Speech by Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock to present the feminist foreign policy guidelines

01.03.2023 - Speech

Dear guests,

but today I will above all say: dear colleagues,

because so many of you have worked on what we now have here in our hands or under our chairs – our new guidelines for feminist foreign policy.

I must admit that I was surprised time and again during this process by what a “trigger word” it is, this little word “feminist”. And yet what we are aiming for with these guidelines is something that in the twenty-first century should really go without saying – for all people to enjoy the same rights, freedoms and opportunities, regardless of their gender, regardless of what religion they belong to, regardless of who their parents are, how they look or who they love.

And women, as we all know, make up half of society in every country. Feminist foreign policy is therefore not an ideological rallying cry, but here in Germany is a product of our Basic Law. And it is certainly not a trivial afterthought. It is a cold hard security issue.

Because “if women are not safe, then no one is safe”. That is what a Ukrainian woman said to me as we stood near the contact line in the east of Ukraine – before 24 February 2022, before Russia’s brutal war of aggression. This sentence has stayed with me. Because we all know what happened next. War, suffering, terrible violence. Because this sentence shows us that women’s rights are too often a barometer of the state of our societies. Too often, inward repression is a warning signal for future outward aggression – as in the case of Russia.

If women are not safe, then no one is safe. But what is also true is that where women are safe, we are all safer. That is the positive news. We know that peace treaties are more robust when women play a part in writing them. The likelihood of these agreements lasting is twenty percent higher when women are involved.

And vice versa, when large parts of the global population are excluded, peace and security cannot be ensured in the long term, because justice is not done. And if large parts of the population are unable to have their say as equals, no society can fully attain its potential.

Economists forecast global growth of 26 percent in three years if women were to participate equitably in the labour market worldwide. Feminist foreign policy is therefore in all of our interests. It is therefore not – as some rather scornfully say – a matter of values alone. Feminist foreign policy is in fact in our security interests, in our economic interests.

Rights, representation, resources. That is what feminist foreign policy is about. Our guidelines are centred on these “three Rs”.

As the name says, they are intended to guide us. This means they are not set in stone. Instead, they are an invitation for us to continually examine ourselves, to learn from others, and when necessary to correct our course, to engage in self-reflection, in order to do things better.

Feminist foreign policy is an extension of what we term “gender mainstreaming” in domestic policy – and that too was a “trigger word” a few years ago – that is, the strategic approach of taking into account the different life circumstances of people in all their diversity in all political and social projects and decisions.

Just as the guiding principle of gender equality is based on the recognition that in many areas there is no gender-neutral reality, because different genders and different people can be differently affected by political decisions and administrative acts, the same applies in foreign policy.

And at this juncture I would like to add, because some people have obviously misunderstood, whether wilfully or not: These guidelines are not some missionary pamphlet that we naively want to use to make the world a better place. Quite the opposite. What matters to me, what matters to us, is to learn from others. Because we can see that other regions of the world are ahead of us in some areas. When we look at the share of women in parliament in Rwanda, Mexico and South Africa, for example, we see that it is significantly higher than here in Germany.

The more countries join in these efforts, the better we ourselves can become. And the good thing is that here, too, there are more and more of us. Many of us met just recently at the Munich Security Conference – from around the world, from Spain to Canada and Chile. And at the Munich Security Conference my counterpart from Mongolia said to me that she is hosting a conference on feminist foreign policy in June, because her country is becoming the first Asian state to pursue feminist foreign policy.

And this morning Svenja Schulze and I jointly presented the feminist foreign policy guidelines and the Development Ministry’s feminist development policy in the Cabinet. Because we are working as one not just worldwide but also within the Federal Government.

Some people may now be wondering – and some of them said as much this morning – not in the Cabinet, of course, but journalists on the street beforehand: “Haven’t we always promoted women’s rights? That’s something we’ve already been doing the whole time – what’s actually different now?”

Of course this is no revolution. And it would be sad if that were necessary. But it is three things that I believe make a difference.

