Over the last decade, several countries across the world have adopted Feminist Foreign Policies, signalling a shift in how they engage with other countries. While there is no universal definition of Feminist Foreign Policy (FFP), it is generally understood to be an emerging critical framework seeking to challenge existing foreign policy power structures by divesting from the traditional ways of diplomacy, international relations, and development. Admittedly, Feminist Foreign Policy as a concept has aroused much debate from feminist and decolonial scholars and movements across the Global South, particularly in Africa. These engagements seek to unpack the various facets of these FFPs from their philosophical underpinnings to the language to the positionalities to how they manifest in praxis.
On November 30th, 2023, Researchers Without Borders held a webinar exploring how feminist foreign policies can be engaged with and consequently interpreted into more inclusive and transformative realities for African women and marginalized populations. The four African Feminists, Memory Kachambwa, Reem Abbas, Rosebell Kagumire, and Prof. Toni Haastrup, reiterated the fact that mainstream foreign policy approaches have often failed to address the nuanced and complex issues faced by many socially, economically, and politically marginalized people in African countries. The conversation examined FFP in three key areas: feminist knowledge production, women peace and security (WPS) and climate justice.
The moderator, Rosebell Kagumire, who is a feminist writer, introduced the session with a brief overview of the pressing challenges facing Africa and how they tie to FFP: “We are the intersection of so many struggles right now; economic, political, macroeconomic, environmental as well as wars from Sudan, to Burkina Faso, to Mozambique to Somalia and it is important to run through the ties that run through these conflicts”.
Dr. Haastrup, a Professor and Chair in Global Politics at the University of Manchester, rolled out the session by analysing the origin, scope, and significance of feminist foreign policy, what it represents for the architect and target states, concerning the rising right-wing authoritarianism in Europe. She raised concerns about the Netherlands’ recent elections that ushered in a fascist government, arguing that it would jeopardize the country’s FFP that is still in the pipeline. Dr. Haastrup further observed, “Feminist Foreign policy is defined by each country that designs it. It doesn’t exist in isolation from the histories and identities of the incumbent states […] this allows states to define what is and isn’t FFP”.
Dr. Haastrup and Ms. Kagumire emphasized the need to invest in African feminist knowledge systems and to protect these systems from cooptation, denigration, and complete erasure. When it comes to FFP, the idea is to critically engage with and to understand the space that’s allocated to feminist research and development. While feminist research is under-resourced, even fewer resources are allocated for African feminist research. Consequently, Dr. Haastrup cited the African feminist collective’s statement challenging the expansion of military spending right on the heels of the COVID-19 pandemic which devastated lives as most governments cut back on social spending and also legitimized militarization as a form of pandemic response. Militarization is a threat not only because it renders black and brown people disposable, but it also takes crucial resources away from government social programs while directly resulting in irreversible ecological desolation. This stands antithetical to decolonial feminist ideals.
While most of these FFPs acknowledge climate change as one of the most urgent threats of our time, they fail to acknowledge that the climate crisis is, in fact, a consequence of colonialism and capitalist extraction, as Ms. Kagumire observed. Furthermore, they refuse to commit to any form of reparative justice for African countries such as the Copenhagen pledge of USD 100 billion per year. In addition, these FFPs rarely, if ever, acknowledge the place of existing indigenous knowledge and practices in combating climate change and intersecting feminist struggles. Dr. Haastrup concluded her presentation by challenging the Global North to engage with existing feminist infrastructure in Africa among them the Maputo Protocol which is a radical feminist blueprint as opposed to the current top-down approach of engagement that not only erases African knowledge systems and foundations but refuses to concede that colonial edifices continue to define the present and the future of Africa.
