Can Europe Make It?: Analysis

A feminist foreign policy for Spain

Spain advocates for building a feminist foreign policy and is taking the first steps to do so. But where do you begin?

Lourdes Romero
12 August 2021, 12.01am
Feminists in Barcelona demonstrate for equal rights, against precarity and borders on International Woman's Day 2020
Matthias Oesterle / Alamy. All rights reserved

The debate on gender equality in international organizations is not new – and neither is the attention some states pay to it. Yet feminism tends to be little or not at all addressed in the work of foreign policy or in the language of international institutions.

That being said, six countries have vowed to implement a feminist foreign policy or a gender-based foreign policy – the latest of which is Spain. As Irune Aguirrezabal, who has a PhD in interdisciplinary gender studies and is the director of Strategic and Policy Consultancy for the Parity Agenda 2030, says: “So far there are few countries that have taken the step towards building a feminist foreign policy, and Spain has done so, so it is leading the way”.

Feminist foreign policy is increasingly gaining traction in discourses, but this does not always come from states. International organizations like Oxfam and Amnesty International, as well as global think tanks and feminist groups, have for years been promoting this debate, to encourage governments to include such policies in their agendas.

What is a feminist foreign policy?

According to the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy, “a feminist approach to foreign policy provides a powerful lens through which we can interrogate the violent global systems of power that leave millions of people in perpetual states of vulnerability”. In other words, a feminist foreign policy involves a government making domestic and global gender equality issues one of its central goals. It is a multidimensional policy, which aims to improve the experiences and the quality of life of women and marginalized groups.

“Feminism is a project for radical transformation of society,” writes Ideas4development. So, if governments want to embrace a foreign policy aligned in this sense, they must try to take apart the stereotypes, prejudices, discrimination, inequalities and gender-based violence underlying the term ‘feminism’.

There are plenty of definitions of feminism, and it takes many forms. The literature on the subject is abundant and has a wide array of interpretations – setting the scene for protracted controversy. So, how should a feminist foreign policy be defined?

It is not enough to increase the representation of women

The International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) argues that “a feminist foreign policy is the policy of a state that defines its interaction with other states, as well as with movements and other non-state actors, in a manner that prioritizes peace, gender equality and environmental integrity, that enshrines the human rights of all.”

However, it is not possible to think that all countries that contemplate this feminist foreign policy articulate it in the same way or follow a single pattern. According to a comparative document on the foreign policies of Sweden, Canada and Mexico, published by esglobal, these three countries seem to agree on the difficulty of measuring the impact of the actions carried out.

Sweden’s and Canada’s flagship feminist policy is the defence of women’s reproductive rights. María Martín de Almagro, a professor of gender and politics in the Department of Political Science at the University of Montreal, points out that Canada’s inclusion of the vindication of women’s sexual and reproductive rights as a part of its policy is very positive. Mexico also mentions this, but its priority is gender-based violence, which is one of its biggest and more pressing problems.

Each is committed to promoting and increasing the participation of women in political institutions and leadership positions. Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy is criticized by Marie Lamensch, project coordinator at the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies at Concordia University, who says that “this policy seems to instrumentalize women and female children, they are being used for some other purpose such as economic growth or the reduction of poverty”.

Elsewhere, Tatiana Telles, who specializes in gender and public policy from the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences in Mexico, says Sweden has a better implementation of gender sensitivity through all levels of government than Mexico. The positive side of Mexico's foreign policy is that it gives a voice to feminism with a different face; not just that with Western overtones, but in Spanish, rather than the Anglo-Saxon vision, she adds.

Essential elements

In its report ‘Feminist Foreign Policy: A Framework’, the ICRW identifies a number of issues to address. These include articulating the goal of adopting a feminist foreign policy given the specific context of the government, i.e. setting the principles and priorities between domestic and foreign policies to ensure balance and consistency, as well as defining the true meaning of a feminist foreign policy and measuring its scope. Other issues include promoting horizontal approaches to integrate gender-sensitive measures into policy and program initiatives; establishing and determining the expected results, such as how to address them and defining the benchmarks; outlining an implementation plan that includes resources, representation and inclusion, as well as a reporting schedule; developing the capacities of the actors involved; and, finally, involving other actors such as activists, feminist groups and movements, etc.

So far, we have the theories, the elements, the political will and the knowledge of what others are doing. Now, how is Spain going to set it in motion?

