The first instance of Feminist Foreign Policy (FFP) was recorded when Dr. Hansa Mehta, as the Indian delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Commission (1947-1948) courageously convinced the world leaders to make amendments to Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights from “All men are born free and equal” to “All human beings are born free and equal”.
Over the last 75 years, South Asian Feminist foreign policy (SAFFP) has strived for transnational solidarity to fight against sexual and sexist violence; education of women and girls, and that of men and boys; economic emancipation of women; women’s leadership in politics and decision-making and involving women in peace negotiations and treaties.
Formed in 1985, the official body, South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) provided the feminists of the 7 member countries- Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, to exchange ideas; provide support and solidarity to human rights defenders, fight against draconian and misogynist legislations, amplify voices of the women’s movement in each of the south Asian countries demanding gender just family laws and replicate best practices of gender equity and equality in each country. During the SAARC decade for Girls (1990-2000), many opportunities were provided in terms of conferences, seminars, and exposure trips for girls of the member countries, who are now, in their forties.
South Asian feminists have played a pivotal role in making international development aid gender-responsive, with an objective of financing gender equality by reducing gender gaps in education, health care, employment, and decision-making power and by addressing gender-based violence through direct intervention. They have actively taken part in capacity-building workshops for the region on gender-responsive participatory budgeting anchored by UN Women.
SAFFP has aimed at gender parity in diplomacy by increasing women’s representation in posts of ambassador.
Over the last 45 years, south Asian feminists have unanimously accepted the action agenda of addressing the issues in the diplomatic missions regarding the marginalised such as ethnic- linguistic-religious minorities, oppressed castes and suppressed nationalities who continue to face intersectional vulnerabilities and exclusion from development intervention. As a central concern of FFP Gender equality ensures that women and girls enjoy fundamental human rights that the global community must strive for as an obligation within our international commitments and prerequisite to achieving broader foreign policy goals of peacemaking/peacebuilding and peacekeeping, security, and sustainable development.
The summit accepted the need for a paradigm shift from being reactive to being proactive. Feminist perspectives in international relations demand the deconstruction of hegemonic power structures and systems that create policies that favour a microscopic minority. Hence it is imperative to challenge patriarchal systems of injustice, exclusion, exploitation, oppression, and marginalisation that perpetuate inequality. The FFP not only focuses on international relations between the nation states but also on political cultures and schools of thought that reflect their economic, political priorities and human rights of the socio-economically underserved sections.
India’s Gender Commitments in foreign policy
India ratified the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 1993; India promised to implement the United Nations MDGs 3 in 2000. In 2005, India responded to the UN call for gender-responsive budgeting. India proactively supported UN peacekeeping efforts in Liberia in 2007 by sending an all-women peacekeeping contingent that the global leaders applauded.
In 2015, India sent three women police units to the UN Peacekeeping missions in Africa. In 2015, India officially adopted Sustainable Development Goal (UN SDG) five on gender equality. India has been contributing to foreign assistance for women’s empowerment by offering technical support to SAARC Development Fund (SDF). In 2020 India became a member of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. Still, there are many gaps.
There cannot be peace without economic justice, social justice, environmental justice, gender justice and distributive justice. In the current context of the post-pandemic scenario, feminist foreign policy aims at transnational solidarity to fight against gender-based violence; trafficking of women and children, barbaric behaviour of the nation states with the migrants and political refugees, promoting education of women and girls, and that of men and boys by reducing digital divide; ensure economic emancipation of women across the world; endorse women’s leadership in politics and decision-making and involving women in peace negotiations and treaties.
The SAFFP demands that international relations experts assess socio-cultural, economic, and political issues from an intersectional gendered perspective as it will ensure a deeper appreciation of gender differential impact of and responses to the existing as well as unfolding realities.
SAFFP challenges the international division of labour that subordinates women by segregating women in the monotonous, low-paid, low-status, dead-end industrial jobs and low-end precarious jobs in the service sector or platform-based gig economy. SAFFP challenges the gender stereotypes of viewing men as either aggressors or protectors and women as the victim in need of protection. Thought-out human history, we have witnessed situations when men have also been victims of conflicts situation as prisoners of war and have faced physical and sexual torture.
Leadership, ownership, direction, action plan, support, social solidarity in times of crisis, and new data with gender lens are need of an hour to make SAFFP not just a rhetoric but a reality for which 3 Rs-Rights, Representations and Resources.
India’s inclusion in the United Nations Commission on Status of Women (CSW) as an elected member in September 2020 because of her commitments to international agreements towards gender equality; solidarity and support provided by India, in terms of medicines and vaccines, to industrialised as well as developing countries; India assuming Presidency of G20 from 1st December 2022; all these factors combined together have intensified dialogue about India’s great potential to make crucial advances in feminist foreign policy.
The official discourses use the terminology of ‘Gender equality’, ‘gender responsive’ and ‘gender sensitive’ approaches for measures to incorporate FFP in its international relations. In post-pandemic India, several think tanks and diplomatic institutions have started organising round tables in collaboration with the Consulate Generals of Sweden, France, Mexico, Germany, and Canada with a mission that adopting the FFP framework in the Indian context will deepen the global understanding on how a developing democratic nation that comes from strong cultures of patriarchal gender norms strives for a gender transformative nation building by the adoption of an FFP Framework.
(Vibhuti Patel has been active in the feminist movement in India since the 1970s. She has interacted intensely with South Asian feminists over the last 45 years in regional workshops, consultations, conferences, investigation visits, and training programmes. During the UN Decade for Women (1975-1985) she was representing India in Asian Women Research and Action Network (AWRAN). In 1986, she organised Asian Conference on Women, Religion and Family Laws in which feminists from all South Asian countries and Southeast Asian Countries actively participated.
In 2005, she represented India on behalf of UNFPA to make a presentation on ‘Sex Selective Abortions and Declining Sex Ratio in South Asia’ at UN CSW ECOSOC. In 2014, she conducted a session on ‘Gender Responsive Budgeting in South Asia’ for delegates from 8 South Asian Countries Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka).
The article was first presented at the Centre for Women’s Studies, Tribhuvan University, Kathmandu, Nepal on 6 November 2022 as Contemporary Discourses on Feminist Foreign Policy in India and in South Asia.