In this 26th episode of the IGC podcast, we share extracts of the 2023 Geneva Gender Debate, during which four members of the IGC community discussed in favour and against the following motion: "This house believes that countries which prioritise gender equality should adopt a Feminist Foreign Policy." This event was organized in partnership with the Geneva Graduate Institute and the US Permanent Mission in Geneva.
Hello and welcome to the March episode of our IGC podcast. I'm Hannah from the International Gender Champions Secretariat in Geneva.
With International Women’s Day on 8 March, this month is always a special one. It’s a time to shine a spotlight and celebrate collective achievements on the road to gender equality. It’s also a time to raise awareness on the systemic inequities that continue to shape our world; and to map out the best way forward to navigate challenges and roadblocks.
At the International Gender Champions Secretariat in Geneva, we celebrated this year’s International Women’s Day with our fourth Geneva Gender Debate, an event that promotes dialogue on an important gender-related topic through the art of debate.
So, on 8 March, in partnership with the Geneva Graduate Institute, we brought together four members of the IGC community, and split them into two teams to argue for and against a motion in the tradition of an Oxford Style debate. This year’s motion up for debate was: “This house believes that countries which prioritize gender equality should adopt a feminist foreign policy”.
Arguing in favour of the motion were:
- Marc Bichler, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Luxembourg to the UN and other International Organizations in Geneva, and
- Claudia Fuentes Julio, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Chile to the UN and other International Organizations in Geneva.
And assigned to argue against the motion were:
- Jagan Chapagain, Secretary-General of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, and
- Cäcilia Riederer, student at the Graduate Institute and member of the Institute’s Feminist Collective.
The debate was moderated by Darius Farman, Co-director of the foreign policy think tank foraus.
Today, we are offering you the key extracts of the insightful and nuanced debate our four speakers brought to the audience. But first, let’s hear from the person who pioneered Feminist Foreign Policy in her former role as Swedish Minister of Foreign Affairs: Margot Wallström, who delivered the event’s Opening Remarks and set the scene for the debate.
This particular international women’s day I think is the perfect timing for a debate about the best ways to enhance gender quality. What has happened recently in Afghanistan and Iran is an illustration of the discrimination against women around the world and in particular in those two countries – but also an expression of their resolve, and their strength, and their will not to be seen as victims and survivors only but as actors for change.
Ms Wallström then went on to share her reasons for conceptualizing the world’s first explicitly feminist foreign policy.
I announced that the Swedish government and I as a foreign minister would pursue a feminist foreign policy. So why did I choose such a controversial expression? I of course knew and understood that there will be strong reactions to using that word. Well, for three reasons. First of all, because it creates curiosity and that is something that I immediately noticed. It gives a chance to define feminism as being women and men enjoying the same rights and obligations and opportunities in life. But it also leads to accountability if you create an action plan, then people will refer to that and say so way haven’t you done this? Why not that? And of course, there were both positive and critical reactions to it.
Following these heartfelt opening remarks, our four debaters exchanged their arguments as to whether countries which prioritize gender equality should adopt a feminist foreign policy. Let’s first hear extracts from the opening statement of Marc Bichler, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Luxembourg, a country that has, by the way, adopted a feminist foreign policy.
The first point I would like to make is that feminist foreign policy goes really at the roots of systemic inequalities. It fights systemic inequalities. The second idea would be that feminist foreign policy ensures the full participation and representation of women at all levels of decision making.
A feminist foreign policy is more than a nice-to-have, a feminist foreign policy is not pinkwashing, a feminist foreign policy is not a label. And a feminist foreign policy is not about taking anything away from men.
Ambassador Bichler elaborated on these points later on in the debate. Let’s tune in.
Now in a world with an asymmetrical gender order, men’s and women’s experiences diverge. A mere gender-neutral foreign policy would not do the trick because it would fail to take adequate account of these different gender-specific perspectives. So far from being neutral, a foreign policy which is not feminist therefore cements as a matter of fact the status quo.
The instrumental argument for the full participation and representation of women at all decision levels can be illustrated for example by the women and peace and security agenda that is based on the UN security council’s resolution 13-20-25 as well as know from 2000. And just as a piece of illustration, analysis of 40 peace processes since the end of the Cold War shows that in cases where women were able to exercise a strong influence on the negotiation process there was a much higher chance that an agreement would be reached.
Caecilia Riederer, student and member of the Feminist Collective at the Graduate Institute, and arguing on the opposite side countered these arguments. She criticized that feminist foreign policies tend to be developed from a place of privilege and thus fail to live the very values they claim to promote.
