  University of Sydney Professor Laura Shepherd argues that multiple logics behind the “prevention” pillar—a logic of peace, a logic of militarism, and a logic of security—creates a paradox that “collapses back into a logic of security”[14] contrary to the ultimate goal of peace. That is, in order to have peace, security must be obtained and retained through a heavy military presence and potentially military action, thus justifying such.

In a similar vein, feminist foreign policy seeks to change the very definition of “security” to go beyond the absence of armed conflict to include economic and political security, freedom from a fear of a global pandemic and climate change, and the feeling of safety within one’s own community and home. The “security” issues discussed in FPP would be broadened to include access to drinkable water, the ability to walk home at night safely, the number of weapons in a country outside of the military, and many others. Likewise, the solutions considered would be more diverse. Data used to make those decisions would include information about human rights abuses, rates of child marriage, levels of gender-based violence, and other issues that Texas A&M Professor Valerie Hudson and other scholars have pointed to in several publications that show the connection between gender equality and state stability.[15] Decisions made to protect the interests of a country would cover not only military personnel but civilians on all sides. The voices of those impacted by military activities, sanctions, or other actions would be included. In response, WPS advocates argue that working first on the protection of women, girls, and other vulnerable groups is a necessary precondition to inclusive gender equality and diversity. Women’s safety—the goal of protection—is necessary to ensure that women and girls have the ability to work toward other goals of economic and political power and can use their agency to shape their lives.

Women’s Representation

To reach the goals of gender equality and peace, both the WPS and FFP frameworks aim to increase the representation of women in country and global policy-making processes and activities. One of the four core pillars of the Women, Peace and Security framework focuses on the increased participation of women at all levels of decision-making in conflict prevention, management, and resolution, and in post-conflict relief and recovery efforts. But the WPS framework works within conventional peacemaking and post-conflict governance structures that accept conflict as inevitable. Subsequently, this framework has been criticized by Melbourne Law School Professor Dianne Otto, who argues that “the WPS agenda has served to refocus feminist attention from … making armed conflict impossible, to making armed conflict safer for women … as an end in itself.”[16]Thereby, WPS can be perceived as a more incremental approach to positive peace, whereas FFP is more transformational.

Like WPS, the goal of FFP is to increase the number of women serving in elected and non-elected political and government positions, in peace processes, in military and peacekeeping missions, and in development and humanitarian activities. FFP seeks to increase the number of feminist voices that will advocate for gender equality in all sectors, beyond peace and security, such as in the economy and climate adaptation, including a country’s own government as well as its government partners. A critique of this approach is that feminist foreign policy is too broad; it can’t just add more women and change everything all at one time – change requires incrementalism. The real-world implications of executing a feminist foreign policy are complicated. For instance, in Sweden, even with female leadership and a feminist foreign policy, the government has struggled to find a balance between human rights and its own arms industry.[17]

Post-conflict and Humanitarian Settings

UNSCR 1325 urges local actors, Member States, and UN agencies to adopt gendered perspectives in peace operations, negotiations, and agreements, in acknowledgement that policies and programs affect men, women, boys and girls differently, and to include women in the resolution and recovery phase of conflict. It identifies women as active agents rather than passive recipients. This is important because it identifies women’s participation as a right, not something that men are giving women out of goodwill, and as a post-conflict benefit to all parties. Research has shown that including women in peace negotiations increases the potential of peace agreement lasting two or more years by 20 percent, and increases by 35 percent the probability of peace agreements lasting 15 years or longer.[18] Additionally, including women starts to erode the idea of women as weak, meaning that the feminine will no longer be synonymous with weakness and fragility. The resolution empowers women and allows them to demand that they are heard and incorporated into processes at all levels.[19] The critique here is that the considerations of women and girls are rarely included in peace negotiations and simply haven’t been taken into account, and that there is no mechanism for holding countries or other implementing organizations accountable for including women and gendered perspectives in peace negotiations.

