Empower Women, Save the World

As the coronavirus pandemic radically alters the world, killing more than 110,000 people in the United States alone, President Donald Trump has called himself a “wartime President” who is fighting “an invisible enemy.” 

“One of the insights of feminism is to explode the notions of public and private in terms of policy.”

This rhetoric appears to be in line with Trump’s worldview, which frames everything as a zero sum game, us vs. them, winning vs. losing.

Trump has blamed China for the pandemic, using Beijing’s lack of transparency during the early days of the outbreak as an excuse to deflect attention from the United State’s delayed response . He also cut U.S. funding to the World Health Organization, the United Nations agency that’s coordinating international efforts to combat the spread of COVID-19. 

Meanwhile, more U.S. citizens have died from the coronavirus than from the wars in Afghanistan, Vietnam, and Iraq combined. 

But a group of top thinkers in foreign policy, women’s rights, global health, and humanitarian action have come together to present a new vision of U.S. foreign policy, one that replaces chauvenistic sabre-rattling with a feminist lens. 

In late May, the International Center for Research on Women released a new report titled Towards a Feminist Foreign Policy in the United States. It builds off of the experience of countries including Sweden, Canada, and Mexico, each of which have crafted their own versions of a feminist foreign policy doctrine during the past six years. 

“For too long, we’ve militarized our approach to foreign policy problems and this has left us ill-equipped to tackle today’s most urgent crises: the coronavirus pandemic, climate change, and the rise of authoritarianism,” explained Serra Sippel, president of the Center for Health and Gender Equity. “We need a new way forward—one that prioritizes the health and human rights of people, the wellbeing of our planet, the goal of peace.”


A feminist foreign policy, the group writes, would prioritize collaboration over confrontation on the world stage. It would re-engage with the United Nations and the World Health Organization, and it would expand the national interest to anything that promotes the global good. 

U.S. policy makers would prioritize peace, equality, and environmental integrity when crafting policy plans, and invest more money into global development and women’s health, advocates say.  

“For us, it’s a fundamentally different posture of what the U.S. prioritizes; how it shows up in the world isn’t primarily offensive, but defensively, and with restraint,” says Lyric Thompson, senior director for Policy and Advocacy at the International Center for Research on Women, one of the main architects of the feminist foreign policy vision for the United States.

“It’s valuing and investing in what would traditionally have been considered soft power elements, like advancing diplomatic solutions first, using the military as a matter of last resort,” she continues. “[It’s] looking specifically at how the United States takes a gender lens to its national security and defense operations.”

A feminist U.S. foreign policy would work to protect women and girls around the world, including from the wide-ranging effects of the global pandemic. Under President Trump, however, the U.S. has slashed funding for international family planning programs due to the administration’s opposition to abortion.

This is especially dangerous for women at a time when the United Nations Population Fund estimates that the global pandemic will lead to seven million unintended pregnancies due to women’s inability to access birth control during quarantine. 

On May 18, the U.S. international development agency, or USAID, called on the United Nations Secretary General to remove any references to sexual and reproductive health from the United Nations’ COVID-19 response plan. 

“Women’s empowerment has been proven to fortify national security, make more efficient use of foreign aid, and to support democracy and long-term stability around the world.” 

“The U.N. should not use this crisis as an opportunity to advance access to abortion as an ‘essential service,’ ” read the letter from John Barsa, USAID’s acting administrator. “Unfortunately, the Global [Humanitarian Response Plan] does just this, by cynically placing the provision of ‘sexual and reproductive health services’ on the same level of importance as food insecurity, essential health care, malnutrition, shelter, and sanitation.” 

Experts argue that this attempt by USAID to strike reproductive health from the U.N.’s official response plan will embolden countries that are trying to limit access to birth control and other forms of sexual and reproductive health care. They say it goes beyond the U.S. government “gag rule” policy that blocks funding for organizations providing abortion counseling or referrals, by targeting all reproductive healthcare instead of just abortion. 

“When we’re talking about sexual and reproductive health, we’re talking about attention to rape cases, we’re talking about access to HIV medicine, it’s such a broad reference, it’s just insane,” says Paula Avila-Guillen, a human rights lawyer and Director of Latin America initiatives for the Women’s Equality Center, an organization based in Washington, D.C. 

“And for governments that are going to receive funding to implement necessary social services during the pandemic,” Avila-Guillen adds, “this letter is going to be tied to that funding.”


Another prong of a feminist foreign policy would increase U.S. support for public health systems in other countries, including developing countries, and invest more resources in sexual and reproductive health. 

“We’ve been talking a lot domestically about the importance of supporting our public health system in the United States,” says Thompson. “That would be mirrored on the global stage, so knowing how many countries the U.S. works with and supports that are going to have keenly inadequate resources in their public health systems and ensuring that we’re investing in that as well.” 

This new brand of foreign policy would also address issues like gender-based violence, which is increasing during the pandemic with thirty-one million estimated instances of domestic violence taking place because women are stuck at home with their abusers. 

“Foreign policy, and a lot of policy, has been blind to the violence that many people, especially women, face in their own households,” says Gawain Kripke, director of policy and research at Oxfam America, one of the organizations working on the creation of a feminist foreign policy vision for the United States. 

“One of the insights of feminism is to explode the notions of public and private in terms of policy,” Kripke adds. “The predominant concepts have been highly militarized ideas of what security is. In a feminist concept, you have a more holistic idea of what security looks like that might include things like human health.” 

Adherents of this new vision also aim to put more women into leadership roles, such asestablishing a feminist Inspector General in the White House. Advocates say that gender parity would go a long way to disrupt colonial, patriarchal, and male-dominated power structures. 

In the most recent round of U.S.-sponsored peace talks in Afghanistan, for example, not a single woman participated in the agreement’s signing, on either side.  

“It’s a stark picture of men with guns talking to other men with guns about who is going to carve up what pieces of power and influence, as opposed to taking more of a human security perspective that asks what is a true and lasting peace,” Thompson says. 

Making policy decisions that work for a global good is as difficult as it sounds. But Jamille Bigio, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the former director for human rights and gender on the Obama administration’s National Security Council, believes it can be done.

“Women’s empowerment,” she said during a virtual conference to unveil a new feminist foreign policy vision, “has been proven to fortify national security, make more efficient use of foreign aid, and to support democracy and long-term stability around the world.” 

Cristina Maza is a freelance journalist covering foreign policy and international affairs. She has reported from several continents, and her work has appeared in Newsweek Magazine, Foreign Policy, Al Jazeera, VICE, and many other outlets. 

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