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Checking In on Mexico’s Feminist Foreign Policy

Almost one year in, an ambitious set of norms has had mixed results.

By , a freelance writer and researcher based in Mexico City.
Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard speaks in Mexico City on Dec. 23.
Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard speaks in Mexico City on Dec. 23. ALFREDO ESTRELLA/AFP via Getty Images

Mexico’s explicitly feminist foreign policy, announced by the Secretariat of Foreign Affairs in January, is a first among Latin American nations. The policy, which mandates gender equality and freedom from gender-based violence in Mexico’s foreign ministry and foreign service, is intended to raise awareness of women’s contributions to the field and to prioritize the pursuit of international relations with a gender perspective and an intersectional feminist framework, meaning engagement with interconnected categories and domains of power.

Mexico had been leading gender equality efforts in the international community even before the feminist foreign policy was formally announced. It pushed for the inclusion of a Gender Action Plan for climate policy at the UN COP25 climate change conference in December 2019, which was adopted. The same year, it began a partnership with the European Union and the United Nations to implement the Spotlight Initiative, a large-scale program aimed at eliminating all forms of violence against women and girls in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Latin America, and the Pacific. The initiatives are consistent with the country’s long commitment to multilateralism and its role in advancing global policymaking in key areas such as nuclear nonproliferation and wealth distribution.

Mexico’s explicitly feminist foreign policy, announced by the Secretariat of Foreign Affairs in January, is a first among Latin American nations. The policy, which mandates gender equality and freedom from gender-based violence in Mexico’s foreign ministry and foreign service, is intended to raise awareness of women’s contributions to the field and to prioritize the pursuit of international relations with a gender perspective and an intersectional feminist framework, meaning engagement with interconnected categories and domains of power.

Mexico had been leading gender equality efforts in the international community even before the feminist foreign policy was formally announced. It pushed for the inclusion of a Gender Action Plan for climate policy at the UN COP25 climate change conference in December 2019, which was adopted. The same year, it began a partnership with the European Union and the United Nations to implement the Spotlight Initiative, a large-scale program aimed at eliminating all forms of violence against women and girls in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Latin America, and the Pacific. The initiatives are consistent with the country’s long commitment to multilateralism and its role in advancing global policymaking in key areas such as nuclear nonproliferation and wealth distribution.

The feminist foreign policy is overseen by Martha Delgado Peralta, Mexico’s undersecretary for multilateral affairs and human rights. She has spent much of the year promoting the policy at home and abroad, particularly through Generation Equality, a United Nations conference marking the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action. The first half of the physical Generation Equality conference was to be held in Mexico City this year but was postponed due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Even so, in a briefing provided to Foreign Policy by Delgado’s office, the minister noted that Mexico and France, which was to host the second part of the conference, were able to announce the creation of the Generation Equality Action Coalitions, which will develop six concrete road maps on specific gender equality topics to follow in the next five years. The road maps will be launched at the second half of the Generation Equality conference, to be held in Paris in 2021.

Mexico’s feminist foreign policy is a welcome development, but the incongruency between the country’s aspirations and leadership on the world stage and the actual state of gender relations in the country remains problematic. As the country has been winning accolades for its promotion of gender equality in the international sphere, things at home have largely only gotten worse for women in 2020.

As a large number of protests and occupations—including, this year, the first nationwide strike of women workers—are pointing out, Mexico is home to a widespread culture of rigid patriarchal gender roles, combined with near-total impunity for crime. Together, those factors mean that violence against women is endemic and often deadly. Every day, on average, an estimated 11 women are killed, including for reasons related to their gender, most often by a male partner or family member. Yet President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has proved considerably unsympathetic to calls for government action on violence against women. Despite a documented rise in deadly violence against women during the COVID-19 pandemic (even as the number of women in the paid workforce has decreased by around 10 percentage points), the president suggested in May that most calls to Mexico’s 911 system from women experiencing domestic violence were false.

Beyond domestic violence, women have also faced high levels of state violence. The catastrophic war on drugs has had a markedly gendered effect, as demonstrated by the increase in disappearances and killings of thousands of women since the offensive began in 2006, in which the government is regularly implicated. According to the feminist public policy think tank Intersecta, the militarization of public security (in many places, the Army has taken a local policing role for the ostensible purpose of suppressing organized crime) has played a particular role in this pattern, with Intersecta research showing that between 2007 and 2018 the killing of women in particular increased whenever and wherever the Army was a protagonist in conflict.

One might also note Mexico’s recent approaches to the presence of migrants passing through, seeking asylum, or seeking to settle in their country. This, after all, concerns the actions of the Mexican state in the international community and has involved diplomatic agreements.

Particularly notable is that in 2019, as U.S. President Donald Trump applied increasing pressure on Mexico to comply with policies intended to deter asylum-seekers and migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border, López Obrador deployed Mexican troops to the Guatemala-Mexico border to drive back migrants from Central America. African migrants seeking asylum in Mexico reported having been detained by Mexican police and immigration officials. Women and children in all of these groups, many of whom are migrating to escape domestic violence and gendered gang violence in their countries of origin, have not been spared this treatment. As per a formal complaint from Human Rights Watch, migrants have reported either failure to respond from the police or implication in violence.

