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Argument

Mexican Diplomacy Has Gone Feminist

Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s administration has boldly reoriented its foreign policy toward gender equality.

Mexico's Andrés Manuel López Obrado
Andrés Manuel López Obrador, then a presidential candidate in Mexico, shakes hands with supporters during his campaign in the North Sierra of the state of Puebla. Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP via Getty Images

Last week, Mexico became the first global south country—and only the third country worldwide—to launch an explicitly feminist foreign policy. With this new policy platform, the government is setting a new global standard and, in its own words, “breaking glass ceilings.”

“The government of Mexico is feminist, and our foreign policy should be, too,” said Foreign Secretary Marcelo Luis Ebrard Casaubón. Starting now, the new policy mandates that gender equality be core to all aspects of Mexican foreign policy.

The first feminist foreign policy was debuted by Sweden in 2014, to “giggles” and suspicion at the time, according to then-Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom. Canada became the second, with its Feminist International Assistance Policy, in 2017, followed by announcements by Mexico, France, and Luxembourg that such policies were under development. And last week, Mexico publicly rolled out its new policy guidance as all of Mexico’s ambassadors and heads of mission were gathered in Mexico City for their annual training and policy updates.

The Mexican policy is already setting the tone for other countries that want to follow suit as they grapple with how best to take on the most pressing issues facing the world today: violence and war, climate change, and structural and social inequality.

But what exactly is a “feminist” foreign policy?

Following more than a year of global consultation and research on the world’s handful of existing feminist foreign policies, the International Center for Research on Women has established a working definition for government policy 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.”

By our measure, the Mexican government has laid out a foundation for what is emerging as a global gold standard. “Mexico is determined to move forward a progressive foreign policy,” said Cristopher Ballinas Valdés, the director-general for human rights and democracy at the Mexican foreign ministry, “with a main focus on promoting human rights, equality, and women’s rights. The feminist foreign policy is based on five principles that rule all foreign-policy activities.”

Those five principles include: conducting all aspects of foreign policy with the intent to advance gender equality and a feminist agenda; achieving gender parity at all levels of staff in the foreign ministry; combatting all forms of gender-based violence, including within the ministry; making equality visible; and practicing intersectional feminism, which is to say, an approach that values not only women’s rights but also other intersecting social, economic, and environmental justice issues.

The government of Mexico has opted for a very broad vision for what its policy would achieve—not simply the advancement of women, but also the fulfilment of rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people (the Mexican foreign ministry participated in Mexico City’s pride march for the first time last year) and the advancement of broader social and economic justice initiatives. Quoting work by the International Center for Research on Women, the policy explicitly obligates Mexican leadership to advance “issues that others are not prioritizing,” including sexual and reproductive health and rights, as well as climate change.

Given the prevalence of gender-based violence and femicide in Mexico, the new policy marks a welcome change of pace. With the policy, according to Ballinas Valdés, “Mexico will pay justice to a long overdue agenda on women’s and girls’ rights.” This is the first time such an overt women’s rights agenda has been advanced in Mexican foreign policy, and officials inside the ministry have indicated that the establishment of a gender-balanced cabinet in President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s administration went a long way toward enabling such change.

Mexico’s feminist foreign policy commits to an ambitious number of immediate actions across all five areas of engagement, stipulating precise timelines by which they are to be achieved. Trainings, workshops, working groups, and manuals are to be developed and deployed within the first year. By 2024, the government is aiming for full employment parity, equal pay, and the application of a gender lens to every foreign-policy position, resolution, and mandate. This is a tall order—and one that will undoubtedly encounter resistance.

But if past is prologue, Mexico seems positioned to excel. The new policy’s antecedents have already been shaping Mexico’s behavior internally and on the world stage. Case in point, Mexico took a clear leadership position at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP25) held last month in Spain, where the government promoted gender equality as a nonnegotiable component of any agreement on climate change.

“[Mexico is] simply one of the few countries that comes to the table with gender equality and human rights as a red line,” said conference attendee Bridget Burns, a climate activist and the executive director of the Women’s Environment and Development Organization. “Many other actors say it’s a priority for them, but Mexico showed real strength in not letting these principles become bargaining chips in a process that often dwindles issues down to the lowest common denominator.”

The lowest common denominator appeared to be the likely outcome of COP25 at one point, as countries worked together to exclude activists from the negotiations and even locked a number of activists and indigenous women out of in the cold. But Mexican negotiators made sure feminist climate activists had a seat at the table and led a process that ultimately developed a Gender Action Plan, one of the only tangible outcomes in a conference that otherwise “fell short” of meaningful progress on climate initiatives.

“Having witnessed Mexico championing human rights and gender equality in the context of the U.N. climate negotiations, it’s exciting to see the launch of this feminist foreign policy, principled on an intersectional feminist approach,” Burns said. “We know that to be truly ‘feminist,’ foreign policy must understand gender equality in the context of all issues, from environment and trade, to peace and economy. We look forward to seeing Mexico put these words into action, and to serving as inspiration for other governments, particularly given their leadership in the upcoming Beijing+25 Generation Equality Forum.”

That forum marks the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, watershed agreements outlining women’s human rights. It also marks the first major multilateral test of Mexico’s new foreign policy. Mexico and France, which has also recently announced but not yet released a feminist foreign policy, will be co-hosting a “champions only” progressive, multilateral space, where heads of state from progressive countries will gather to make commitments to the next generation of women’s rights issues.

The path forward will not be an easy one. Retrogressive foreign policies, including that of the United States, have instilled little trust in some governments to advance and protect the women’s rights standards laid out 25 years ago. But if Mexico’s level of ambition and the growing number of countries turning their eyes on their own foreign policies are signs of what is to come, the momentum may be just enough to carry this movement forward.

“It’s very encouraging to see,” said Kristina Lunz, a co-founder of the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy, “that with Mexico the first global south country presented a feminist foreign policy. In international circles, there still tends to be this biased perception that industrial countries such as Germany would be leading on topics of social justice and equality—but especially when it comes to feminism in foreign policy, Germany and others can learn lots from Mexico.”

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

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