Similarly, the FFP framework calls for a feminist approach to humanitarian response that at its core centers the experience of women and people subjected to multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination. This focus highlights a wider array of concerns than considered in traditional paradigms, including the threat of gender-based violence, access to sexual and reproductive health, access to education, and the burden of unpaid care responsibilities in times of crisis. It urges the U.S. government to take steps to change its own humanitarian approach as well as pushing for change throughout the global humanitarian system.

Institutional Change

Both frameworks agree that reframing the discussion of peace and security involves shaking the very foundations of the patriarchy, a system that until recently was the exclusive purview of men and that deploys decision-making power through warlords, political elites, government security communities, and the intricately linked military-industrial machine. Within the WPS framework, protection does not inherently or exclusively refer to women being physically (or any other way) being protected by men. It does, however, recognize that there are individuals made vulnerable through cultural, political, legal, economic, gender-related and sexual-orientation structures. It creates agency because it is only through agency that women will have the opportunity to participate in the kind of preventive actions that can lead to positive peace. 

In response, FFP would argue that this approach is too focused on the individual rather than the system. The FFP framework seeks to change the institutions and processes themselves. It wants to diversify more than just the voices in the room; it wants to expand the information collected, analysis conducted, and solutions considered to go beyond the traditional decision-making process. This strategy covers defense, development, and diplomacy programs conducted in other countries and how governments operate internally. Resources, both in terms of budget allocations and human investments, would be redistributed to reflect governments’ different priorities. Less would be spent on weapons and more would be spent on human infrastructure; more would go to multilateral organizations and those focused on global goals. WPS critics would say that even with provisions for structural agency, the entrenched nature of those in power through cultural norms and expectations forces a process of slower, more incremental change.



In 2021, the annual Democracy Index found that less than ten percent of countries worldwide were considered “full democracies” and rated the United States a “flawed democracy” for the fifth year in a row. Though countries leaning toward populism and authoritarianism vary in many aspects, what they share are leaders who identify as rebels, bullies, and tough guys who flaunt authority, disregard civility, and encourage others to do so as well, such as Presidents Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, and Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines. Further, as American journalist Peter Beinart pointed out, authoritarian leaders “use gender to discredit one political order and validate another.”[20] Many have targeted women, individually or as a group, as their evil-elite punching bags.

To address this issue, the WPS framework would return to concepts within UNSCR 1325 that have been fleshed out through nine additional security council resolutions: participation of women in all levels of decision-making, protection from sexual and gender-based violence, prevention of violence, and advancement of relief and recovery measures. Within this context, FFP would go beyond a focus on increasing individual women’s political participation to disrupt the colonial, racist, patriarchal, and male-dominated power structures. It would support human rights activists and civil society organizations engaged in women’s rights movements globally, alter patriarchal political institutions, including parties and parliaments, and address issues such as violence against women in politics that serve as barriers to women serving in public life. 

Reproductive Rights

The United States was considered a global leader in women’s reproductive rights five years ago, considered a critical aspect of women’s individual agency, but it became a global outliner with deep regression in that area during the Trump administration.[21] The Biden-Harris administration took several key actions to advance sexual and reproductive health and rights in its first year, trying to reverse the Trump Administration rollback. In his second week in office, President Biden issued an executive memorandum on women’s health at home and abroad which stated that it is the policy of the U.S. government to support sexual and reproductive health and rights. It rescinded the global gag rule, withdrew the United States from the so-called Geneva Consensus Declaration, and directed the U.S. Secretary of State to restore funding for United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).[22] But, based on the leaked Alito-authored draft court decision, Trump-appointed conservative Supreme Court justices appear ready to take American women’s reproductive rights back to the 1970’s by overturning Roe v Wade (1973).  The implications are staggering, not just regarding reproductive rights, but as a further indication of the U.S. moving away from democratic rule to populist authoritarianism.[23]