Firstly, we are mainstreaming all “three Rs” – rights, resources, representation – in all areas of politics. Mainstreaming is an unwieldy word. And so I would like to give some examples to make it clear what we mean.

One example of mainstreaming is that, for humanitarian assistance in crisis zones, we don’t simply say that we’re going to provide 100 million euro for earthquake victims or for Yemen. Instead, we ask ourselves: Who exactly is this funding for, who do we want to reach? Who actually lives in these refugee or earthquake camps?

And then we see that the people living there don’t all look like the three gentlemen here in the middle, but that there are many women and children there, too. And we see that an eighteen-year-old teenager has very different needs to an eight-month-old infant.

But mainstreaming in humanitarian assistance doesn’t mean that certain people will no longer get anything, whether the eighteen-year-old or the eight-month-old baby. It means that we take a targeted, needs-based approach. If there are a lot of babies, then of course we will include funding for nappies. And if there are a lot of older people, then we will include funding to account for the fact that some of them are no longer able to get around unaided.

And since, as we all know, half of every society is made up of women, we will also take into consideration the fact that women need certain hygiene products. In refugee camps, for example, that has until now been far from a given – even if some might think it’s a no-brainer. But on my trips I carefully check the hotels, too – and hotels might in fact come off a lot worse in this respect, because it seems that nobody there even thinks of it. That sounds mundane, and anecdotal – but for me it underlines, time and again, the fact that this is not a matter of course. We must continually remind ourselves what it means to take others into account.

On the other hand, mainstreaming can also be quite simple, because it’s a reflection of us ourselves, our behaviour, how we present ourselves. When we deliberately decide at the Federal Foreign Office that we want to reach our goal of fifty percent of new hires being women – and on the political level that’s a little easier, because I can make the decision. Or when we travel with a delegation where half of the members – from security to political advisors to translators – are women. Then it’s sometimes the case that we suddenly only have women sitting around the table. And then interesting things happen. Then the first sentence we hear, after “Hello” – when it so happens that the people across from us at the delegation table are all men – is usually: “Our translator couldn’t be here today because she’s not well.” Before we’ve said anything at all.

And that is what we must not underestimate. When we talk about mainstreaming and representation, then of course people take a very close look at how we present ourselves, too. And in that respect we have a gap to close when it comes to diverse origins in particular.

Mainstreaming means that we always take the situation of women and marginalised groups into account – not just from time to time, or insisting that they are implicitly included even when they aren’t explicitly mentioned. And that is – we must be honest about it – a complex task, not least here within our ministry.

And so part of it, for me – and this is my second point – is that we must engage in critical self-reflection and be honest with ourselves about what the starting point is. And that means gradual, painstaking work.

We saw this with regard to Iran. We decided in November to convene a special session of the UN Human Rights Council in order to set up a commission that would investigate the brutal suppression of the protests. And to be quite honest, even on the day of the vote, when I walked into the room to give my speech, we didn’t know what the result would be. And because of that, many people – when we said we have to take this to the Human Rights Council – really urged us not to. “We don’t know if it’s enough, we don’t know what kind of message that will send.”

But for me, precisely that is a part of feminist foreign policy. Initiating things when we are not sure that they will be an immediate success. Being prepared for gradual, painstaking work – even when we can or do fail. Because this work itself creates change.

After that, we – including some of you here in this room – set about making phone call after phone call. Our ambassador in Geneva did everything in her power, drank another coffee with every other ambassador one on one, to get our partners on board. And in the end the result was a success for us, with 25 “yes” votes, six “no” votes and 16 abstentions. The 16 abstentions in particular were a success, because in direct talks with countries, with people, they said: “Really I can’t support it with a ‘no’, this violence in Iran.”

That was the right thing to do – but there are people here in this room, too, who asked: “And what has that achieved?” Because we are currently seeing that the mission cannot enter the country, although it has already collected evidence from abroad.

