Oceania | Diplomacy | Oceania

The Importance of Internalizing Feminism in Australian Foreign Policy

A successful foreign policy will always begin at home.

The Importance of Internalizing Feminism in Australian Foreign Policy
Credit: Unsplash

A recent article in the New York Times discussed the development of feminist foreign policies throughout the world and the growing body of research that demonstrates the direct connection between a lack of gender equality and a range of domestic and international problems. The goal of these policies — exemplified by Sweden — is to approach every issue through the lens of how they impact women, and to understand the knock-on effects that detrimental circumstances for women have on overall human development, health, economic advancement, and global security. 

These policies also seek to demonstrate how traditional forms of organization in defense, trade, and diplomacy have produced power imbalances and modes of interaction that have often created conflict — the primary issue international relations seeks to avoid.

Much of the impetus for the growing prominence of feminist foreign policies has come from the work of development economics, which demonstrated how the education and economic empowerment of women produces broader positive knock-on effects for societies than similar advancements for men alone. The core tenant in this field now is not just how progress across a number of metrics is achieved through women, but seeing that it is achieved by women. 

In the foreseeable future it is unlikely that Australia will adopt an explicitly feminist foreign policy like its cousin Canada. An unfortunate public suspicion and misunderstanding of the term “feminist” makes the government shy away from its usage. However, it is apparent that the lessons that are being drawn from other countries are still being incorporated into Australia’s policies, especially in the areas of human rights and development assistance. Notably, Australia is a rare example of a country where two of the most important outward-looking ministries are headed by women: Minister for Defense Linda Reynolds and Minister for Foreign Affairs Marise Payne.

In 2012 Australia developed the Australian National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security, which sought to integrate a perspective on gender into its policies on security and human rights. This policy has had some failings — as detailed recently by Dr. Barbara Trojanowska — but a second iteration of the action plan is now in development for the next decade, indicating that the Australian government remains committed to pursuing this perspective in its foreign policy. 

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Alongside the National Action Plan, in 2016 the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) launched its Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment Strategy, which committed Australia to advance gender equality as an objective in 80 percent of its development assistance. The strategy established three core principles that would guide its work: enhancing women’s voice in decision-making, leadership, and peace-building; promoting women’s economic empowerment; and ending violence against women and girls. Australia’s 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper also asserted that advancing the rights of women and girls was the first pillar of its commitment to human rights. 

These policies are demonstrations that the lessons of a female-centric approach to international relations are being internalized by the Australian government, even if it is reluctant to label its approach as “feminist.” Yet, the credibility of these commitments will rely on being able to align these external ideals to Australia’s domestic outcomes. After all, the primary global security threat to individuals is not war, but domestic violence.

The World Health Organization has estimated that around one-third of all women have suffered physical or sexual abuse by their partners, with 38 percent of all murders of women being committed by a partner. These statistics indicate that large percentages of the world’s women live in a state of permanent insecurity that is separate from their economic status or whether they live in a conflict zone. Even in countries that have strong reputations for progress on women’s rights, and whose soft power is built around this progress — like Iceland — the reality is astonishingly grim and the failings are systemic.

In Australia, one woman is murdered every week by her partner. Domestic violence overall remains endemic. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the insecurity of many women, as cases of domestic violence have spiked across the world. Alongside this — as is common throughout the world — Australia’s justice system habitually disbelieves women who suffer sexual assault, and most strikingly is actively hostile toward mothers who try to protect their children from abuse. Family courts, in particular, are an area where women’s rights are in a noticeable decline.

A successful foreign policy will always begin at home. The values and ideas a country wishes to project need to be internalized domestically before they can successfully be exported. Although no policy is ever going to be enacted perfectly, policies should nevertheless actively strive to do so.  Over the past decade Australia has come to understand the importance of the improvement in women’s lives worldwide to its overall security and prosperity agenda. Yet, if Australia is unable to provide a secure environment for its own women, then its ability to be a positive influence on global women’s security and advancement will ultimately be restricted.