The WPS framework does not address reproductive rights or abortion in UNSCR 1325 or in any of the subsequent resolutions, or in the U.S. Women, Peace and Security Act. Feminist Foreign Policy, on the other hand, includes bodily autonomy and freedom from discrimination, violence, coercion, exploitation, and abuse as a key tenet. And while the current U.S. administration has taken steps to stop or reverse U.S. government backsliding on the issue, including potentially after the judicial demise of Roe v Wade, FFP advocates continue to push for more, such as a permanent repeal of the global gag rule, also known as the Mexico City Policy.[24]


The U.S. government’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021 was an utter failure by most accounts. While 124,000 people were airlifted out of Afghanistan before the last troops flew out on August 30, 90 percent of the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) holders were left behind with their families. The number of Afghans who remain in danger because of their association with the 20-year American presence in their country must be counted in the hundreds of thousands.[25]Afghanistan is now facing one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. The Afghan economy has no cash to pay salaries or buy food. Western aid has been suspended because the Taliban government includes designated terrorists, and as a result, millions of Afghans face acute malnutrition and starvation in the coming months.[26]

In this case, within the WPS framework, the U.S. government would have included a push for women to be involved in the negotiations with the Taliban in 2019-2020. Many Afghan, global, and U.S. activists did make the case before and during the negotiation process, during which the Trump administration ignored implementing its own (bi-partisan, Trump-signed) WPS Act.[27] A Feminist Foreign Policy would have gone further. The scope of the issue would have been expanded from ending the war to ensuring strong Afghan institutions that serve its citizens and turning the country back over to its people. The balance of power and those engaged in the negotiation process would have been modified to include both the American and Afghan people rather than the U.S. military and the Taliban. 


Five years after the passage of the WPS Act in the United States, with the subsequent government-wide 2019 strategy and departmental strategies now in place, incremental progress in implementing the WPS framework is evident. Funding is being approved and allocated, for example, to offer meetings, workshops, and courses on Women, Peace and Security to members of security communities from many other countries, both in the U.S. and abroad. Those who participate in these events (men and women) say that attendance, and the gender push for gender empowerment from U.S. organizations, including the military, is making a slow but positive difference in their militaries and countries. A Women, Peace and Security Congressional Caucus was formed in 2020. Its focus is “to ensure that progress towards women’s empowerment and inclusion is a strong priority of U.S. foreign policy.”[28] Efforts of the Caucus have included receiving briefs from various departments on their efforts to implement the Women, Peace and Security framework and expressing support for women in Afghanistan during the evacuation operations in 2021. Ensuring progress of the WPS Act, at home and abroad, requires proactive measures and holding those responsible for implementation accountable.

As this work continues, those pressing the U.S. government to adopt a feminist foreign policy need to acknowledge the work of those who developed and implemented the WPS Act. That legislation took more than a decade to be created and passed in a bi-partisan fashion. Newer actors in this space might benefit by engaging with the activists who started their work around the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing and then focused on the UN Security Council before turning to country-specific NAPs and legislation. There must be lessons learned about Hill staff and member relationships, allies in non-traditional departments and offices, messages that were effective, and budget strategies that have worked.

Moreover, the combined community can work together to increase women’s representation in U.S. foreign policy through the Leadership Council for Women in National Security (LCWINS), the Civil Society Working Group on Women, Peace and Security, or the Coalition for a Feminist Foreign Policy in the United States. Research and advocacy must continue to make the link between both frameworks and the promotion of democracy. And both WPS and FFP advocates can continue to push for the integration of the needs of women and girls in humanitarian and post-conflict settings and programs.

So far, however, Women, Peace and Security framework implementation seems to have remained focused on work done or to be done “over there,” wherever outside of the United States that happens to be, neglecting the important point that there are internal as well as external components to WPS. Similarly, one of the core principles of FFP is that there is coherence across all aspects of foreign policy that extends across domestic and foreign policy, with both realms embracing the same feminist values. That means structural and cultural constraints to gender empowerment within U.S. institutions must be addressed as well. For example, while women in the military are no longer denied access to combat positions, they still do not receive the same encouragement and support necessary for success to join those previously prohibited positions as men do.

