Putting women at the centre of foreign policy
More than a moral mission, by nurturing a feminist dimension in its Neighbourhood First policy, India will be able to better achieve its regional interests
Visiting a land border crossing with Nepal or Bangladesh, one quickly realises how India’s regional policies remain a predominantly masculine affair on the ground. There are mainly men driving trucks, controlling passports, and patrolling fences. But if one looks closer, women are not completely missing in action. Often in the shadow of these male-dominated structures, countless women from both countries cross the border every day to visit relatives and religious sites or run informal trade.
India’s developmental plans and security interests in these borderlands will not succeed unless they encompass women and empower their lived experiences. Similarly, to pursue India’s regional interests, the ambitious Neighbourhood First policy must find ways to develop a feminist dimension.
There are broad, encouraging steps in this direction. The ministry of external affairs has been signalling its intent to be more open, inclusive, and diverse. But the real test for a more gender-sensitive and inclusive foreign policy lies in India’s neighbourhood, where its core interests are at stake. This is a region marked by recurrent wars, territorial disputes and political violence, where the male-dominated military, police and intelligence organisations have exceptional influence in patrolling borders or regulating the flow of goods and people.
Centralising women in this highly securitised context should not be just a cosmetic measure for Indian diplomacy to look good in public or tick off a box. More than a moral mission, by nurturing a feminist dimension in its Neighbourhood First policy, India will be able to better achieve its regional interests.
In a recent essay for a report on Applying a Feminist Lens to India’s Foreign Policy, we highlight four specific areas where India has an opportunity to adopt a feminist approach.
First, for disaster and emergency response, India’s regional role as the first responder for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief can be complemented with a strong gender policy component. This should include discussions with the host government on addressing the specific needs of women and children in crisis areas, for example, through the deployment of the Indian Army’s all-women corps, the Indian military nursing service. India should also set an example through the Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure by including a strong gender and diversity policy.
Similarly, with political conflicts in the neighbourhood, most recently in Afghanistan and Myanmar generating significant refugee populations, India needs to place its asylum policies and responses within an inclusive feminist framework. India can play a proactive role in the implementation process of the global compact on refugees, which it signed in 2018. Through this compact and other multilateral institutions such as the World Bank, India could also offer greater support to the women refugee community organisations based in India.
Second, in the development and health sector, India has been investing significant resources in the neighbourhood, whether it is through channelling development assistance (approximately two-thirds of it goes to neighbouring countries) or Vaccine Maitri during the Covid-19 pandemic. A close examination, however, reveals that there is a need to bridge the gender gap. India should increase support for proposals dedicated to women’s empowerment and include gender as a criterion for the assessment of its High Impact Community Development Projects.
Third, on regional economic cooperation, various studies have highlighted that when women gain access to better economic opportunities, the benefits multiply across society. South Asia is marred by cross-border trade barriers that render opportunities unequal for women and men. There is a need to improve digitisation at India’s land ports, increase transportation access to trade centres in remote areas, and invest in border infrastructure to facilitate the participation of women, including through more border haats (marketplaces).
Fourth, India will also need to invest in reviving the gender track in regional multilateralism. With the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) moribund since 2016, cooperative mechanisms to prevent the trafficking of women, technical committees on women and children, and the gender policy advisory group have all stalled. New Delhi should do all it can to restart these initiatives, whether through SAARC or other institutions such as the Bay of Bengal Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), or the Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal (BBIN) sub-regional group. Surprisingly, BIMSTEC’s new charter excludes any significant gender-centric development cooperation.
Some of these concrete policy initiatives show how India’s interests in the region will benefit from a feminist and gender-sensitive approach. They are also in line with India’s foreign policy tradition of democratic realism which sees political diversity and social inclusiveness as a precondition for regional stability, development and security. To put the neighbourhood first, India will have to innovate to centralise the role of women.
Riya Sinha is research associate and Constantino Xavier is a fellow at the Centre for Social and Economic Progress, New DelhiThe views expressed are personal