As India finds itself at the centre of global conversations on the most pressing challenges of our time, it must also develop a progressive voice on local, regional and global gender issues by engaging with the FFP agenda.
This article, first in a series of two, engages with the world of feminist foreign policy (FFP) and explores differences between its many shapes and forms in order to demystify its conceptual moorings and policy translations. So far, eight feminist foreign policies (FFPs) have been announced, seven adopted and one rolled back (by Sweden). Several countries have also significantly incorporated gender-reflective components into various facets of their foreign policies[i]. Building on an initial analysis of various FFPs, this article explores how centring feminist principles in India’s foreign policy considerations, especially across three sectors of its South-South development cooperation – humanitarian aid, economic and development cooperation and environment – will deliver significantly better impacts for beneficiaries in partner countries.
What is FFP?
As a concept, FFP traces its genealogy to feminist IR theory which, according to Aggestam et al., “challenges the invisibility of gender and the absence of women in international relations on many fronts, both in theory and in the practice of foreign policy and global politics more broadly” (2019, p. 29). Driven by these realisations, feminists inside and outside of foreign policy institutions are advocating for what is now broadly called ‘feminist foreign policy’.
Attempts have been made to define FFP but the one put out by Lyric Thompson, Spogmay Ahmed and Tanya Khokhar in a paper for the International Centre for Research on Women is the most extensive and carries the weight of broad consensus among feminist academics and activists. They describe FFP as, “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 prioritises 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 of 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” (Lyric Thompson et al., p. 26).
From this definition, it is clear that a gold standard FFP would a) recognise the following goals: peace, gender equality, environmental integrity, human rights, decolonisation, anti-racism and disruption of patriarchal, male-dominated power structures; b) be built through consultation and consensus between multiple stakeholders including state and non-state actors, regarding its principles, goals, approaches and beneficiaries; c) be intersectional in its approach to counter multiple sources of marginalisation and power asymmetries – colonialism, racism, patriarchy, male-domination; and d) be consistent across multiple sectors of foreign policy (aid, trade, environment, defence, infrastructure, immigration, etc.), all levels of foreign policy machinery (external affairs ministries and staff as well as foreign services staff), and internal and external dimensions of foreign policy.
In reality though, FFPs incorporate different facets of this definition, making each FFP distinct from the next. These differences have also become the source of some debates and criticism, which the next section unpacks.
The Many Shades of FFP
To make sense of the variations across FFPs, it is helpful to investigate what is ‘the problem’ that each FFP seeks to address? Given that “form follows function”, asking this question helps us understand why an FFP prioritises certain goals, action areas and approaches over others.
FFP was introduced to the world by Sweden in 2014 under the leadership of Margot Walstrom, then the foreign minister of the country. It identified gender inequality as the core problem it sought to overcome with Walstrom stating that the country’s “diplomatic efforts would stand against the systematic and global subordination of women” (Conley, 2022). Its Handbook on Feminist Foreign Policy describes FFP as applying a “systematic gender equality perspective throughout foreign policy”. However, in October this year, the newly elected right of centre government in Sweden withdrew the world’s first FFP as soon as it took charge of office.
Sweden’s FFP drew a direct link between its domestic gender equality credentials and its FFP with the latter essentially increasing the country’s foreign policy ambitions that had “long been characterised by a clear rights and gender equality perspective” (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2019). The Swedish FFP spoke of the 4R approach to Sweden’s foreign policy that would prioritise the rights, representation, resources, and reality of women and girls. An important point to note though is that despite adopting an intersectional approach, Sweden’s FFP was focussed only on women and girls as a target group, raising doubts about its intersectionality.
These criticisms aside, the rollback of Swedish FFP raises important concerns regarding the sustainability of FFP and its vulnerability to political disinformation and change in governments. It also invites a crucial question, which advocates of FFP will have to contend with: Is it strategically more pragmatic to adopt FFP through a process of bipartisan consensus building? Advocates should consider if a multi-stakeholder dialogue, which engages with sceptics and fence sitters as well, may be more akin to the organic evolution of a new norm like FFP and therefore more resilient to exploitation for political point scoring?
