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Germany´s feminist foreign policy- real change or business as usual?

In this briefing, First-year BSc Politics and International Relations student Freya Moorhouse discusses the question of whether Germany's newly declared commitment to a Feminist Foreign Policy (FFP) has borne out in practice. This briefing was edited by Malou van Draanen Glismann (Managing Editor).


The announcement from the German coalition government that they will embody a ‘feminist foreign policy’, reflects the growing number of nations particularly in Europe and the Americas that have chosen to focus their diplomatic and economic affairs in a feminist direction. The policy decision was published in the Coalition Agreement signed between the Social Democrats (SPD), Greens and Free Democrats (FDP). Although the official declaration of a feminist foreign policy stance can be seen as a significant step forward in gender equality for the nation, the fairly short and vaguely phrased paragraph leads to questioning over the seriousness of Germany’s commitment and what specific policies they will implement to achieve this foreign policy agenda.

There is significant confusion over what having a feminist foreign policy (FFP) actually entails. The Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy defines it as ‘a means to rebalance the power inequalities which perpetuate this oppression(…) by providing a political framework which is informed by the everyday experiences and needs of people who feel the consequences of policy decisions’. It means including considerations of gender equality as a prerequisite to foreign policy decisions. Even so, the adoption of feminist foreign policy has not occurred without criticism. Whether nations are seriously committed to incorporating gender equality in foreign policy matters ranging from economic trade to international security has been debated. Unless there are credible policy changes and a tangible advance in a nation’s promotion of women’s rights, it is hard to determine how devoted countries are to FFP. Notably, France has been condemned as ‘pink-washing’ due to the lack of concrete policy commitments that followed their declaration of adopting FFP.

There is also concern over how the relationships of the parties within the coalition government may impact the effectiveness of FFP. Out of the three coalition parties, only the Greens referred explicitly to FFP or even the label ’feminist’ in their electoral platform, leading to doubts over the SPD and the FDP’s commitment to delivering this policy. Additionally, the turbulent political climate in Europe with the invasion of Ukraine and crises over energy and immigration means that attention may be diverted from bringing this foreign policy stance to fruition. On the other hand, the rape of multiple Ukrainian women has catalysed discussion of sexualised warfare; Anna Baerbock showed Germany’s commitment to protecting women by stating to the UN General Assembly that ‘whether in Ukraine, in Myanmar, in Ethiopia or in the Democratic Republic of Congo: we cannot tolerate rape and other forms of sexual violence – no matter where they are committed.’

Feminist foreign policy: a growing trend?

This announcement arrives as part of a wider trend of feminist foreign policy that Sweden began championing in 2014. The Ministry for Foreign Affairs developed a comprehensive handbook in 2019 on how they had strived to prioritise the rights of women through participation in post-conflict peacebuilding and promoted sexual, reproductive health and rights through supporting the UNFPA and lobbying in the EU. However, in 2022 the Swedish government decided to reverse this policy with Tobias Billström, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, gave a statement to the newspaper Aftonbladet that although gender equality remains incredibly important to Sweden, their government has deemed that the label distorts foreign policy that must prioritise Swedish values. The government has been criticised for taking away a label that semantically highlights the institutionalised and societal misogyny that disadvantaged women both in domestic and international politics. Sweden has been a long-established beacon of hope for women’s rights, which makes the Swedish government’s conclusion that the label of feminism and Swedish values are mutually exclusive even more puzzling. Whilst we can expect this nation to continue to promote gender equality on the global stage, the decision brings into question how stigma around the label of feminism can be seen as unproductive for states when it should be seen as a proud declaration of their support for women and girls in all aspects of their policies.

This surge in feminist foreign policy is not exclusive to Europe. Mexico, which partnered with France and Germany to organise the Generation Equality Forum (GEF), has explicitly announced its adoption of FFP at the UN in 2019. The nation has committed itself to tackling deep-rooted, structural misogyny as evident from the implementation of the Spotlight Initiative to reduce the femicide rates in Mexico. Yet Mexico’s continued domestic struggles to ensure gender equality reduce its credibility on the global stage. Whilst the nation has made significant advances in electoral reform through constitutionally entrenching gender parity for Federal and State Congress, the strength of gendered social norms particularly linked to the domestic division of labour restrict women from developing their own careers. Sexual and physical violence also remains prolific with the former OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría stated that 63% of women above 15 in Mexico have experienced some form of violence. Chile has similarly announced its a feminist foreign policy stance. Under the progressive President Gabriel Boric, the Ministry of Women and Gender Equity has a central role in the government to promote women’s rights in employment, housing and abortion. Despite the comparatively higher levels of societal misogyny in Latin America, the foreign policy stance that Mexico and Chile have taken could suggest a more hopeful future for the region’s protection of the rights of women.

Germany’s FFP future: real change or rebranding?

The future for Germany’s ‘feminist foreign policy’ is relatively hopeful considering the nation’s overall strong protection of women’s rights and promotion of feminism. Germany’s exceptionally low UNDP gender inequality index of 0.073 is a compelling indicator of how domestically successful it has been at promoting gender inequality. This is not to say that Germany has achieved complete gender equality; as a Carnegie Europe report described ‘a feminist foreign policy in action and attitude does not manifest itself only externally; it must start at home.’ Therefore, the nation remains a credible world leader in women’s rights because of its long-term commitment to resolving the social challenge.

In terms of policy and tangible impact of the foreign policy, Germany has been limited: it has been able to provide aid to nations where women are especially harmed by humanitarian crises, promoted the Istanbul Convention and called out women’s rights violations committed in Iran and by Russian soldiers in Ukraine. However, Germany´s foreign policy tools are constrictedby the principle of state sovereignty, meaning that it can only strive to lead by example in implementing concrete steps domestically such as its ‘orange days' (awareness campaigns for women’s rights). Nevertheless, its sway as a large economic and political power in the EU and on the global stage means that Germany's ability to raise awareness through diplomacy is still considerable. For example, the German Foreign Office has been particularly critical of the women’s rights violations in Afghanistan. German Foreign Minister Baerbock emphasised that there needs to be ‘a special focus on Afghan women and girls because their lives have actually been stopped’.

However, Germany has lacked action in terms of accepting female refugees from Afghanistan under the Taliban regime. This links to convergence of European immigration challenges with their ability to promote feminism. Interviews by NGOs such as Amnesty International have highlighted how women are exploited or dehumanised in shelters and on migrant routes, including being offered basic goods or being smuggled exchange for sexual acts. There is a ‘culture of silence’ surrounding these gender-based abuses compared to traumatic experiences that female citizens face. Comparatively, the provisions for Ukrainian refugees have been better: healthcare inadequacies for women with a lack of HIV medication were addressed. This leads to the intersectional feminist critique that Germany needs to strengthen its protections of all asylum seekers who are financially and socially vulnerable as well as give female refugees more channels to report any discrimination they have faced. Germany will need to tackle more deep-rooted, structural forms of oppression such as employment discrimination and gendered violence in order to truly achieve gender equality, both domestically and in its foreign policy.

With the strain on energy and security concerns that the invasion of Ukraine has sparked, the future of Germany’s ‘feminist foreign policy’ is unclear. We can expect that the government will continue to be a vocal advocate of women’s rights while attempting to improve its own domestic gender policies, however,the nation’s reach outside of the EU and to nations like Iran and Afghanistan are limited. Nonetheless, the rise in Latin America nations like Mexico and Chile adopting similar feminist stances and their willingness to collaborate with like-minded nations could be utilised to drive a more global coordination of women’s rights that Germany could help launch.

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