While differences in approach for WPS and FFP are not insignificant, both frameworks would benefit from closer coordination with the other. There are many opportunities to support the work of the other, as much progress is still needed in the United States and globally to reach gender equality, women’s empowerment, and a safer world.

This publication was prepared by the authors in their personal capacity. The opinions expressed here are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect the official views or policy of Women In International Security.

About the Authors

Joan Johnson-Freese is a Senior Fellow with Women in International Security, a University Professor at the Naval War College in Newport, RI and teaches Women, Peace & Security at Harvard University. She is the author of multiple articles on the topic, as well as Women, Peace & Security: An Introduction (2018) and Women vs Women: The Case for Cooperation (April 2022). The views expressed are the author’s alone and do not represent those of the U.S. government, Department of Defense or the Naval War College.

Susan Markham is a partner at Smash Strategies, a strategic advisory firm helping businesses, non-profit organizations, and philanthropists who want to leverage their commitment to empowering women and girls. She is the author of multiple articles on feminist foreign policy, gender equality, women’s political participation, and economic empowerment.

[1] Department of Defense, “Women, Peace & Security Strategic Framework and Implementation Plan,” June 2020, p. 7,


[2] Karin Aggestam, Rosamond A. Bergman, Annica Kronsell, “Theorising Feminist Foreign Policy,” International Relations. 2019;33(1):23-39. doi: 10.1177/0047117818811892.

[3] Government of Sweden:

[4] “Handbook for Sweden’s Feminist Foreign Policy,”—swedensfeminist-foreign-policy—english.pdf.

[5] Government of Sweden:–examples-from-three-years-of-implementation/.

[6] Norway, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “Women’s Rights and Gender Equality,”

[7] Government of Canada, “Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy,”

[8] France, Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs, “Feminist Diplomacy,”

[9] Soto, Daniela Sepulveda. “The Pandemic Underscores the Need for Feminist Foreign Policy,” The Gender Policy Report, University of Minnesota, July 27, 2021,

[10] Rachel Clement and Lyric Thompson. “Toward a Feminist Foreign Policy in the United States,” ICRW,

[11] “Feminist Foreign Policy: A Framework,”

[12] “Our understanding of the term ‘peace’ has evolved significantly over the last 2,500 years,”

[13] “War on Terror as a “fight for the rights and dignity of women”: a discourse analysis of the U.S. ‘liberation’ campaign for Afghan women,”

[14] Laura J. Shepherd, “The paradox of prevention in the Women, Peace and Security agenda,” European Journal of International Security, September 30, 2020,

[15] Books by Valerie Hudson and others include Sex & World Peace (2012) and The First Political Order: How Sex Shapes Governance and National Security Worldwide (2020).

[16] Dianne Otto, “Women, Peace & Security: A Critical Analysis of the Security Council’s Vision,” LSE blog, January 9, 2017,

[17] “Major arms exporter Sweden to put human rights before weapon sales,” Reuters, June 26, 2015,

[18] UN Women, “Women’s Engagement in Peace, Security and Recovery,” %20Brief-Peace-security-recovery.pdf.


[20] Peter Beinart, The Atlantic, 2019,

[21] Martha F. Davis and Fiona de Londras, “Most democracies are expanding abortion access. The U.S. is retracting it,” WBUR, October 21, 2021,

[22] “Memorandum on Protecting Women’s Health at Home and Abroad,”

[23] Hanna Kozlowska, “Where Democracy Falters So Too Do Reproductive Rights,” Foreign Policy, March 16, 2022,

[24] “46 Senators Wage Campaign to End “Global Gag Rule” Restricting Abortion Access,”

[25] “The Betrayal,”

[26] United States institute of Peace, “Afghanistan,”,starvation%2 0in%20the%20coming%20months.

[27] Melissa Deehring, “Lessons Learned from Afghanistan: The First Political Order,” The Washington Quarterly, 44, 4, 2022, 7-28.