Sweden’s adoption of FFP was soon followed by Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy (FIAP) in 2017. It is clear from the name that Canada, for now, has limited the remit of its FFP to its international assistance programming leaving out important sectors like defence and immigration. Canada’s Minister of International Development and La Francophonie, Marie-Claude Bibeau, stated the FIAP’s primary objective is “to contribute to global efforts to eradicate poverty around the world” and that “Canada is adopting a Feminist International Assistance Policy that seeks to eradicate poverty and build a more peaceful, more inclusive and more prosperous world” (Global Affairs Canada, 2017).
For Canadian FIAP, the ‘problem’ is poverty, and its solution lies in women’s empowerment. In feminist economics and International Relations literature, this approach is sometimes called ‘empowerment as efficiency’ approach (Calkin 2015, as cited in Robinson, 2021, p. 2). It has been criticised for prioritising the ‘business-case’ for women’s economic empowerment as a means to achieve economic development and improve the state of national economies, the lives of men and communities while failing to recognise that women’s empowerment is worthy of being pursued as a goal, in and of itself.
Furthermore, in an ironic but routinely witnessed move in policy ‘makeovers’, there are no budgetary changes made to operationalise the Canadian FIAP. Morton et al. critique this, calling the lack of financial support and re-investment a case of ‘miserly feminism’ (2020, p. 331) and contrast it with Canada’s increasing defence spending. The lack of financial investment to operationalize FFPs raises important concerns about the structural limits put on FFPs, especially when ambitious goals like global poverty eradication by way of women’s empowerment are not matched with adequate financing as is the case with Canadian FIAP.
France adopted its International Strategy on Gender Equality in 2018. Its central objective is “to systematically mainstream gender equality and the consideration of gender issues in France’s external action” (French Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs, 2018, p. 15). For France’s FFP, the main identified problem its FFP addresses is the invisibility of the role of gender in France’s external action. This is a unique standpoint and very relevant to the world of foreign policy where most often, “gender is difficult to see when only the masculine is present” (Scheyer and Kumskova, 2022, p. 59).
Unlike Canada, France does not limit its FFP to only international assistance or development cooperation sectors. Its sectoral priorities include access to social services, including reproductive health; access to decent work; women and girls’ access to rights and justice; their protection from all forms of violence; their meaningful participation in economic, political and social decision making as well as peace and security processes. Further, in keeping with its interpretation of secularism, French FFP takes a stand against regressive social and religious customs and traditions, which prevent the realisation of women’s and girls’ human rights (French Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs, 2018, p. 13). This can be a controversial line for many countries to take in their external action, given the obvious conflict such a stance evokes with the sovereignty claims of other countries.
Mexico became the first Latin American country to adopt an FFP in 2020. It is steered by Mexico’s Undersecretary for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Martha Delgado, with its details laid out in a position paper by her. Mexico’s key reason for the adoption of an FFP is “to make social phenomena, such as structural inequalities, that would otherwise remain unseen, visible” (Delgado, 2020).
For Mexico’s FFP, structural dimensions of gender inequality and the entrenched patriarchy prevalent in its society are crucial problems, with minister Delgado’s paper stating that “structural gender inequality requires a radical solution…these inequalities are rooted in historical and contextual vulnerabilities that obstruct women and girls from enjoying basic rights due to their gender” (Delgado, 2020). Building on this realisation, three of the Mexican FFP’s five main goals address the domestic arms of its foreign policy structures: a) ensuring gender parity within the Foreign Affairs Ministry b) ending gender violence inside the Ministry c) giving visibility to women and their efforts in Mexico’s foreign policy efforts. Mexico's FFP commits to focussing on the internal dimensions of its foreign policy, not just external, unlike the Global North countries, whose location for feminist foreign policy action is often ‘out there’.