States which prioritize gender equality should not adopt a feminist foreign policy, because we first must have an honest, truly inclusive, bottom-up and intersectional dialogue about the concept, its origins and inherent biases before we advocate for its universal adoption. As long as feminist foreign policy is a concept designed from a position of privilege shaped only by those in power it can never be truly feminist, because our understanding of intersectional feminism requires inclusive debates that prioritize those at the margins and local lived realities.
Her debate partner, Secretary General of the IFRC Jagan Chapagain, further built on the importance of an approach that is rooted in local realities and does not reinforce existing power asymmetries.
Feminist foreign policy fundamentally goes against the two current trends that exist in the world. The first one is the trend about localization. The localisation that we build policies listening to people and the communities and at the homes of people who are marginalized, people who are excluded. That’s where we need to listen to.
The second aspect I would like to talk about is the feminist foreign policy fundamentally goes against the today’s debate on decolonization. Let us be very honest about the history. I come from Nepal. Nepal was never colonized but I studied in India and I see the scars of colonization ever after 75 years of independence. So the notion that we will develop a short important policy to design our relationship with certain countries reminds those very painful memories of the colonization. At times, it can actually be very counterproductive to what the feminist policy actually wants to achieve.
Today’s debate is about whether the feminist foreign policy is the best vehicle to deliver gender equality. Of course, I’m not challenging the intent behind the feminist foreign policy but intent alone is not enough to find the solutions.
Let’s hear again from Caecilia Riederer.
This debate is not about the question whether feminist foreign policy is a good concept or not. It is about the question whether it is the single best alternative that we have to change, to fundamentally change our ideas of foreign policy and national security. It is not about the question if we are for or against gender equality. It is about what is the best way to achieve it. And we here today, as the side opposition, have embarked on the risky adventure of trying to tell you that maybe feminist foreign policy is not the single best alternative but that we must look beyond just this one singular concept that is currently dominating the feminist debates in the area of foreign policy. Why? Because we have said that feminist foreign policy is created within a somewhat exclusive, privileged circle and does not go far enough in dismantling patriarchal and racial and neocolonial hierarchies across the globe. It does not go far enough to ensure that intersectional feminist voices from local lived experiences are incorporated in our everyday policymaking.
Lastly, let me share some arguments of Claudia Fuentes Julio, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Chile- a country that has also adopted a Feminist Foreign Policy. She was arguing in favour of the motion and responded to the claims that feminist foreign policy lacked intersectional perspective and local ownership. She also reminded the audience of the role that women from the Global South, and notably women from Latin America, have played in shaping the international feminist agenda.
Claudia Fuentes Julio
If you think in terms of ownership, if you think today in terms of women’s movements around the world, probably Latin America is the region with the strongest women movements in the world. It is my belief that the foreign policies we have today are in great percentage a result of their efforts. Today when we talk about foreign policy we also talk with women’s movements. We are in debt towards the women’s movements in Latin America. So there is also a bottom approach. Women’s movements are an integral part of how we understand feminist policies today from my region. It’s not an imposition- we work with them and we will continue to work quite closely, because we share the same principles.
This is not only something coming from governments that are so enlightened. No! this is came originally from very powerful women’s movements that are the fuel of all our work in terms of feminism of course nationally and internationally.
Feminist foreign policy is not about women’s rights. It is of course about that but it’s also in general – at least how my country and other countries are framing – it’s about groups that have been traditionally excluded from policies. Also the promotion of LGBTQ+ people, also the promotion of Indigenous and Indigenous women.
So, now that you’ve heard from our speakers, what do you think? What are the advantages and disadvantages of an official Feminist Foreign Policy, and what does it mean in practice? Is it a helpful tool to put gender equality and inclusion on the foreign policy map? Should countries walk the talk domestically first? And how can we make sure a Feminist Foreign Policy does not reproduce existing power disparities?
As I leave you with these questions, let me echo the closing remarks of Martin Chungong, Secretary General of the Inter-Parliamentary Union and Chair of the IGC Global Board. He said: “We might have differing opinions when it comes to choosing the best vehicle for propelling us forward – but let’s not forget that we do share the same mission.”
I hope you enjoyed today’s somewhat different format. A big thank you to our fantastic speakers and moderator, and to our partners at the Graduate Institute for such a lively and enriching debate. If you are curious to see the recording of the full debate, check out our website genderchampions.com or get in touch with us via email through email@example.com.