[28] Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security, “Goals of the New Women, Peace and Security Congressional Caucus,” April 29, 2020,

By Shannon Zimmerman

The majority of countries have gender-blind foreign policies. While this may seem like a good thing, such policies fail to acknowledge and address existing gendered discrimination, inequalities, and

violence. They also fail to take active steps to include women and other marginalized groups. Feminist foreign policy, in contrast, is designed to take into account and address these existing imbalances. On September 12, 2019, Women In International Security (WIIS)–Australia and the Asia-Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect (APR2P) convened  a workshop to assess whether Australia has a feminist  foreign policy and, if not, what steps could be taken to advance such a policy.

A feminist foreign policy, while more difficult to implement, is a smart strategic move. Greater gender equality promotes both a nation’s relative state of peace and healthier, more resilient domestic security environments. Most important for foreign policy, states with more gender equality are more stable. These states have higher gross domestic products and economic growth rates, higher levels of health and lower levels of corruption. They also exhibit less aggression toward other states. Recognition of the interconnection of gender equality and national security has led to the emergence of feminist foreign policies that push against the systematic, global subordination of women. Sweden’s Foreign Minister Margot Wallström explained her pursuit of a feminist foreign policy by noting that, “Striving toward gender equality is not only a goal in itself but also a precondition for achieving our wider foreign, development, and security-policy objectives.” Promoting true gender equality abroad, while cultivating it at home, is a win/win policy move.

Four countries currently have explicitly feminist foreign policies: Sweden, Canada, France, and Mexico. Sweden first unveiled its policy in 2014. It encompassed all domains— foreign and national security, development, and trade—and emphasized promoting gender equality in its own right as well as to further other foreign policy priorities. In 2017, Canada launched a more limited Feminist International Assistance Policy focused on development assistance, but it eschewed the broader realms of diplomacy, defense and trade. France followed suit with its 2018 International Strategy on Gender Equality, which also focuses on foreign assistance including some diplomatic aspects. Mexico has the latest feminist foreign policy, announced in January 2020. Each of these policies has strengths and weaknesses but are notable for explicitly acknowledging gender equality as a core component for achieving foreign policy goals.

What Does a Feminist Foreign Policy  Look Like?

What makes a foreign policy ‘feminist’ is contingent on a country’s specific conditions and environment. Sweden, for example, has crafted its policy around the “three Rs”: women’s and girl’s Rights, women’s Representation in the decisionmaking process, and the necessary Resources to promote gender equality and equal opportunities. Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy focuses on addressing barriers to success for women and girls, such as poverty, education and economic opportunities. These policies are solid starts, but they are state-centric, promote Western ideals, and assume a cis-gender binary. They do not address power relations, a core cause of inequality. Nor do they encompass those with intersectional identities.

Embracing the full complexity of a feminist approach can result in policies that address some of the most systemic foreign policy challenges. Lyric Thompson and Rachel Clement argue that a feminist foreign policy should seek to address patriarchal, racist, and neo-colonist imbalances of power. To this end, Thompson and Clement offer up a more inclusive definition of feminist foreign policy that goes beyond the dominant gender-binary, ethnocentric, Westerncentric conceptions: “A Feminist Foreign Policy is the policy of a state that defines its interactions with other states and movements in a manner that prioritizes gender equality and enshrines the human rights of women and other traditionally marginalized groups, allocates significant resources to achieve that vision, and seeks through its implementation to disrupt patriarchal and male-dominated power structures across all of its levers of influence (aid, trade, defense, and diplomacy), informed by the voices of feminist activists, groups, and movements.”

A feminist foreign policy implies a collaborative effort between the state that develops the policy and the states with which it engages. Scholars Karin Aggestam, Annika Bergman Rosamond, and Annica Kronsel further this idea by arguing that a feminist foreign policy is an ethical commitment to the care and support of distant others. In this view, a feminist foreign policy is concerned not only with achieving state objectives but also with the impact of its policies on recipient communities, with special consideration given to marginalized groups. This approach can result in divergences between countries national interests and those of the recipient country. For example, Saudi Arabia, a country known for its oppressive treatment of women, cut ties with Sweden and refused to issue visas to Swedish business travels after remarks made by Sweden’s feminist foreign minister Margot Wallström. Inversely, countries which adhere to a feminist foreign policy gain political legitimacy because  they are seen as actors who are willing to pursue the values they espouse.