Like Mexico, Spain’s FFP document recognises gender inequality as the central issue it wishes to address through its external actions. However, unlike Mexico, it doesn’t link its FFP to domestic structural inequality, and like Canada makes a ‘business-case’ for adopting a FFP by stating that, “Equality is a synonym of diversity and thus also a synonym of wealth – wealth in the exercise of rights by all citizens, but also economic wealth, prosperity and justice” (Ministerio de Asuntos Exteriores, Unión Europea y Cooperación, 2021, p. 4). Spain’s FFP therefore attempts to advance economic wealth and prosperity as a vector for rights and justice.
Another important observation is Spain’s application of the ‘intersectional’ approach, which it uses to highlight the many sources of discrimination acting on women and girls only. Spain’s FFP document states, “the situation of women and girls cannot improve without recognising the existence of intersectional and multiple forms of discrimination.” This is similar to Sweden’s limited interpretation where the intersectional lens is applied only to women and girls, and other marginalised communities are excluded.
Under the leadership of its first female Foreign Minister, Annalena Baerbock, from the Green Party, Germany officially announced its feminist foreign policy in 2021. The Coalition Agreement of 2021 between the Social Democrats, Green Party and the FDP stated that, “Together with our partners, we want to promote feminist foreign policy rights, resources and representation for women and girls worldwide, and social diversity.” As of now, there has been no official publication by the coalition government announcing details of how it plans to operationalise a German FFP.
It remains to be seen which version of FFP emerges from a consensus between the three parties to the coalition government. However, Minister Baerbock’s speech at a recently held Conference on Shaping Feminist Foreign Policy in Berlin in September this year, provides some insight:
- Germany will further Sweden’s 3R commitments and add diversity as a primary goal, making its FFP a 3R+D (rights, resources and representation + diversity) approach. On the issue of diversity, Baerbock mentioned, “Feminist Foreign Policy is a foreign policy that focuses on the entire spectrum of diversity..” whilst acknowledging that Germans “still have some work to do on diversity”.
- Germany will mainstream feminist principles in its security policy. Unlike Sweden and Canada, German FFP will also apply to its security policy so that more emphasis can be placed on human security. According to Baerbock, “Feminist Foreign Policy implements what we defined years ago as ‘human security’. It puts the spotlight on people, regardless of their background, gender, belief or who they love. If we focus particularly on women and marginalised groups, it makes our security policy more comprehensive. It makes us stronger.”
Which Feminism(s) and Why?
The previous discussion invites the following questions: What is feminist about these feminist foreign policies and which feminisms do they promote? Almost all FFPs draw legitimacy from the multiple multilateral conventions and agreements adopted on women’s rights like the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the UN Security Council resolutions on Women, Peace and Security, the EU’s strategic approach to women, peace and security and Gender Action Plan II (GAP II).
This has three implications: First, a significant amount of liberal internationalism finds its way from these multilateral documents into national FFPs. This is seen in the FFP language, approach and rationales of Sweden, Canada, and France. The feminism borne out of liberal internationalism is sometimes called ‘feminist internationalism’ and it espouses equality between genders (and occasionally other groups and races) as a universal value. However, some feminists[ii] would argue that more radical aspirations seeking transformational changes aimed at dismantling structural inequalities are broadly given a miss by the feminist internationalism of these FFPs (Mexico may be considered an exception-on paper, if not in spirit).
The reluctance towards developing policies that would bring about more transformative changes may be explained by the reality that FFPs are an example of ‘State Feminism’ i.e. state approved ‘feminism’ implemented by state actors. Even when developed in consultation with civil society actors, the picture painted by these FFPs does not capture the full spectrum of pulls and pressures – domestic and international politics as well as material constraints that governments factor–in while adopting new norms. In this context, civil society actors need to be vigilant and continuously engage with state actors and institutions to ensure that FFPs do not pause or stop at the discursive level only. Therefore it can be said that FFPs promote values of feminist internationalism and take state- approved feminist expressions but through consistent engagement, progressive revisions can be encouraged by civil society actors.
