Gender equality
Bridging the Trench

A Liberal Take on Gender-Just Foreign and Security Policy
Prime Minister of Finland Sanna Marin, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, Prime Minister of Estonia Kaja Kallas and Deputy Prime Mininster of Sweden Ebba Busch

Prime Minister of Finland Sanna Marin, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, Prime Minister of Estonia Kaja Kallas and Deputy Prime Mininster of Sweden Ebba Busch

© picture alliance/dpa/Lehtikuva | Emmi Korhonen

Where are our Female Decision-Makers?

Across the EU, around 33% of members of national parliaments are female, which might not seem so bad, but considering that women make up 54,6% of the EU’s population, this goes to show that they are heavily underrepresented in democratic processes. Although some member states (notably the Scandinavians)  have created a significantly more favourable environment for gender equality in politics, others fall far behind and the overall progress in the EU is moving at a terribly slow pace. At the same time, political parties, institutions and common practices often date back to far before women received voting rights in their respective countries. It comes as no surprise then that those systems were built for and around men. Limited revision of these political practices and the absence of role models and support systems, does not make it appealing and sometimes even impossible for women to become politically active in parties, especially if they hold additional caretaking responsibilities.

Those women that are elected into office, often face a myriad of challenges and gendered stereotypes. Valued for their organizational and caretaking talent, they are commonly assigned supporting roles rather than leadership assignments, which are reserved for the more assertive and politically capable masculine counterparts. This also reflects in their appointment to ministries, where women are often assigned social or education portfolios, rather than economy or defense. In addition, female politicians are disproportionately affected by online and offline harassment. A survey by the European Liberal Forum shows that 68.8% of interviewed female politicians experienced violence based on their sex or gender. It is important to note, that the experience of gender-based violence and discrimination can be further aggravated by factors like origin, sexuality and disability.

Why We Need Women in Foreign & Security Policy

Our societies are diverse in their gender, age, socio-economic status, background and lived experience. This translates into a complex web of needs and challenges which political parties and elected officials should keep in mind when proposing legislation and setting up budgets and services. That is why representation of women and minorities is so important. They add their unique points of views and experiences to the democratic discourse and lead to more comprehensive political approaches to finding solutions for all citizens. However, if their representation is too low, their valuable contribution risks to be overlooked or minimized, as they cannot create political leverage within their parties and when elected to office.

It is no secret, that the promotion of gender-equality and empowerment of women leads to healthier, economically stronger and safer societies. Promoting female participation in the design and implementation of foreign and security policies, through parliamentary decision-making, peace negotiations and treaties, can lead to more sustainable peace. The reason behind it is that women not only make up half of the population affected by such policies, but as such are able to advocate for the rights of women, children, minorities and vulnerable groups that traditionally tend to be overlooked in law-making. They are also perceived as ‘honest brokers’ and provide a more enabling environment for cross-community dialogues. Additionally, in reconciliation and reconstruction processes, women in conflict areas often take up specific and important roles in their community, which must not be underestimated. 

Knowing the benefits of including women in foreign and security policies: Where do we stand in terms of gender parity? While the UN has been making significant improvements to close the gender gaps, through its gender parity strategy, the outlook is more gloomy across other institutions. Within NATO, merely 8 female defence ministers feature among the 29 member council and in 2020, the Inter-Parliamentary Union found that 60 out of 190 countries world-wide had a female foreign minister. The number even decreases to only 22 when it comes to the defence portfolio, although there has been a rise when compared to previous years. 

Feminist Foreign Policy on the Rise?

While female representation is moving at a slow pace, gendered aspects of foreign and security policies have increasingly found their way into policies and institutions. In 2014, Sweden was the first country to implement a “feminist foreign policy” (FFP). This concept of foreign policy centres around human security, women’s rights and equal representation, based on the previously mentioned benefits of promoting gender equality for societies at large. With this approach, Sweden moved beyond prioritizing state security and focused on the individual/human security in the design of its foreign and security policies. Sweden’s FFP focused on three aspects

  1. Rights: Promotion of women’s/girl’s human rights and eradication of all forms of violence and discrimination against them;
  2. Representation: Inclusion of women in decision-making processes at all levels, beyond politics also including civil society;
  3. Resources: Allocation of resources to the promotion of equal opportunities/equality of women/girls, with targeted measures depending on target groups.

