HTLS 2022: Time to formulate foreign policy with gender-sensitive approach

Updated on Nov 07, 2022 12:23 PM IST

Mainstreaming gender requires developing a shared new lexicon that reframes priorities around issues germane to an inclusive democracy, without sidestepping difficult questions.

Engagement of women at the high tables where peace is brokered must reflect experiences at the grassroots. (Reuters)
Engagement of women at the high tables where peace is brokered must reflect experiences at the grassroots. (Reuters)

Up until the last decades of the 20th century, the voices of women who hold up half the sky and are disproportionately impacted by conflict and war were seldom heard in meta narratives of national security. For too long, the domain of international relations and politics – both theory and praxis – remained largely untenanted by women.

Today, there is discernible change owing to the efforts of feminist scholars, activists, normative international frameworks and instruments that emanated from the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, multiple UN conferences and the landmark UN Security Council Resolution 1325 Plus, mandating the participation of women in all negotiations on peace and security. In addition, women’s movements especially from the Global South contributed to a groundswell of opinion, demanding voice, space and power at high tables where peace is brokered.

This counter-hegemonic impulse involved an interrogation of purely state-centric or military-centric notions of security and the questioning of Realism. It also involved a critique of war and the cultures of militarism, violence, muscular populism, nuclearisation and the gendering of citizenship. It foregrounded human security concerns that have now been sanctified in the language of the Sustainable Development Goals and the new global compact.

So, what of women in the foreign policy and diplomacy space? Since 2014, when Sweden’s then foreign minister Margot Wallstrom announced the world’s first explicitly feminist foreign policy (FFP), now withdrawn by a newly elected right-wing government, there has been a buzz around the concept. Canada, France, Mexico, Scotland, Luxembourg, Spain, Chile, and Germany have, in principle, embraced the idea today.

This has been propelled by several women leaders and heads of State the world over. The chorus of voices internationally also find resonance in South Asia today. A significant contribution was made at a 2020 conference by the Indian Council of World Affairs, highlighting, among other issues, the “what” and “how” of shaping a gender-sensitive Indian foreign policy. While it is true that foreign policy cannot be only about gender justice, it is also increasingly unsustainable to be gender agnostic on security issues. In addition to national and strategic interests, an inclusive foreign policy would also weigh in on global interconnectedness and diversity, overturning purely ethnocentric, anthropocentric and androcentric perspectives. An inclusive and gender-sensitive approach (GSA) to foreign policy would require building consensus around some basic assumptions.

Security is everybody’s business – not just what is transacted by mandarins in the foreign office or defence establishments. The voices and concerns of women disproportionately impacted must inform our security discourse. The artificial divides between the so-called “hard” and “soft” security issues need to be bridged. Today, SDGs and the global Gender and Development (GAD) discourse establish a clear link between gender, peace, security and development.

The engagement of women at the high tables where peace is brokered must reflect the experiences at the grassroots. Their efforts at building peace, transcending geographical borders and boundaries, and cartographic anxieties of formal security establishments must also inform the narrative. The WPS agenda is not about an “add women and stir” approach or  women highlighting only women’s issues. It is about women’s substantial representation in peace processes. It involves a robust critique of the cultures that sustain and legitimise militarism. It is not based on essentialising notions that homogenise women as an unproblematic category and pit them against men. It is about acknowledging that patriarchal structures of power can impact both men and women, albeit differently.

The discourse is also about interrogating monocultures that invisibilise the unique contributions of the Global South to security. At its root, it is about the democratisation of both security and foreign policies by placing them squarely in the arena of debate and dialogue, and capturing the heat and dust of subaltern aspirations. It is as much about enabling spaces for citizen interventions around justice and inclusion as it is about the appreciation of the genuine structural constraints of national security concerns in the rapidly changing global architecture, the disruptions and challenges of the climate crisis, pandemics and critical technologies.

As a country poised to play a bigger role in world affairs, the increasing porosity between the domestic and the international cannot be lost on us. Mainstreaming gender requires developing a shared new lexicon that reframes priorities around issues germane to an inclusive democracy, without sidestepping difficult questions.

A GSA involves the courage to shed the shibboleths we live by. It requires articulations beyond traditional deterrence vocabularies, security dilemmas, stalemate positions or even the reified language of techno-strategic discourse. It requires a full deployment of what is termed soft power.

What unique insights would GSA bring to climate diplomacy or issues of displacement and refugees? Would the anti-women policies in Afghanistan force a rethink on working strategically with the Taliban? What of the Rohingya women refugees, nearly 12 million mostly women and children fleeing Ukraine, and positions on non-refoulement? Can India’s health diplomacy policy expand to include concerns of domestic workers and women care-givers? Can greater gender responsiveness be integrated into our regional and global free trade agreements? How about new insights on resolving the tensions between trade liberalisation and the impact on wages of women (migrant) workers and loss of livelihoods, and the steep decline in women’s labour force participation? How about building cooperation with neighbouring countries on gender equality goal of the SDGs and the G-20 Gender Equality Plan to buttress our Neighbourhood First Policy?

India’s presidency of the G20, starting this December, offers a unique opportunity to foreground several issues integral to the WPS agenda. At a time when the global development agenda faces monumental challenges, issues of human security are likely to be at the fore.

The foreign office – and especially our women diplomats who comprise 21.6% of the service – can pry open spaces, as a new framing of global strategic priorities seeks articulation. They can draw upon the palimpsest of engagement that their illustrious and intrepid foremothers carved out in international fora, such as Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, Hansa Mehta, Shareefa Hamid Ali and Lakshmi N Menon, who finessed the normative scripts on human rights, disarmament, anti-colonialism and the UN Commission on the Status of Women.

This is indeed a propitious time to sculpt a more inclusive foreign policy embellished by a gender-sensitive approach, from the perspective of the rich experience of the Global South. It is a time to recall Pandit’s famous exhortation at the UN – the more we sweat in peace, the less we bleed in war.

(Meenakshi Gopinath is Director, Women in Security Conflict Management and Peace, New Delhi. The views expressed are personal.) 

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