An FFP for India? Exploring Value and Possible Priorities
FFP has become a regular part of the foreign policy lexicon in the West. In India too, discussions around FFP are becoming increasingly common within academia, think tanks, feminist organisations and even official circles. In 2021, India’s External Affairs Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar indicated as much when he stated, “I agree that we need to look at the world from the perspective of women, we need a gender-balanced foreign policy. We need to look at three things here: Getting more women to engage with foreign policy issues, reflect women’s interests in foreign policy, and bring in a feminist perspective to foreign policy.” He went on to acknowledge the need for “rebalancing” in India’s foreign policy but emphasised that any such policy cannot simply be imported from countries in the West as “These countries have different cultures, different historical traditions. We need such a framework to evolve organically for it to work. But, yes, certainly, we need much more rebalancing in this area.”
From minister Jaishankar’s statement, it can be said that representation, primarily of women in foreign policy making, takes precedence in his imagination of an Indian FFP (whether it comes to be labelled ‘feminist’ or not). This also reflects the broader reality in India today where male-dominated institutions are being gradually opened up to the presence and influence of women and even feminist thought. For instance, there is a raging debate regarding reserving 33 per cent seats for women in the Lok Sabha where the number of women at present stands at 14.36 per cent (Devasia, 2022). The Indian Foreign Services, has also seen a steady increase in the percentage of women. In the past decade, this figure has varied in the range of 25 per cent to 40 per cent among new batches (Devasia, 2022). Further, the Indian Armed Forces, another institution at the forefront of national debates regarding gender equality and inclusivity, is also beginning to contend with more gender balanced policies. In March 2022, the Supreme Court of India cleared the way for the Army to grant permanent commissions to women officers who until then were only eligible for short service commissions[iii]. The public conversation in India is clearly focused on removing institutional and socio-cultural barriers that prevent women from participating in the workings of their country as full and equal citizens.
As India progresses to become one of the leading partners in South-South as well as triangular cooperation, a gender-turn will hold value for the external and internal dimensions of its foreign policy. With respect to its internal dimensions, a foreign policy informed by a feminist lens will bring intersectional inclusivity to India’s foreign service, which at present is dominated by men from privileged backgrounds. An inclusive foreign service will make structural changes to ensure representation from marginalised castes and regions. And a gender-equal foreign service will work to ensure that people of all genders, not just men, find space and accommodation within the system. With respect to its external dimension, an Indian FFP will invest in building Indian capabilities to engage progressively with the full length and breadth of local, regional and global gender issues (Swati Parasher, 2021).
Progressive engagement on foreign policy is not new for India. Indian foreign policy has invested in ethical, non-militaristic alternatives to conflicts, choosing to lean on diplomacy, providing the alternative of the Non-Aligned Movement at the height of the Cold War, while also maintaining one of the largest armies in the world. It is therefore worth exploring what it might look like applying a feminist lens to the frontier sectors of India’s South-South Cooperation efforts – humanitarian aid and disaster relief (HADR), economic and development cooperation, and climate cooperation.
India has emerged as the de-facto “first responder”[iv] in the neighbourhood by actively engaging in HADR efforts in its immediate and extended neighbourhood[v]. HADR is an important element of India’s soft power and influence in the region, but gender is not systematically mainstreamed in its HADR efforts. This leaves many gender-specific gaps in Indian efforts such as the collection of gender disaggregated data, meaningful inclusion of women and marginalised communities in disaster planning and response, and the monitoring and evaluation of HADR efforts based on gender sensitive indicators. It is essential that the differential viewpoints, needs and capacities of women and other marginalised communities are factored in India’s HADR efforts. More importantly, the application of a feminist lens to India’s HADR efforts is necessary to ensure that women and marginalised communities are viewed not only as subjects of protection but also as stakeholders in the decision-making process regarding what constitutes effective protection and response for them.