FFP has since gained traction among EU Member States. In 2018, France released its International Strategy for Gender Equality, focusing on the victimization of women/girls in fragile or war context. In 2021 Spain and Germany followed suit with respective plans and outlines. Other countries like Norway and Belgium do not employ the term FFP, but build their national action plans on women, peace and security around combating gender-related violence (Belgium) or women in peace and negotiation talks (Norway). In addition, the European Parliament in 2021 passed a resolution on “Gender Equality in EU’s foreign and security policy”. While all these efforts should be applauded, there remain some points of contention in the current playing field.

One of the main points of criticism is the current lack of a common definition of the concept and name of FFP. Current definitions commonly highlight the focus on wellbeing of vulnerable groups and intersectional rethinking of security policies from their perspective, combating of (sexual) violence and discrimination against women/children during conflicts, promotion of female representation in all processes, as well as consideration of gender in distribution of resources. Since many governments are reluctant to employ the term “feminist” as part of the agenda, often citing the linguistic exclusion of other vulnerable groups as well as their intersectionality, FNF has decided to use the term “gender-just foreign and security policies” in their work on this issue, therefore broadening the discussion and offering an opportunity for a wider variety of stakeholders to join in.

Time for a Liberal Approach

Although much progress has been made already, it is important to keep looking ahead for new pathways towards more inclusive foreign and security policies. Lessons from the previous implementations of Feminist Foreign Policies and the Women, Peace and Security should be taken along, but to achieve a gender-just foreign and security policy, liberals should strengthen their own position on this agenda. To come up with more ideas for new directions, the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom on 14 November held the “Gender x Geopolitics” conference in Brussels. At this event, we brought together experts from a wide range of different backgrounds to develop and test ideas for a liberal take on gender equality and international politics. As an outcome, we identified three areas in which liberals should step up their efforts.

Gender Equality and Inclusivity

To begin, we should ensure that the promotion of gender equality is part of a broader inclusivity agenda. The gender perspective is one of many that is missing in present-day foreign and security policymaking, and it is important to recognise the other missing perspectives as well. Only through intersectional and multipolar approaches can we fully understand the complexity of the challenges that we are dealing with. The gender dimension is an important part of this process, but for sustainable progress it is important that it is placed in a broader picture. Only then, can we do justice and reap the benefits of the full diversity that our societies have to offer. 

It’s Only Rational

Furthermore, it is important that we collect empirical evidence on the effects of gender equality on security and defence policies. There is, for instance, growing evidence that peace agreements tend to last longer and are more likely to succeed if women take part at the negotiation table. Likewise, there is a promising research agenda on the role of women in peacekeeping missions and crisis management. There are strong indications that women participation in the armed forces (especially peacekeeping missions) can increase the effectiveness of peacebuilding and reconciliation efforts on the ground. By expanding this research agenda and highlighting the positive effects, we can show that women participation in foreign and security policy is not only the right, but also the rational thing to do. 

Power to Act

A final focus should be on women empowerment. Masculine norms still dominate in many decision-making environments and this can make it difficult for women to effectively promote their point of view. As mentioned by Shada Islam at the FNF’s “Gender x Geopolitics” conference, “we need more women around the table, but if the table is set up according to patriarchal norms, the women coming to the table cannot change what is being discussed”. 

To break this cycle, there is a need for women empowerment programmes that give female decision-makers the tools to challenge those norms. This idea is based on the capabilities approach, first formulated by Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum, which purports that the freedom to achieve well-being is a matter of an individual’s capability to do and to be. This positive freedom approach can help women to not only get a seat at the table, but also to change narratives and discussions. 

The Alliance of Her, a joint programme run by the ALDE Party, the European Liberal Forum and the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom, is a good example of an initiative that builds on this idea. Over the past years, it has empowered more than 130 women with the skills, network and confidence to break gender barriers, occupy the space and be heard in politics. More programmes like this are needed, especially in the field of foreign and security policy, to give women in politics the capacity to realize their full potential. And, thereby, unlock the full potential of our societies. 

In the end, even though we are still working out what gender-just foreign and security policy can look like on the national and European level, it is clear that this idea will profoundly influence future decision-making. It is therefore time for liberals to engage in this important discussion and enrich it with our unique input. This is not only the necessary and rational thing to do, but it is also a step forward in creating more free, inclusive and prosperous societies.