Sweden is the first county in the world to champion a feminist foreign policy. The country has a population of 10 million people and is one of Europe’s biggest donors of foreign aid. It is also among the top five exporters of arms around the world. However, under the leadership of its foreign minister Margot Wallstrom, Sweden has unapologetically put the security of women and girls at the heart of its foreign policy.
I worked as an aid worker for more than 15 years and have had the privilege of working across the Middle East, East and West Africa and Pakistan, gathering testimonies and stories from women and girls. More often than not many of the women and girls I’ve worked with have survived sexual and physical violence. And all of them are locked in a daily battle against poverty which hits them the hardest because of their gender.
I’ve seen how these female survivors are becoming younger and younger. When I was working in Borno state, north east Nigeria last year, I was struck by how young the survivors of rape and forced marriage are. I met children, not even teenagers yet, cradling their own babies, almost certainly the outcome of rape and brutality by their ‘husbands’ – a euphemism for the men who kidnapped them and raped them. The girls and women I met told me that these ‘husbands’ were Boko Haram fighters.
Last year in Norway, I met a Yazidi journalist and human rights activist who is documenting the crimes against Yazidi girls and women in Iraq at the hands of the so-called Islamic State, or Daesh. She told me about a young Yazidi girl, kidnapped by Daesh. The girl, again not yet a teenager, called the journalist and told her where she was. She begged her to make contact with the Iraqi army so they would call in an air strike. “She was crying and begging me saying she would rather die than be gang raped and become a sexual slave. She said it was easier to die once than 100 times” recalled the journalist.
Around the world, women and girls are facing unprecedented levels of physical and sexual violence from such armed militants. Fighting between these militant groups and national and international military forces is fueling the mass displacement of people. The UN estimates more than 800,000 civilians are now trapped in Mosul and in need of urgent humanitarian assistance as the Iraqi army battles Daesh.
In these conflicts, women and girls are the main targets of forced kidnappings, rape, sexual slavery and trafficking. Even if a woman or girl survives rape and violence,her ordeal is far from over. She will carry the trauma and stigma of being a survivor for the rest of her life.
In many cases the survivors face the real prospect of being subjected to so-called ‘honour killing’ and being banished to a life of degradation because of the stigma of rape. Girls and women are being pushed into forced marriages and child marriages as their families disintegrate under the burden of conflict.
The British government is now the biggest supplier of arms to Saudi Arabia, a country that stands accused of using indiscriminate and lethal force in densely populated civilian areas in Yemen, pulverizing hospitals, clinics, schools and homes. There are reports of extreme poverty caused by almost two years of this conflict, which is sustained in part by British arms exports, a poverty which leads to a rise in child marriages.
Now more than ever then a real feminist foreign policy needs to be developed by the UK government along with its counterparts in Sweden and Norway, two countries leading on this area of work.
A true feminist foreign policy has to be rooted in an ethical approach that puts human rights above arms sales profits. We need a foreign policy that safeguards women’s agency and puts women centre stage in developing policies that offer long-term security, justice and economic opportunity to the first victims of failed western foreign policy – women. Firefighting is not the right approach. Instead we need to be planning ahead. In Iraq, for example, we should be planning for Iraq free of Daesh as well as supporting those defending women’s rights now at great risk to their own lives. We need to be building networks with these women in a region engulfed by war.
We must bring women’s rights defenders and women’s groups to the table so they can negotiate peace and conflict resolution. These grassroots women and groups are best placed to advocate for the needs of women in the communities they work in. All the research shows that when women are involved in developing and building strategies to reduce conflict and build peace, then that peace has a greater chance of being sustainable.
Feminist discourse “liberating the burka-clad women of Afghanistan” – was co-opted by the British government and the US administration – to help justify the invasion of Afghanistan post 9/11. Fast forward 16 years and more girls are receiving an education in Afghanistan but war is still raging and women and girls continue to die in childbirth, from preventable disease, from poverty and in gendered violence.
A feminist foreign policy has to be bold and grounded in these realities. It must seek radical solutions to the catastrophes enveloping women around the world. Otherwise our foreign policy becomes yet another political force harming and damaging women.
Shaista Aziz will be a panellist at the Women of the World Festival’s Whose afraid of a feminist foreign policy? event on March 10 at the Southbank Centre, London.
The Fabian Women’s Network and the Fabian International policy group are hosting a Feminist foreign policy: lessons from Sweden event this Friday, 24 February, 18:00-19:30 in London.
Image: Wendy Nelson