On Wednesday 13 December, Chatham House, in association with the British American Security Information Council (BASIC) and The Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy (CFFP), hosted a breakfast meeting on gender in international affairs, the first of a series of quarterly meetings bringing together experts and practitioners from academia and the international affairs community from around the UK for an open-ended conversation under Chatham House Rules. These events are part of a wider effort to collaboratively improve gender awareness and equality within organisational cultures and to develop better understandings of how a gendered lens can inform research practises and strengthen analytical work. The key recommendations and topics of interest that emerged from this fruitful discussion have been summarized below.
An ongoing problem in international affairs has been the absence of female voices. In addition, the past years have seen a global backlash to the progress already made on this issue, and it has been used as a rallying cry by violent groups. In order to combat this, it will be crucial to create political, social and cultural spaces for women’s increased participation. Women must be involved in processes of change from the very beginning, especially in peace processes, to ensure their durability, and not merely as an afterthought (“…and now let’s look at gender”). One way in which such a gender lens would improve the quality of work is by challenging existing narratives and stereotypes that have become entrenched, and thus producing a better understanding of current situations and structures.
Yet, the main problem ahead relates to the shrinking space available to gender issues, coupled with a general shortage of funding. There seems to be a lack of political will to explore the roots of certain global problems, such as the prevalence of sexual violence in conflict, and instead to frame these as purely disciplinary issues. Moreover, with funding already tight, the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and the Department For International Development cannot always agree on funding priorities, resulting in complementary organizations being placed in direct competition for limited aid, further reducing their reach.
It is also important to recognize the drawbacks of seemingly gender-positive phrases, such as a ‘feminist foreign policy’, which can be criticized of focusing excessively on image and branding, instead of on actual deeds and actions. One might ask how a feminist foreign policy could justify selling arms to Saudi Arabia, and why there has not been a deeper engagement with the existing power structures, or a reliance on credible gender experts during high-level discussions.
When addressing issues related to gender, professionals from the field have found that even in organizations that are actively promoting a gender lens – through encouraging representation, participation and intersectionality – certain obstacles endure. There continues to be resistance to transforming organizational/company culture, and gender-themed events primarily attract like-minded women. There remains a notion that such events are intended exclusively for women, and therefore a main challenge ahead relates to conceiving strategies towards the increased participation of men.
Moreover, the use of language is crucial, and can significantly influence perceptions. For instance, there have been noticeably negative reactions to the terms ‘feminism’ and ‘intersectionality’, resulting in lower engagement and subsequently poorer turnouts at events employing such language. A key dilemma relates to whether it would harm and “dilute” the message by acquiescing and utilising more neutral language, or if this is the best strategy to garner increased support and interaction with the topic at hand.
One suggested way forward would be to actively politicize the issue of gender, which is often presented in a very apolitical manner, in order to create further spaces and be able to voice criticisms more freely. This can be implemented through ongoing consultations, facilitating dialogue with marginalized communities, including the voices of women’s groups directly and as active participants in high-level discussions, condemning male-centric organizational cultures, and normalizing the women already in international affairs by valuing and promoting their expertise. Similarly, we have to remember that there are four pillars to the Women, Peace and Security agenda: namely, participation, protection, prevention, and relief and recovery. We cannot focus exclusively on one pillar to the exclusion of others, and thus it is crucial to employ a holistic approach to not just create new spaces, but also ensure that these remain safe, participatory and open, when creating programming.
One main recommendation would be to discuss the entire topic of gender, by engaging with and drawing attention to the existence of toxic masculinities, and their entrenched position within organizational cultures. If there are language barriers to this, certain community partner groups are sometimes better positioned to voice these thoughts, whereas organizations with a more sensitive culture to gender issues might be less willing. The key challenge ahead will be to build up a diverse, skilled network of like-minded and motivated actors, in order to further push for the application of a gender lens in international affairs. Therefore, the next step will entail identifying the best manner to combine strengths as a collective unit, using different but targeted strategies to achieve progress.
© Photo/CC 2.0 Glenn Wood, Flickr