Scripps panel underscores importance of gender disparities when drafting public policy

A screenshot of five women on a Zoom call.
Scripps College partnered with Zócalo Public Square to host a virtual event on the topic of feminist foreign policy. (Courtesy: Scripps College)

“When you categorize countries on people’s well-being, on access to opportunities, on mobility, the United States actually doesn’t even come in on the top 10,” Elmira Bayrasli, CEO and co-founder of the organization Foreign Policy Interrupted, said.

Bayrasli, who spoke on Tuesday night at a panel hosted by Scripps College in partnership with Zócalo Public Square, explained that when it comes to social issues, the United States — which ranks 28th on the Social Progress Imperative’s 2020 Social Progress Index — is far from a world leader. The answer to this issue, she believes, could lie in a feminist foreign policy. 

She spoke alongside three other panelists: Melanne Verveer, former U.S. ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues; Diana Alarcón González, chief adviser and foreign affairs coordinator for the Mexico City government; and Scripps politics professor Nancy Neiman. With moderator New York Times gender reporter Alisha Haridasani Gupta, the group discussed what exactly feminist foreign policy could look like. 

The phrase “feminist foreign policy” was coined by the government of Sweden in 2014, the first country to publicly adopt such a stance. While the term, Bayrasli explained, is often dismissed by lawmakers in Washington as a “niche, cute little side issue,” it’s actually an approach that would ideally touch every facet of U.S. foreign relations. 

“What a feminist foreign policy would do … is to put a gender lens or a gender perspective on all the things that the State Department deals with, from economic issues, to regional issues, to human rights issues, to peace and conflict … recognizing the condition of women, the condition of nations, goes hand in hand,” Verveer said.

Drawing from her background as the first U.S. ambassador for global women’s issues, Verveer spoke to the effects feminist foreign policy can have in peace and security negotiations. She took the opportunity to provide a concrete case study viewing peace negotiations through a gender lens: Colombia’s 2016 peace agreement

Calling the agreement — which took place after 52 years of civil war — an “extraordinary achievement,” she spoke to how women’s concerns were integrated into the negotiations. During the process, women drafted proposals, gathered in a summit to produce ideas and testified on their experiences. They were present throughout the negotiations, and as part of the peace talks a gender sub-commission was established to address their concerns.

Verveer believes this gender inclusion at the negotiating table is something a feminist foreign policy should emphasize. The United States’ role in adopting a feminist foreign policy would be “to support those integrative efforts of ensuring that women’s issues were confronted, that women were participating and that they were fully integrated in what [the United States was] doing … This is an obligation and an imperative on our ambassadors’ side,” Verveer said.

But feminist foreign policy is not just limited to peace negotiations. González spoke on her role as a woman currently engaged in the government within Mexico, one of the first countries to publicly adopt a feminist foreign policy. Mexico City incorporates this ideal, González said, with a strong focus on gender parity, especially in its government. A recent proposal for a technical committee was turned down, she said, because the committee of 12 only contained two women. 

“Just as we want women at the peace table, working out peace agreements, we want to make sure that women are at the policy table when we’re talking about economic plans, when we’re talking about global health, when we’re talking about climate change, but also when we’re talking about technology and how technology is being built, how technology is being used,” Bayrasli said.

Neiman provided an example of the consequences of failing to adopt a gender lens to trade and economic policy. She drew from her research regarding the maquila, or assembly plant, industry in northern Mexico — an industry whose growth skyrocketed as a result of NAFTA, while southern farms collapsed. It was overwhelmingly Indigenous women who were forced to move north and find work in assembly plants, Neiman said. 

“Global capital seeks out ‘cheap labor,’” she said. “[Indigenous women] are treated as such and treated as disposable … We also end up with a large number of disappeared and murdered women. That is interconnected with the devaluation of young women’s lives, and all of this is triggered by a foreign trade policy that did not consider women.”

“Rather than looking at [feminist foreign policy] as this very niche, marginal thing, looking at it as a possible solution to the challenges that we have today, because it is a modern lens to the modern world.” —Elmira Bayrasli

Bayrasli suggested that nations can hold themselves accountable to pursuing feminist foreign policy by reevaluating what is perceived as global success and growth — an area often seen as synonymous to GDP. In line with this, she sees the United States’ middling position on the Social Progress Index as proof that something needs to change.

“There’s abundant evidence of things that are not working … so clearly there needs to be a reassessment of how we are approaching foreign policy now,” she said. “Rather than looking at [feminist foreign policy] as this very niche, marginal thing, looking at it as a possible solution to the challenges that we have today, because it is a modern lens to the modern world.” 

At the end of the night, the conversation turned to the fact that the United States has not yet joined the list of countries who have publicly embraced a feminist foreign policy. Here, the panelists urged listeners to look at the principles of the United States’ foreign policy, rather than the label. 

“I don’t want to say that we don’t have a feminist foreign policy,” Verveer said. “I think that’s a misapprehension. We may not have the perfect foreign policy closer to Sweden’s, but from the time of the [1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing], there have been vast efforts made to integrate these issues into U.S. foreign policy.” 

Bayrasli agreed, putting the difficulty of using the words “feminist foreign policy” into the context of recent changes in U.S. administration.  

“I think it’s hard for the superpower of the world to just all of a sudden wake up after four years of Donald Trump, and say, ‘Now we’re going to embrace a feminist foreign policy,’” she said. “President Biden has taken tremendous steps, positive steps to show his commitment to women around the world and to women in the United States — he set up the Gender Policy Council. There are a record number of women in his administration, at the State Department, at the White House.” 

Even though the United States might not have yet declared a feminist stance, that doesn’t mean progress is not being made, Bayrasli said.

“We can’t get to the policy and get to the semantics until we actually fix the tools, and how the machine is actually going to work. I think that the United States is moving towards that direction.”

“If you write off half the population of the world, no nation can succeed,” Verveer said.

A full recording of this event is available for viewing on Zócalo Public Square’s YouTube channel

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