Economic and Development Cooperation
India also has a long-standing tradition of engaging internationally on several projects that promote women’s economic empowerment as part of its economic and development cooperation efforts. For instance, it supports skill development training for women in the neighbourhood, has invested in female entrepreneurship development in partnership with the United States, and also provided gender-specific assistance “to Cambodia, El Salvador, Fiji, Lesotho, Myanmar, Namibia, Palestine, Papua New Guinea, Senegal, and Tajikistan, etc.” (Devasia, 2022). It has also partnered with Sri Lanka to promote trade facilitation for women.
For India, the next step in improving the economic and development cooperation offered by it should be to reflect more meaningfully on mainstreaming gender, and incorporating a feminist lens. India stands to improve the outcomes of its development cooperation by the application of feminist lens, which would help institutionalise increased gender-sensitive financial commitments along with building cohesion and synchronising India’s disparate yet significant efforts to promote women’s empowerment. A feminist lens would allow its concrete actions to be monitored and evaluated using a gender-specific indicators, improve implementation of programmes that have gender as primary or significant component and allow for accountability to be built in with respect to resources, targets and impacts. At present, there have been some concerns expressed regarding programmes being categorised as 100 per cent women-centric but in the absence of gender sensitive indicators, this measurement may not be very accurate (Lahiri, 2019; Chakraborty, 2021). A feminist approach would also nudge India towards working more frequently and closely with organisations in partner countries that are led by women and other marginalised communities to prioritise their economic empowerment.
Climate and Environment Cooperation
South Asia has particularly steep vulnerabilities to adverse climate events and poor capacities to withstand and recover from them. Studies that explore the detrimental impacts of the climate crisis on women and other marginalised communities acknowledge that climate change impacts amplify existing gender inequalities putting women at greater risk of further marginalisation. Keeping this context in mind, in 2013, Bangladesh, India’s eastern neighbour, adopted a Climate Change and Gender Action Plan to mainstream gender considerations into all its climate policy and programming.
In recent years, India has enhanced its climate cooperation with other countries from the Global South. Of particular note is the International Solar Alliance proposed by India and launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2015 at the India Africa Summit. It is an alliance of countries that work towards efficient consumption of solar energy to reduce fossil fuel consumption. However, India is yet to formalise a gender mainstreaming strategy in its climate partnerships. Without gender mainstreaming, India’s climate cooperation efforts fall short of reaching the most vulnerable communities.
Like HADR, India’s climate cooperation efforts, when informed by feminist principles, will ensure that women and marginalised communities are included beyond the scope of protection. This will require structural changes in existing policy making institutions to open up spaces for consultations with grass-roots organisations, specifically those that work with marginalised communities that are particularly vulnerable to adverse climate impacts. A feminist approach will mean that high-level policy making spaces develop pathways for grassroots knowledge from such communities to guide India’s climate cooperation objectives, programmes, budgeting, implementation and results monitoring frameworks.
As India finds itself at the centre of several global conversations on the most pressing challenges of our time—climate change, South-South development cooperation, increasingly tense geopolitical relations in the Indo Pacific, the war on Ukraine and recovery from Covid-19—it is time for India to contribute to another equally crucial conversation: FFP. Though several benefits of applying a feminist lens to India’s foreign policy have been elucidated in this article, the strongest argument in favour of an Indian FFP is the right of more than a half of India’s population to participate in, and influence, its foreign policy decisions and resources available to execute them.
[i] In January 2022, 16 countries joined the Feminist Foreign Policy Plus Group that was announced by the Swedish Foreign Minister.
[ii] See True, 2010, for a discussion on limits to transformative potentials of feminist policies advocated by states and international organisations. For a discussion regarding transformative changes in the context of various FFPs, see: Zilla, 2022; Aggestam et al., 2019; Thomson, 2020; Morton et al., 2020.
[v] In the aftermath of the earthquake in Nepal in 2015, the Indian government invested around US$18 million on providing disaster relief. India spearheaded similar relief operations in the region during the tsunami (in India in 2004), earthquake (in Pakistan in 2005), and Cyclones Nargis (2008) and Cyclone Mora (2017). Additionally, India also plays a central role in India’s maritime neighbourhood where the Indian Navy is regularly deployed for search and rescue and non-combatant evacuation operations.