These two conceptions can be combined to identify characteristics of a feminist foreign policy:

  • created in consultation with a diverse group of domestic actors;
  • a collaborative effort between the policy-making state and other states;
  • an emphasis on equal rights that is backed up with representation and resources;
  • inclusive of LGBTQ identities;
  • implemented  across    all         levels    of         influence            (aid,      trade,    defense and diplomacy); and
  • addresses structural power imbalances.

How Does Australia Measure Up?

Australia has a mixed record of promoting feminist ideals, both domestically and through its foreign policy. The administration of Australia’s first female prime minister, Julia Gillard, received praise for supporting inclusion and equality “at the very highest political level.” Additionally, Julie Bishop, Australia’s first female foreign minister, may have eschewed the feminist label but nonetheless spoke of making gender equality central to global peace and security. In pursuit of this goal, Australia released a Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment Strategyin 2016. Successive governments made commitments to gender equality as a foreign policy goal. It is clear that Australia recognizes the utility of gender equality but, compared against the criteria cited above, there is a way to go before Australia can claim to have a feminist foreign policy.

Perhaps the first challenge is the limited inclusion of diverse domestic actors in Australia’s policymaking process and the lack of female representation within Australia’s policymaking apparatuses. In a July 2019 report, the Lowy Institute found a continued gender imbalance within Australian government departments and organizations responsible for international relations. The report noted that not a single one of the 33 white papers, reviews, and other major foreign and security policy-shaping documents produced by the Australian government in the last 50 years has been led by a woman. Australia’s most recent foreign policy document, the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper, was exclusively written and formally reviewed by men. The lack of female representation in policymaking raises questions as to Australia’s ability to “practice what it preaches” in its foreign policy.

Second, Australia has a strongly self-centered foreign policy, with only passing reference to the impact of these policies outside its borders. The 2017 White Paper lists five objectives:

  • “the  promotion          of         an         open,     inclusive,           and       prosperous         Indo-Pacific       region   in         which    the        rights    of         all       states     are        respected;
  • the delivery of more opportunities for our businesses globally and stand against protectionism;
  • ensuring        Australians         remain   safe,      secure,   and       free       in         the        face of threats such as terrorism;
  • the promotion and protection of international rules that support stability and prosperity and enable cooperation to tackle    global    challenges,         and;
  • increased       support  for        a           more     resilient Pacific   and      


Except for the first objective of an inclusive and prosperous

Indo-Pacific region, the priorities listed by the Foreign Policy White Paper present policy options as a choice between

Australia’s national interest and the interests of distant others.

Even efforts to promote a more resilient Pacific and TimorLeste are pursued to ensure that instability in those states does not impact Australia. While a self-interested approach to foreign policy is to be expected, too much emphasis on one-sided relationships to promote Australian economic growth and state security can create “winners” and “losers” in foreign policy. The needs of recipient communities are not explored and addressed, nor are the potential negative impacts of such policies on particular communities considered.  This limits more collaborative opportunities that could be mutually beneficial to all actors involved.

These opportunities are even more limited because Australia—like Canada and France—appears to limit the gendered aspects of their policy to development and aid. This excludes gender considerations from the key spheres of trade, defense, and diplomacy. For Australia, this means that gender overall is downplayed as militarised understandings of security guide most policy actions, particularly in the Indo-pacific. More inclusive or ‘feminine’ ideals such as aid and poverty eradication appear secondary to the main agenda despite the fact that some of Australia’s most pressing challenges are related to issues of development.

Third, in the context of Australian policy, gender is understood and applied narrowly as a synonym for women and girls. There is no reference to the rights of LGBTQ individuals or those with intersectional identities. Although Australian policy does mention the importance of supporting indigenous peoples and those with disabilities, it fails to make key intersections with gender. Most importantly for achieving any policy objective, Australia does not yet have clear indicators of how increased representation of women will be achieved and where resources for gender programming will come from. Guaranteed resources are the basis upon which all effective policies are built.

