When Sweden first designed its feminist foreign policy in 2014, its central tenets were the promotion of the Three Rs: rights, resources, and representation for women and girls. The idea was that female advancement would enhance the security and prosperity of the world. At the state and community level, women holding strong leadership positions reduces human rights abuses and prevents societies from relapsing into conflict. Women are also an enormous economic resource that is underutilized, limiting the prosperity and opportunity for societies at large.
Unlike other countries that have followed Sweden’s lead — like Spain, Mexico, and recently Germany — an explicit feminist foreign policy has not (yet) been adopted in Australia. Nevertheless, the lessons from these ideas are being incorporated into Australia’s development assistance policies. In 2016, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) launched its Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment Strategy, which committed Australia to make gender equality an objective in 80 percent of its development assistance.
The strategy established three core principles to guide Australian assistance: enhancing women’s voice in decision-making, leadership, and peace-building; reducing violence against women and girls; and promoting women’s economic agency. Following this strategy, Australia’s 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper stated that advancing the rights of women and girls was the first pillar of its commitment to human rights.
These initiatives are consistent with Sweden’s original Three Rs. Yet a factor that Australia needs to be wary of is that the Three Rs are not advanced within a vacuum. In both developed and developing countries, these ideas are often infused into societies that have strong or residual patriarchal structures. Many men find it difficult to emotionally handle greater female agency. There is a strong male psychological impulse that remains wedded to the belief that women’s rights come at men’s expense.
There is a growing body of disheartening evidence — from Bangladesh, Vietnam, the Dominican Republic, India, and Rwanda, just to name a few — that has found that greater female empowerment and agency leads many men to become antagonistic and violent toward their female partners. There is a clear male backlash to the economic, social, and political gains that women are making.
Of course, this is not only a problem in developing countries. In Australia, male violence against female partners who earn more than they do has become pronounced. This is a phenomenon that mirrors the “Nordic Paradox” where the countries that are deemed to be the most gender-equal have disproportionate levels of violence against women. In the United States, the Republican Party’s obsession with ending abortion rights is a blunt effort to reestablish male control over women, and a general hostility toward women is dominating the current presidential election campaign in South Korea (to give just a tiny number of examples).
Throughout the world, anti-women movements are growing in strength and finding ways to influence not just social and online environments, but institutions (especially the family court), bureaucracies, and political parties. The subjugation of women is a common trait of authoritarian regimes, and terrorists — regardless of ideology — are highly likely to also abuse women. Male resentment at female advancement is a globally destabilizing force.
This is not an argument against advancing women’s rights for fear of what men will do in reaction. Rather it is a recognition that countries like Australia that wish to promote the Three Rs for women and girls — either at home or abroad — need to also devise strategies that counteract male resentment. The most important policy concern of our age is how we bring men along. How do we convince men that greater female agency is not a threat to them? Crucially, how we do so without coddling men and making excuses for violent and aggressive behavior?
Of course, this is easier said than done. There is an entire and deep-rooted social infrastructure that amplifies and encourages men to pursue status and dominance. When faced with women who are flourishing, feelings of inadequacy can prove difficult to overcome when the primary social construct of manhood is one of power and control. Attempting to realign masculinity can feel like pushing against the tide.
One of the central aims of feminist foreign policy is for states to understand that it is not just national or international instability that threatens individual security, but individual insecurity also undermines national and international security. While Australia may shy away from using the terminology, in its development programs it has internalized many of feminist foreign policy’s general assumptions. Yet the next step is to understand and mitigate the knock-on effects. Male resentment is admittedly a wicked problem, but one that cannot be deemed too difficult to even try to address.