A French Feminist Foreign Policy

France is the latest country to pledge allegiance to a gendered international focus. Will it work?

Assia Benziane (from left), Marlène Schiappa, Aissata Lam, Emma Watson, Lisa Azuelos, and Denis Mukwege arrive at the first meeting for the G-7 advisory committee for equality between women and men at the Élysée Palace in Paris on Feb. 19.
Assia Benziane (from left), Marlène Schiappa, Aissata Lam, Emma Watson, Lisa Azuelos, and Denis Mukwege arrive at the first meeting for the G-7 advisory committee for equality between women and men at the Élysée Palace in Paris on Feb. 19. Marc Piasecki/Getty Images

Earlier this month, France hosted a series of meetings focused on advancing gender equality and women’s rights as part of its presidency of the Group of Seven (G-7) major industrial economies. This included official meetings of ministers of gender equality (or relevant high-ranking officials), a high-level council of advisors, including the actor Emma Watson, and a large gathering of civil society advocates from G-7 and other countries together known as the Women 7.

By the end of gathering, France had pledged to join efforts to advance feminist foreign policies globally. The idea certainly sounds good, but what does that really mean, broadly? And what, more specifically, are the implications for international assistance?

If it sounds a bit woolly, that’s because in embracing the concept of feminist foreign policy France is planting a stake in what remains relatively undefined territory. To date, only three countries have explicitly self-proclaimed feminist foreign policies: Sweden, Canada, and, as of this past International Women’s Day on March 8, France. Although each has used that announcement to articulate a vision for improvements in the status of women and girls around the world, there is no common definition or approach among them, which means each country has taken the idea in a slightly different direction. Further, countries that have not signed on have reacted and related to the idea of such a policy with varying degrees of buy-in—and opt-out.

The world’s first feminist foreign policy was developed by Sweden in 2014 and was met with suspicion and considerable silence on the world stage. It was not until three years later, under the leadership of Justin Trudeau’s self-proclaimed feminist government in 2017, that Canada followed suit with a slightly narrower focus on development, bringing the world its first feminist international assistance policy. The following year, Trudeau sought to use the G-7 stage (and his own turn at the presidential wheel) to promote its own new focus on gender equality across all of its discussions: from the development ministerial, in which the head of the U.S. Agency for International Development and counterparts from the other G-7 countries’ development ministries or departments convened to discuss shared concerns and priorities, to the grand finale of the leaders’ summit, when U.S. President Donald Trump and other heads of state did the same. Out of that effort came a number of new G-7 commitments including a U.S.-led effort to increase investment in women-owned, women-led, or women-serving enterprises. The U.S. official who launched that initiative, known as the 2X Challenge (the moniker is a play on both cisgender women’s XX chromosomes and the dividend of return from investing in women), is the Overseas Private Investment Corporation’s Kathryn Kaufman, who then represented the United States among the other G-7 countries’ gender ministers last week.

This year, Kaufman used the French forum to promote U.S. leadership on women’s economic empowerment including her own 2X initiative—which has now surpassed $3 billion in investments—and the president’s daughter Ivanka Trump’s recently unveiled Women’s Global Development and Prosperity initiative, to which the White House has pledged $100 million. Ivanka Trump has spoken of the initiative as an effort to empower women as economic actors in the developing world, and she recently completed a trip to sub-Saharan Africa to promote the initiative. She also stumped for the Women’s Entrepreneurship and Economic Empowerment Act of 2018 at the end of last year, when the legislation became one of the few bills on global women’s issues to pass the last Congress, expanding USAID’s authority to support not only microenterprises for women, but also small- and medium-sized women-owned enterprises. It also codified gender analysis in all USAID programs.

Yet while those efforts may sound as though the United States has been at least somewhat influenced by Canadian and Swedish ideas of increasing a focus on women in its foreign policy and assistance, a central tension of this and other global engagements has been that a number of other U.S. efforts have run directly in the opposite direction.

Trump’s work to restrict women’s access to abortion and reduce investments in reproductive health care more broadly are not only a cruel attack on women’s health care and their fundamental human rights, but they also have a direct and deleterious effect on women’s ability to participate in the formal economy. The most recent expression of this came not long before the France meeting, when the United States curtailed language on sexual and reproductive health in an April Security Council resolution on sexual violence in conflict. These actions prompted rebukes on May 10 from German and other ministers at the final reception of the meetings in France, at which the G-7 ministers launched their declaration to, as the new tag line promises, “make gender equality a global cause.”

In other words, the emerging G-7 focus on feminism, gender equality, and women’s rights presents an obvious tension by virtue of U.S. engagement.

Interestingly, the G-7 presents a kind of canary for what the coal mine of 2020 might look like. As the presidential cycle heats up in the United States, France will be hosting a global celebration of women’s rights marking the 25th anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, which was a watershed moment for women’s human rights. And this was the first G-7 gathering where other countries publicly rebuked the United States for its poor showing on reproductive rights, echoing a number of clear calls from civil society on the sidelines of the ministerial meeting in France. The official group of stakeholders lobbying the G-7 on women’s rights, known as the Women 7, called for the G-7 to embrace feminist foreign policies that included feminist official development assistance, which they define as committing to a floor of 20 percent of funding for programs that seek to promote gender equality as a principal goal, and 85 percent for programs that seek to advance gender equality as at least a significant goal, as defined by the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee. This is below the target of 95 percent that Canada embraced for itself in launching its Feminist International Assistance Policy two years ago, but it is on par with a recommendation by the European Union for its member states and above what most G-7 members are currently achieving.

But it’s more than just the amount of money spent—it’s how it’s spent that is truly the mark of feminist aid. The Women 7 is calling for an ambitious investment in issues such as women’s unpaid care work and adolescent girls’ sexual health and education. It also calls for the G-7 to consult with women’s rights groups in the design of any new programs and to produce progress reports on the number of existing G­-7 commitments in this area that have so often been made but never heard from again.

Oxfam was also on the scene as a member of the Women 7 and launched a new paper on feminist aid, which outlines four principles for feminist international assistance. First, it calls on G-7 leaders to apply a gender lens to all aid strategies in order to ensure that gender equality is not a stand-alone program but integrated across all development efforts. This approach also calls on countries to dismantle the power imbalance that currently exists in international aid: Funding flows must support women’s rights groups and movements (rather than large international nongovernmental organizations) and be flexible enough to include small, grassroots organizations that are so often barred from receiving government funds.

This would be a real break from the status quo of how most G-7 countries conduct their international assistance. It is fair to wonder if this is even possible, especially given recent U.S. behavior in international forums as described above and the fact that the political declaration that emerged from last week’s meeting was lacking references to sexual and reproductive rights, the very issues the United States has campaigned against.

In the words of the French, feminist diplomacy for France is pledging to include gender “in all French diplomatic priorities and all political, economic, soft diplomacy, cultural, educational and development cooperation actions.” That would be a radical and refreshing change of pace in the context of growing patriarchal and misogynist forces and crackdowns on women’s rights—in the United States and around the world.

Only time will tell. As the remainder of the G-7 political processes play out leading up to the leaders’ summit in August, women’s rights advocates within and outside of government will be taking note whether the G-7 can act, rather than just talk.

Lyric Thompson is the director of policy and advocacy at the International Center for Research on Women. Twitter: @lyricthompson

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