In a post for the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, Daniela Philipson writes: “While Mexico’s Foreign Feminist Policy might be well-intentioned, it conflicts with the Federal government’s general agenda which constantly undermines women and girls’ rights and wellbeing.” Philipson recommends that Mexico might also take heed of the Women, Peace, and Security agenda of the U.N. Security Council. This is a collection of Security Council resolutions that includes calling on national governments to make concrete plans for protecting women and girls from gender-based violence, particularly rape and other forms of sexual abuse, in situations of armed conflict.

Where Philipson and other critics think Mexico should be taking more pains to fortify its commitments to women at home, Delgado is betting on foreign policy as a way to bring support for gender equality from the international community into Mexico. “Mexico is still far from achieving gender equality,” said the undersecretary, according to the briefing provided to Foreign Policy by Delgado’s office. “Mexico’s feminist foreign policy means supporting the cause of gender equality internationally, but also working to bring useful resources into our country.” She sees the ongoing rollout of the Spotlight Initiative in Mexico, which is being implemented by a coalition of U.N. and Mexican agencies and coordinated through Delgado’s office, as a highlight.

The Spotlight Initiative is explicitly focused on ending the country’s high level of femicide. In 2020 the initiative has overseen the #NoEstásSola (You Are Not Alone) campaign to reach women experiencing domestic violence and provide them with support services as rates of violence against women in the home began to climb with the pandemic and attendant stay-at-home and social distancing measures. It has also created a video on women who are leading the charge to eliminate COVID-19 in Mexico and produced news on grassroots efforts to protect women and protest against violence, such as the Justice for Our Daughters coalition founded in the state of Chihuahua, which fights, among other cases, for state accountability for the murder of Marisela Escobedo Ortiz and her daughter, currently the subject of the Netflix series Las tres muertes de Marisela Escobedo (The Three Deaths of Marisela Escobedo). Delgado called the rollout of Spotlight “one of the most ambitious programs within our feminist foreign policy.” The initiative will report on its results in 2022.

Tania Del Rio, a former member of Mexico’s foreign service who in 2016 conducted research on gender equity in Mexico’s embassies all over the world, says that the very existence of a feminist foreign policy is evidence of gains for equality in Mexico. “Four years ago, when I was doing my research, this conversation wasn’t even on the table,” she said in a November interview. Del Rio, who now leads the Mayor’s Office of Women’s Advancement in Boston, produced quantitative and qualitative data on gender bias in Mexico’s foreign service, covering aspects including gender disparities in career progression and experiences of sexual harassment. Del Rio found strong evidence of gender bias—for example, in 2016 women made up 38 percent of the lowest-ranking foreign service officers, with the presence of women dwindling further up the career ladder. She credited her superiors for encouraging her to focus on the issue.

Under its feminist foreign policy, Mexico has pledged to reach gender equality within its foreign service by 2024. But is this pure lip service, or could the new policy play a strategic role in improving women’s lives? While there is no doubt that what Del Rio calls “the internal piece”—domestic policy success on gender equality—affects Mexico’s credibility on this question, she notes that advancing a feminist foreign policy in Mexico is also an effort to invest in and protect the international legal system. Comparing the country to Sweden, which released its feminist foreign policy platform in 2014, Del Rio noted that in both countries’ foreign outlooks, gender equality is linked to global disarmament and the pursuit of peace. “Part of the context for Sweden’s feminist foreign policy was Russia’s annexation of the Crimea and the prospect of war,” Del Rio said, adding that both Mexico and Sweden are neighbors of major nuclear powers.

“In this sense, a national feminist foreign policy is just another way to strengthen the international system.”

Prior to Mexico, said Marissa Conway, a co-founder of the Europe-based Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy, the only countries pursuing such an approach to their external relations were states in the global north—an activist term that refers to high-income countries in Europe and North America, with the global south referring to lower-income countries in Latin America, Asia, Africa, and Oceania.

For Conway, until Mexico declared their feminist foreign policy, the small field of countries that had also done so “reflected the ongoing status quo where Eurocentric and Western knowledge is widely accepted as the norm” where “foreign policy is … seen by global north countries as something to be conducted ‘on,’ rather than ‘with,’ global south countries,” she told Foreign Policy.

In this, Mexico’s leadership is clear—advancing a standard to the international community and strengthening that community forthwith. And a stronger international system is arguably in all of our interests, even more so if it is led by those who have been historically disenfranchised within that system.

Still, as López Obrador himself said in 2019, “domestic policy is the best foreign policy.” Unless the metrics on gendered violence within Mexico improve, it will be difficult for the country to continue to convincingly prosecute the case for equity on the international stage.

Ann Deslandes is a freelance writer and researcher based in Mexico City. Twitter: @Ann_dLandes