What is clear is that we are not naive. Feminist foreign policy does not mean believing that, if we just bring up an issue once, we’ll automatically see success. Feminist foreign policy is not some magic wand that we can wave to conjure away the injustice of this world.

No, feminist foreign policy is characterised by the need for patience and perseverance. And so it must pragmatically explore what is realistically possible. And that means that we must face up to and endure dilemmas. Because if we do not face up to them, if we say, “We’d rather not address that right now,” then the same thing will happen that I believe has happened too often in the past. Then women’s rights issues will fall by the wayside.

For me, this has become clear recently with regard to Afghanistan. With regard to the first R, which stands for rights. We have seen – since the Taliban returned to power – how women’s rights have been trampled underfoot on a massive scale, women have been barred from going to school, to university, even from walking in the park. And then, around Christmas, we heard the news that women’s work will now be made impossible, particularly in humanitarian assistance, particularly in the field of healthcare and the provision of food, because it is no longer desired for women to work in those areas.

And that is a point where you ask yourself: What are we going to do? Of course, the first thing that we did was to condemn this and to say that it is not acceptable. But the question that then arose – and this is the point at which it becomes clear whether you are ready to voice dilemmas – was: What happens if we just keep paying the money? And being ready to follow that thought to its logical conclusion – knowing that it will be a very, very difficult conclusion – that, for me, is where feminist foreign policy begins. Not with announcing the big impressive results at the end, but with asking the difficult questions.

And so we, and I as Foreign Minister, asked at the United Nations: “What shall we do? Do we just keep on paying?” That, of course, would mean that we would be paying women to stay at home in what many of them experience as a domestic prison. And on the other hand, of course, the immediate question was: “But if we don’t send any more money, what happens to the 26 million people who still depend on humanitarian assistance? Won’t we be abandoning women and children then, too?”

And at that point we could have made it easy for ourselves and said that we’ll just act as if we can’t quite see the whole picture. And we’ll tell the Taliban again, no, no, no, that’s not acceptable – and then we’ll just keep paying, because the money is after all paid to different organisations, some of whom are here with us now, or to the United Nations.

But if you have committed yourself by adopting feminist foreign policy – we said no, we won’t close our eyes, we’ll face up to this question. And when we then thought through what this would mean, it was really no longer a question of whether we would be abandoning 26 million people. Because if women can no longer work in humanitarian assistance, in the health sector, in the provision of food and water, then women in Afghanistan will not be reached, because women are not permitted to accept food from men they do not know. That means that we would in fact have been doubly punishing women and children. It was not easy, and I have heard some people say: “Oh, now she’s banging her women’s rights drum and abandoning the poor children and all the rest.”

But what we have achieved through this discourse, by asking critical questions, is that we have said within the United Nations and the EU: We can’t dodge this question, we are going to ask it straight out. And we made it clear to the Taliban, together, that we cannot accept the fact that women will no longer work in these areas, because then there will be no more healthcare, because you – the Taliban – don’t want it. And fortunately, because you never know how things will turn out, we were able to see to it that women can now work in these areas again. This means that we are able to provide humanitarian assistance, to reach 26 million people. Of course, we don’t know how long this will last.

But what I do know is that we will continue to look closely, because others are also looking closely. Houthis, for example, who have already initiated a similar rule in the north of Yemen. And who looked closely at what would happen if we had said: “We can accept that.”

For me, it sends a clear message to the regime that we will not accept the exclusion of women. And at the same time will do everything to try and ensure that the 26 million people who depend on our international assistance continue to receive this assistance. This also shows that feminist foreign policy is not easy, that it involves incredibly difficult decisions. Because it is not just about lofty words, it is about the real problems of real people. We are familiar with realpolitik – this is “realfeminism”.