Lastly, Australia’s core foreign policy objectives promote the continuation of the Western-dominated rules-based global order. The current order was fashioned after World War II and based upon ideas of liberal democracy, particularly the freedom of trade and the promotion of commerce. These core values were powerfully influenced by the interests and values of Western countries at the time and reflect their racial, religious, gendered, and economic biases. This order has been contested for decades by Russia and, more recently, by emerging powers such as China. The United States has also become an unexpected source of contention as the Trump administration has begun to distance itself competitive and expansive realist focus on relative power between states to one of mutual gains in an increasingly interconnected region. In order to do so, foreign policy  must promote a global order based upon rules that strive to achieve equality between countries and individuals. It  can be argued that the current world order is simply not structured to do that.

In light of these critiques, workshop participants provided several recommendations for how Australia might approach its foreign policy in a more inclusive, equalityfocused manner, thus generating a better policy and potentially attracting and retaining more women to work in international relations.


Include Women at All Levels. It is difficult for any nation to promote a feminist policy if it does not itself model feminist ideals. In comparison with many other countries, Australia has remarkably inclusive foreign policy consultation. In preparation for the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper, a task force held roundtable discussions across Australia, interviewed over 60 prominent Australians and subjectmatter experts, and received over 9,000 written submissions. However, it is unclear who these experts were and how many of them were women or held feminist viewpoints. The Lowy report noted that women play almost no role in the actual drafting of key Australian foreign policy documents. Women and non-gender-binary participants need to be an equal part of policymaking at all levels, not just as advisors but as leaders and substantive content contributors.

from liberal democratic ideals. A feminist foreign policy has the potential to help Australia redirect policies from a

Address Structural Power Imbalances. Australia needs to recognize and reject outdated policies and engage with its foreign partners on equal footing to ensure mutual benefits. Australia is in a privileged position in the Asia Pacific. Since its founding as a state, it has been supported by strong allies that have helped it become and remain a major player in the region. Historically, this power was not always used for the betterment of those with whom Australia came into contact. To construct a foreign policy focused on equality, Australia needs to first take ownership of the negative impact that its foreign policy actions have had on its neighboring states. It also needs to reconsider relationships that have at times prevented—or been used as an excuse to avoid—relationship building with regional neighbors. Policymakers should strive to ensure that these biased, dated policies are not used as precedent for current policies and instead actively work toward crafting new policies that address these imbalances and strengthen collaborative relationships.

Foster Cooperative Policies and Structures. Australia should engage in “smart” power relationships with its regional neighbors and move beyond security collaboration to address broader issues. Drawing on feminist conceptions of ethics of care, Australia can promote cooperative rather than competitive relationships with its neighbors. This necessitates looking beyond the needs of states to address the needs of individuals, particularly marginalized groups. Policies that focus on state needs often overlook those most in need. While this might be a contentious approach to making decisions on engagement and aid delivery, it would show that Australia is willing to put its money where it claims its values lie, encouraging recipient states to ensure their priorities also focus on equality. An inclusive foreign policy— and one that will attract a diverse array of civil servants  who want to help implement such policy—should adopt inclusive language that reflects a wider set of skills, including cultural credentials in the exercise of diplomacy and interpersonal skills.

A Comprehensive Approach to Foreign Policy. The world in which Australian foreign policy is seen to operate is referred to as “contested,” “competitive,” “uncertain,” and even “dangerous.” References to national security, found 62 times, overshadow the phrase foreign policy, which is found 22 times. A strong feminist foreign policy would eschew policy built on a nationalized military-based security premised on states’ rights and a patriarchal, rules-based order. Australia can draw upon new relationships and resources to craft a comprehensive approach to foreign policy. Such an approach would embrace human security, which encompasses economic security, food security, health security, environmental security, personal security, community security, and political security. Human security is feminist in that it is people-cantered, universal, and tries to prevent suffering, particularly through early prevention. It also acknowledges the interdependent nature of all aspects of security, which extend far beyond protection of physical borders. As security clearly motivates Australia’s foreign policy, embracing a broader understanding of security can address some of the most gendered oversights of existing policy. In particular, it will encourage policymakers to draw equally on all types of foreign influence, balancing military options with trade, aid, and diplomacy.


