“It’s the 100th anniversary of women being allowed to vote,” I heard a male comedian say recently. “Okay, pay attention, men! How the heck did we lose that vote?” he wise-cracked.
Women in Manitoba were the first to vote provincially in 1916. It took two more years for inclusive federal elections. A century later, our country has marked many more milestones on the road to greater equality between genders. Within our borders, that is (which is the right place to start).
After hearing a good interview on CBC with Swedish Foreign Affairs Minister Margot Wallström, I started to wonder about Canadian conduct beyond our borders. Wallström is the first politician to say she’s pursuing a “feminist foreign policy.” What does that mean?
It’s not a set list of political views or positions, she says, just a few tools for engaging with other countries. It’s an antidote to “Russian male machoism,” or politics marked by confrontation and aggression.
And it’s in keeping with UN Security Council Resolution 1325, which recognized for the first time both the disproportionate impact war has on women and the vital role of women in peace-building initiatives. Wallström suggests looking at women’s rights, representation and resources in international relations, and you’ll have an idea of whether gender equality matters abroad. So I started digging, and found many heartening examples of what happens when the second sex is sitting at the foreign policy table.
“Please use your liberty to promote ours,” Burmese freedom fighter Aung San Suu Kyi asked university students in a 1997 commencement address. Or rather, her husband did, since he gave the address on her behalf. She was under house arrest at the time.
Her voice was heard nonetheless. The Nobel Women’s Initiative (NWI), for example, uses the prestige of six Nobel Peace Prize winners to support and connect women globally, particularly in peace-building and human rights in war zones. The Nobel winners are literally using their freedom to promote the freedom of others. Right now they are working in Burma, Israel and Palestine, Mexico and the Sudan, as well as on disarmament and sexual violence.
I spoke with Diana Sarosi, Manager of Policy and Advocacy at NWI, and asked what Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion could learn from NWI’s approach.
“Even though there has been a lot of talk about gender equality and women’s rights, so far we don’t feel that it is at the heart of Canadian foreign policy making. The Women, Peace and Security agenda should be the guide to all foreign policy making decisions,” she says. “Don’t bring in their opinions later; [women] should be part of designing policies and peace processes and participate from beginning to end.”
As part of its feminist foreign policy, the Swedish government has invited Syrian women to Geneva to join peace talks. Why? Recent research shows that peace processes in which both genders participate increase the success rates of the peace agreements. Women’s skill in peacebuilding has been evident in Afghanistan, Sierra Leone and – most memorably – Liberia.
Leymah Gbowee jointly led Liberian women on a sex strike in 2003 to end a brutal civil war. Their strategy was effective, as Gbowee explained in an interview with the Huffington Post. “We withheld sex from our spouses to get attention, and [they] obviously noticed what we were doing. We said, ‘We need you to take a stand.’ And they did.”
It was part of a larger effort by women that included months of daily, public prayer and other nonviolent protests. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf worked closely with Gbowee in successfully waging peace to end the war, and she was elected President of Liberia three years later – the first female head of state in Africa.
Let’s pray that Syrian women can likewise turn the tide towards peace in their homeland.
Evenly distributed resources
Speaking of prayer, where are people of faith in this conversation?
Another piece of the foreign policy puzzle is aid – determining whether development assistance is distributed equally. That’s what the Christian Reformed Church’s aid agency World Renew wanted to find out through an internal “gender audit” in 2014. While the organization had deliberately incorporated gender justice into its programs since the early 80s, it wanted to ensure that its ministry was adequately meeting the needs of men and women. “Any organization or group that hopes to tackle poverty in our world today must consider gender justice,” Kristen deRoo VanderBerg explained when I asked her about it. “Throughout the world there are examples of gender brokenness that both result from poverty and also perpetuate it.” VanderBerg, Communications Manager for World Renew, says these include domestic violence, female genital mutilation, sex trafficking, honor killings and rape as a weapon of war.
Kyrie, eleison. Lord, have mercy.
“For a Christian organization like World Renew, the call to address gender injustice is even more important. We understand from the Bible that men and women are created equally to live in partnership with each other. Both are valued children of God. Both were affected by the Fall. Both are equipped with skills and talents. Both are called to use those talents for God’s Kingdom work.”
The word feminist probably has too much baggage for the idea of a feminist foreign policy to take off in Canada. Yet consider how much there is to be gained from international relations that take into account the rights, representation and resources of women. It’s been proven to make a positive difference, and it’s part of our calling as citizens in God’s kingdom.
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