Oye Como Va: Feminist Foreign Policy in Latin America

4 May 2023, 1500 EDT

Feminist foreign policies (FFP) are considered the latest contribution of feminism to global governance. Eleven countries around the world have embraced FFP, aiming to “systematically integrate a gender perspective throughout” foreign policy agendas.

In recent years, FFP has spread to Latin America: Mexico introduced an FFP in 2020 and the newly elected Chilean and Colombian governments have expressed their intentions of adopting the framework.

This growing interest in FFP across Latin American raises important questions: What exactly is this feminist foreign policy and what is there to gain by naming foreign policies “feminist”? Should Latin American feminists engage, support, critique, or be suspicious of this global trend? What does FFP look like in a Latin American context?

What is Feminist Foreign Policy?

FFP is emerging as a new subfield in feminist international relations. Building on women’s rights and peace movements around the globe, feminism occupies an important position within academic and political spaces since it provides a powerful source of intervention against different forms of discrimination.

The theoretical foundations of FFP, however, are still not clearly defined. What an FFP looks like depends largely on a government’s interpretation of the concept.

Sweden first proposed a general FFP model built on what they call the three R’s: resources, representation and rights. Their model went on to define “six long-term external objectives” centered on policy making with a gender perspective: freedom from different types of gender-based violence; women’s participation in preventing and resolving conflicts, and post-conflict peace building; political participation; economic rights and empowerment; and sexual and reproductive health and rights. This initial Swedish proposal served as a basis for other countries’ policies.

For many foreign policy observers and feminist activists these objectives were still too vague and ambiguous. First, what does foreign policy entail? This question underlies the discussion among academics and activists about feminism being co-opted for neoliberal economic purposes, or if it maintains its potential as a critical proposition. There are also questions concerning contentious topics for feminists. For instance, how is the gender perspective incorporated into defense and security?  Given the long tradition of pacifism in the feminist movement globally and its demand for an active commitment to disarmament, how can countries like Canada simultaneously export arms and pursue an FFP?

International organizations have tried to provide definitional clarity. In its most ambitious expression, UN Women proposes that an FFP should aspire to transform the overall practice of foreign policy—including a country’s diplomacy, defense and security cooperation, aid, trade, climate security, and immigration policies—to the benefit of women and girls.

Feminist civil society, however, tends to take a more critical stance. The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) in Germany believes that “fixating on the production of a universally acceptable and concrete definition of a feminist foreign policy fails to consider the different and varied political realities that shape our global landscape.” Thus, it proposes five concepts to inform policy development that better accounts for this variation: intersectionality; empathetic reflexivity; substantive representation and participation; accountability; and, active peace commitment. Regardless of the concrete definition, FFP aims to achieve explicit normative and ethical goals. Yet, as Jennifer Thompson notes, FFP is a state invention in which foreign policy goals are often shaped by state interests rather than feminist activists’ normative principles. While civil society often formulates FFP demands, states implement foreign policies. In other words, it is states that ultimately decide what counts as FFP and what does not. As a result, FFPs may not fulfill their ethical promises—particularly in countries without strong accountability mechanisms. Mexico’s attempt to develop an FFP is a case in point.

The Mexican approach

In September 2022, Internacional Feminista, a Mexican feminist organization that I co-founded, published the first evaluation of Mexico’s FFP. My colleagues and I concluded that there is no clarity as to what the FFP actually entails and no policy roadmap detailing the FFP’s actions, outcomes, indicators, and intended impact. The Mexican FFP has stalled.

Regarding the question of what constitutes foreign policy, the Mexican FFP has a broad and ambitious scope. The Secretariat of Foreign Affairs seeks to mainstream gender perspectives across all foreign policy areas as one of its core objectives, yet we found this does not happen in practice. Discussion of the FFP is most visible in Mexico’s rhetoric in multilateral fora. However, tangible evidence that Mexico is actually considering a gender perspective is largely absent from other foreign policy issues, such as defense, trade, and diplomacy.

One innovation of Mexico’s FFP was prioritizing gender parity within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and its diplomatic corps. Nonetheless, it is not possible to assess whether there is gender parity across the ranks as the Secretariat has no available records of personnel demographic data, disaggregated by gender or rank. The lack of available data disaggregated by gender suggests that this is not as much of a focus area as it’s made out to be.

Another feature of the Mexican initiative was its aim of strengthening the protocols to address and prevent gender-based violence within the foreign ministry. However, there is very little information available regarding how these are implemented and if they have achieved their intended outcomes.  The absence of information again suggests that this was not a priority task. In fact, two cases call into question Mexico’s commitment to FFP: one involved failures in consular attention to a Mexican woman victim of gender-based violence in Qatar, and another involved an attempt to appoint a man accused of sexual harassment as Mexico’s ambassador to Panama.

In its FFP plan, the Secretariat also announced funding for intersectionality-related efforts. However, data shows that the budget remained constant from 2018 to 2020. Following the austerity policies of the current administration, no additional resources were granted to support these efforts. Moreover, the budget document labeled these resources as “Expenditures for equality between women and men.” By continuing to interpret “intersectionality” and “gender perspective” as synonymous, the Mexican FFP dilutes the disruptive spirit of intersectionality that accounts for multidimensional identities beyond binary gender categories.

Without clear implementation guidelines and evaluation criteria, Mexican officials have struggled to navigate the contradictions within the government. The most notorious is the lack of support from the president himself who, according to Mexico’s Constitution, is responsible for defining foreign policy objectives. President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is openly hostile towards the feminist movement, and a recent leak indicates that the Secretary of Defense spies on feminist activists. Yet, diplomats continue to uphold feminist principles in multilateral forums. The president’s hostility and the mismatch between secretariats obstructs necessary dialogue with feminist civil society and blocks the chances of effective policy accountability.

What’s next for FFPs in Latin America?

The Mexican experience highlights the challenges of implementing FFPs in Latin America.

First, it is clear that FFP is not as boundary-pushing as its supporters suggest. It is limited by the lack of accountability mechanisms, broad political support and budget constraints. As a result, FFP is often insufficient to drive change on critical issues. Yet, feminism in the region, as Claudia Korol puts it, “is a rebellious movement in which the plural and diverse bodies and the different struggles seek their place, and demand to be named.” In other words, feminism is in tension with the circles of institutionalized, disciplined and ordered practices, such as government-led foreign policies.

In countries with rampant economic inequality and high rates of gender violence against women, feminist principled policies are sorely needed. Due to institutional resistance, however, policy implementation is far from guaranteed. The design and implementation of foreign policies in the region have historically been a space for male elites and, as the example of Mexico illustrates, the FFP has been insufficient to break this inertia. In the words of feminist scholar Angela Davis, “if standards for feminism are created by those who have already ascended economic hierarchies and are attempting to make the last climb to the top, how is this relevant to women who are at the very bottom?”

After recent elections in Chile and Colombia, leaders are now developing their foreign policies and both countries have declared their interest in adopting an FFP. As consultations develop in Bogotá and Santiago, it is worth remembering that simply labeling a foreign policy as feminist without implementing policies that account for gender perspectives or advance women’s rights creates an illusion of change, while keeping systems of oppression intact and further setting back gender justice.

Genuine efforts to advance gender justice ought to reimagine traditional international relations and diplomacy. As I have argued elsewhere, this can be achieved by more fully considering local dynamics and actors in developing foreign policies. Feminist civil society has been at the forefront of driving successful changes in domestic policies—and we ought to incorporate their strategies and insights into foreign policy development.