Genuine pursuit of a feminist foreign policy will not be easy. The structures of government are designed to promote and support masculine ideas of security. Crafting an effective, inclusive, and enduring feminist foreign policy would require substantial resources and overturning male-dominated power structures. Additionally, countries with particularly gendered approaches to governance may push back against Australian efforts to implement feminist policy. However, the current realpolitik approach to Australia’s foreign policy may not be addressing key causes of instability, which are often rooted in gendered relations. A foreign policy that moves beyond the realist emphasis on hard power to foster inclusive, collaborative relationships with other countries and that emphasizes gender equality is the smartest choice for Australia and would be well worth the effort.


  1. For a summary of major studies, see Ted Piccone, Democracy, Gender

Equality, and Security, Policy Brief (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, September 2017). For statistics regarding the relationship between gender parity and peace, see Council on Foreign Relations, Women’s Participation in Peace Processes, CFR website (New York, CFR, January 30, 2019).

  • Valerie M. Hudson, Mary Caprioli, Bonnie Ballif-Spanvill, Rose

McDermott, and Chad F. Emmett, “The Heart of the Matter: The Security of Women and the Security of States,” International Security, Vol. 33, No. 3 (2009), pp. 7-44.

  • Valerie M. Hudson et al., Sex and World Peace (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012).
  • Jenny Nordberg, “Who’s Afraid of a Feminist Foreign Policy?,” New Yorker (April 15, 2015).
  • Government Offices of Sweden, Handbook on Sweden’s Feminist Foreign Policy (Stockholm: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2019).
  • Government of Canada, Feminist International Assistance Policy (Ottawa: Global Affairs Canada).
  • Government of France, France’s International Strategy for Gender Equality (2018-2022) (Paris: Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs).
  • Lyric Thompson, “Mexican Diplomacy Has Gone Feminist,” Foreign Policy (January 14, 2020).
  • Lyric Thompson and Rachel Clement, Defining Feminist Foreign Policy (Washington, DC: International Center for Research on Women, 2019), p.7.
  • Karin Aggestam, Annika Bergman Rosamond, and Annica Kronsell,  “Theorising Feminist Foreign Policy,” International Relations, Vol. 33, No.1 (2019), pp. 23–39.
  • Nordberg, “Who’s Afraid of a Feminist Foreign Policy?”12  Australian Government, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment Strategy (Canberra: Australian Government, February 2016).

13  Danielle Cave et al., Foreign Territory: Women In International Relations (Sydney: Lowy Institute, 2019).

Australian Government, 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper (Canberra: Australian Government, 2017).Ibid, p. 3.Richard Menhinick, ‘The Rules-Based Global Order’: Be Alert and Alarmed, The Strategist (Canberra: Australian Strategic Policy Institute,

April 12, 2019). For an example of how the existing rules-based global     order is being used to promote particular agendas, see P. Chacko and K. Jayasuriya, “Trump, The Authoritarian Populist Revolt, and the Future of the Rules-Based Order in Asia,” Australian Journal of International Affairs, Vol. 71, No. 2 (2017), pp. 121–27.

  1. Joseph S. Nye Jr., “Get Smart: Combining Hard and Soft Power,” Foreign Affairs (July/August 2009).
  2. Fiona Robinson, The Ethics of Care: A Feminist Approach to Human Security (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2011).
  3. The term “human security” first appeared in the 1994 Human Development Report published by the United Nations Development Program.
  4. For example, Saudi Arabia. See Nordberg, “Who’s Afraid of a Feminist Foreign Policy?”
  5. Valerie Hudson, “What Sex Means for World Peace,” Foreign Policy

(April 24, 2012).