Aggestam, Karin, and Annika Bergman Rosamond. “Feminist Foreign Policy 3.0: Advancing Ethics and Gender Equality in Global Politics.” SAIS Review of International Affairs 39, no. 1 (2019): 37–48. https://doi.org/10.1353/sais.2019.0003.
Aggestam, Karin, Annika Bergman Rosamond, and Annica Kronsell. “Theorising Feminist Foreign Policy.” International Relations 33, no. 1 (March 2019): 23–39. https://doi.org/10.1177/0047117818811892.
Chakraborty, Lekha. “Covid19 and Gender Budgeting: Applying a ‘Gender Lens’ to Union Budget in India.” National Institute of Public Finance and Policy, December 16, 2021. https://www.nipfp.org.in/media/medialibrary/2021/12/WP_362_2021.pdf.
Conley, Mikaela. “Feminist Foreign Policies Increase in Number. Do They Matter?,” 2022, 24.
Delgado, Martha. “Mexico’s Feminist Foreign Policy” 19, no. 1 (2020).
Devasia, Akshaya Jose. “A Feminist Foreign Policy for India?,” no. 34 (2022): 6.
French Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs. “France’s International Strategy on Gender Equality (2018–2022),” 2018.
Global Affairs Canada. “Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy,” 2017.
Lahiri, Ashok. “Fifteen Years of Gender Budgeting in India A Retrospective.Html,” October 29, 2019. https://www.ideasforindia.in/topics/social-identity/fifteen-years-of-gender-budgeting-in-india-a-retrospective.html.
Lyric Thompson, Ahmed Spogmay, and Khokhar Tanya. “Defining Feminist Foreign Policy_A 2021 Update.Pdf,” n.d.
Ministerio de Asuntos Exteriores, Unión Europea y Cooperación. “SPAIN’S FEMINIST FOREIGN POLICY: Promoting Gender Equality in Spain’s External Action,” February 2, 2021.
Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “Handbook: Sweden’s Feminist Foreign-Policy,” 2019.
———. “The Swedish Foreign Service Action Plan for Feminist Foreign Policy 2019–2022, Including Direction and Measures for 2020,” 2019.
Morton, Sam E., Judyannet Muchiri, and Liam Swiss. “Which Feminism(s)? For Whom? Intersectionality in Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy.” International Journal: Canada’s Journal of Global Policy Analysis 75, no. 3 (September 2020): 329–48. https://doi.org/10.1177/0020702020953420.
Robinson, Fiona. “Feminist Foreign Policy as Ethical Foreign Policy? A Care Ethics Perspective.” Journal of International Political Theory 17, no. 1 (February 2021): 20–37. https://doi.org/10.1177/1755088219828768.
Scheyer, Victoria, and Marina Kumskova. “FEMINIST FOREIGN POLICY,” 2022, 21.
Swati Parasher. “A Gender Sensitive Indian Foreign Policy: Why and How? An ICWA Conversation,” (2021).
Thomson, Jennifer. “What’s Feminist about Feminist Foreign Policy? Sweden’s and Canada’s Foreign Policy Agendas.” International Studies Perspectives 21, no. 4 (October 27, 2020): 424–37. https://doi.org/10.1093/isp/ekz032.
True, Jacqui. “Feminism and Gender Studies in International Relations Theory.” In Oxford Research Encyclopedia of International Studies, by Jacqui True. Oxford University Press, 2010. https://doi.org/10.1093/acrefore/9780190846626.013.46.
Zhukova, Ekatherina, Malena Rosén Sundström, and Ole Elgström. “Feminist Foreign Policies (FFPs) as Strategic Narratives: Norm Translation in Sweden, Canada, France, and Mexico.” Review of International Studies 48, no. 1 (January 2022): 195–216. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0260210521000413.
Zilla, Claudia. “Feminist Foreign Policy - Concepts, Core Components and Controversies,” 2022, 7.