Spains on its way

Spain’s new ‘Strategy for External Action’ includes the active promotion of gender equality as a cross-cutting principle and a fundamental axis of Spanish foreign policy. This approach will be developed, according to the Feminist International Assistance Policy Handbook, based on five principles: a transformational approach, committed leadership, ownership, inclusive participation and alliance-building, and intersectionality and diversity.

To set Spain’s feminist foreign policy in motion, a series of instruments will be used, such as mainstreaming gender sensitivity in foreign policy, bilateral and regional diplomacy, multilateral and public diplomacy, the European Union, international cooperation for sustainable development, consular protection and assistance, and equality policies within the country’s foreign service.

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Spain needs to seek consistency between its domestic and foreign policies. María Solanas, director of programs at the Elcano Royal Institute, says the key to the success of Spain's feminist foreign policy would be “a mix of sustained and permanent political will; concrete objectives and goals with specific deadlines; and active involvement by all the actors in Spain's foreign action.” This, she says, will require “complementing the main lines with training and awareness-raising on gender issues, and incorporating civil society, which is a very relevant actor in this task,” as well as “political will, clear objectives and the involvement of all”.

Training, data and leadership

Receiving training at all levels, in order to achieve a higher qualification and a deeper knowledge for the personnel involved, is crucial to ensuring that a cross-cutting feminist foreign policy is achieved. It would also be essential to collect disaggregated data and establish solid diagnostic and follow-up mechanisms. Solanas considers these issues to be fundamental: “A policy under construction, such as a feminist foreign policy, needs to be supported and complemented with the evaluation of results and a review, to recalibrate measures, efforts and resources – all of which requires time and a sustained effort.”

Data is a priority, as having the figures allows for a better estimation of the real circumstances and to base future policies and actions on these data.

In addition to this, other issues on the table include encouraging the participation of women in positions of responsibility at all levels and promoting the image of an inclusive and comprehensive Spain at an international and multilateral level. According to data extracted from the OECD's 2020 Gender Equality Report, Spain is well positioned in terms of women's political participation. It is one of the countries with the highest proportion of women in ministerial posts, well above the OECD average, and has the fourth-highest presence of women in Parliament. However, it is not enough to increase the representation of women; we must also establish transformational forms of leadership that create change-driving female role models.


Among the issues in which Spain has been most active and has attained recognised success through integrating gender sensitivity in recent years, is multilateralism. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs wants to continue promoting the country’s prominent role in this area at a multilateral level.

In Europe, the gender gap shows considerable disparity between countries. Spain does not come out badly since it is ranked in leading positions. The EU’s European Institute for Gender Equality has made a comparative analysis over the years in the region. The Index for 2019 shows that despite the advances in the past decade, the process has been slow and there are still considerable differences in the way of gender equality.

Feminist foreign policy should be our hallmark

The political representation of women in the EU has been affected by the crisis produced by COVID-19. Although much progress has been made, the union continues to be unequal and in recent times these improvements have slowed down, stagnated or even regressed in some areas. The highest levels of the EU are also working on this issue – the European Parliament has adopted a report that calls for promoting a notion of EU foreign policy that transforms gender and protects and promotes women's human rights.

Slowly but surely

A feminist foreign policy recognizes that democracy, peace, prosperity and social progress require the full participation of women. No country can get ahead if it leaves half its population behind. If this is clear to us and has been repeated for years – and is being increasingly championed by more and more countries – what has prevented a feminist foreign policy from being adopted earlier in Spain?

“The reality is that in Spain feminist demands have been driven by the Left, or rather, by women on the Left, in line with the slogan ‘socialism is equality’,” says Irune Aguirrezabal. This came up against resistance, and it was “since 2004 when it took a turn. Gender equality advocacy became dominant in the PSOE [Spanish Socialist Workers' Party] and IU [United Left], as reflected in the 2007 Law on Effective Equality, and subsequently, throughout the political spectrum.” The most important thing now, she continues, is that “feminist foreign policy should be our hallmark”.

One of the biggest challenges for Spain is ensuring that this policy endures and is embraced and accepted by all political parties, regardless of the politics of the government in power. Feminist foreign policy should be here to stay. In tune with this, Solanas says that “we will be able to say that a feminist foreign policy is successful if it manages to be transformational. Gender inequality is, in global terms, structural. And making structural changes requires an investment in political and human capital as well as resources in the medium and long term. A true public policy sustained over time”.

This article originally appeared in Spanish on esglobal.

Thanks go to María Luisa Rodríguez Tapia for translating into English.

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