It is these colonial underpinnings that have set the stage for the cooptation of the decolonization agenda. Reem Abbas, a Sudanese feminist writer, researcher and political commentator criticized “decolonization” as it currently operates in the context of women, peace and security in Sudan and across Africa. She decried the cooptation that distances the material realities of ordinary Africans from decolonization, a phenomenon she attributed to the rise of the non-profit industrial complex. She urged Africans and their allies to bring African knowledge, culture, agency, and material realities to the forefront of the decolonization agenda by grounding their politics in the blueprints laid out by radical thinkers like Frantz Fanon, Sylvia Tamale, and others.
Ms. Abbas criticized European countries like Sweden which revoked its feminist foreign policy in 2022 to cater to the war in Ukraine, “A country cannot claim to have a Feminist Foreign Policy and continue to expand its military expenditure”. She encouraged African countries to chart alternative pan-African feminist agenda that’s rooted in meaningful solidarity and equal humanity. She concluded by urging African countries to divest from neoliberal structures like the Bretton Woods institutions which not only devalue African lives through austerity measures but also use African resources to fund wars both on the continent (Sudan, DRC) and elsewhere including Ukraine and the genocide in Palestine. During austerity, it is women, queer Africans, and other structurally marginalized groupings who suffer the most as austerity exacerbates already fragile socioeconomic and political vulnerabilities.
Such vulnerabilities include ecological damage from extractivism across the continent and consequently, the climate crisis. This year alone, African countries have suffered some of the worst natural disasters from Cyclone Freddy in Mozambique which killed hundreds and displaced thousands, the floods in Libya which killed over 10,000 people, the landslides in Tanzania, the floods in Somalia, and drought across the horn of Africa.
Memory Kachambwa, a gender expert and the current Executive Director of FEMNET, underscored the need for a systemic shift in the climate discourse by principally looking at climate as a feminist issue. She challenged the propensity to relegate climate policy to the backbench of fiscal planning in Africa. She called out FFP for failing to account for the violence that undergirds the “just transition”, where women not only bear the burden at the point of extraction but never receive the material benefits of these alternative technologies. Ms. Kachambwa condemned the carbon market model of dealing with climate change by displacing indigenous African communities from their lands, as has been the case in Tanzania, Gabon, and DRC, among others. She was resolute that climate justice would only be achieved by degrowth and endorsed reparations as opposed to loans from exploitive Western finance institutions.
In the end, Ms. Kagumire urged for a united African feminist front, stating, “How Africa engages with each other greatly impacts how Africa will engage with the rest of the world”. Engaging with FFP does not mean that one identifies with or endorses it, as Dr. Haastrup noted, but rather, it allows one to familiarize with it, critique it, and use it to hold incumbent states accountable to their colonial past and present. Ms. Kachambwa believes that: “If people are in a room discussing you and passing policies that will affect you, then you deserve to be in the room”. The collective concluded the session by urging the need to build transversal solidarity networks.
African decolonial feminist scholarship has every reason to be cynical of state-managed women’s liberation, particularly when the language is co-opting decolonial scholarship and using its positionality to morph and expand imperialism. A decade of FFP is yet to deliver any fundamental shift in the global foreign policy agenda. If anything, the current geopolitical landscape such as genocide in Gaza, DRC, Haiti, Sudan and the Sahel and the deliberate suppression of anti-fascist movements and international law across Europe and the Americas speaks to emboldened neoliberal fascism. This nulls FFP by quintessentially making it a “feminist-washing” agenda. These deep contradictions in FFP should be viewed not as an anomaly but rather as a strategy to maintain the imperial hegemony and derail universal progress for the majority. Therefore, for African movements, engaging with FFP is an opportunity to understand it, to forge meaningful alliances and to craft alternative feminist realities.
Feature photo via Shutterstock
Catherine Amayi (She/her) is a feminist researcher with a decade of knowledge and work experience on the intersections of climate justice, sexual and reproductive health, digital rights, and transformative justice. She’s currently writing a book on mining economies and food sovereignty. Amayi has a Masters degree in Environmental Studies and Community Development from Kenyatta University, Nairobi.