And we will readjust our instruments to this end. That is my third point, and it brings me to the third R, resources. Gender budgeting – another unwieldy term. In our guidelines, we have set the goal – and the Development Ministry has done something very similar – of ensuring that 85 percent of the projects we finance are gender-sensitive, and 8 percent are gender-transformative, by the end of the legislative term. Gender-sensitive does not mean that from now on only women will receive assistance. So don’t worry – as I read this morning in the newspaper: “Ms Baerbock, just please don’t forget about men.” Don’t worry, everyone will continue to receive our support. Because the point of feminist foreign policy is not to reach fewer men, but quite the opposite, to reach more people, namely all of the people in a society.

And it is about creating transparency. If we know who we are reaching with which funding, how our funding is used, then that also ensures much greater clarity, much greater efficiency in the use of our resources. For example, when we help to rebuild a village in the north-east of Nigeria that was devastated by Boko Haram years ago, then it is important for us to consider: Who is going to design the village? Who will be allowed to contribute ideas and who will implement it all? Because of course you can provide the necessary funding and simply say: “We’ll commission this architect, because we’ve known him forever. He’s done a fantastic job in other villages. He’ll do the same thing here.”

Or you can ask the people on the ground: “Who would you like to have? Who should design it?” And there in Nigeria, the women and men of the village told us: “We know a Nigerian architect, we’d like to work with her to do it.” And she then asked the various inhabitants of the village: “What is important to you? What’s important to you when we plan a street, a road? What’s important to you when it comes to hygiene and sanitary facilities? Where should they be located?”

And I’d bet that a couple of decades ago people might have said: “Come on, just leave it, we don’t need to ask all of them. It takes far too long and costs far too much. We’ve taken them all into account.”

But I’d also bet that this village would have ended up looking completely different. Because to our surprise, the women there wanted their houses, small houses, to have relatively high walls around them, because they had learnt what it means when Boko Haram enters their village and can burst through their doors right away. And none of us would have thought of saying: “Let’s build high walls in the new village.”

But it meant that all of the former residents, but above all the women and children, returned to this village. And I’d also bet that the water and sanitation facilities would have ended up somewhere very different if the villagers hadn’t been asked.

Because of course for a ten-year-old child, or for a woman, it makes a major difference whether the well is in the centre of the village, whether the toilets are in the centre of the village, or right at the edge of the village, where we might have said, thinking about German hygiene standards and about containing odours, that we’d better build them there on the outskirts – even though there’s no lighting.

So gender-sensitivity means that we are more sensitive, that we are more attentive to what everyone’s concerns are, and that we deploy our assistance more effectively as a result. This means that gender budgeting is in our own economic interests, too.

Listening. Giving a voice to those who have been quiet or been kept quiet. And initiating change together – that is what feminist foreign policy is about. But of course this important work starts at home.

And if we are honest with ourselves and don’t simply whitewash things and say: “Well, we only have 26 percent women at the embassies because women just haven’t applied.”

But rather ask why that is the case. That’s when the work really begins. Out of 226 missions abroad, only 60 currently have women ambassadors. And that is not just by chance. There are structural reasons for it. We must tackle these structural reasons, even if it is sometimes hard for us to do so.

Because we then have to ask ourselves why, for example, at one of our embassies in an EU member state, another ambassador had to be cordially uninvited from a recent event. And we have to endure hearing the answer that he was unfortunately not able to access our residence in his wheelchair. This is precisely what we want to change. It was not by chance that he could not attend. It was a barrier. We could also say it was structural discrimination.

That is why feminist foreign policy means that we here in the ministry, through this gradual, painstaking work, must bring about what should really be a matter of course, must ensure that all of our staff are happy to go to work each morning – hopefully. That they all have the same straightforward access and are treated equally and there are no structural barriers. Whether those are physical barriers, mental barriers, or, as some colleagues rightly complain about, a lack of telephone equipment for staff with hearing difficulties. Or the invisible barriers, the glass ceilings. We want to work on changing this.

We are joined today by some of our colleagues from the Bundestag, who will, I hope – I cordially invite you to – regularly submit cordial written questions asking: So how are you getting on, Minister, with increasing that 26 percent? And yes, that is important.

And we will have to really work for it – that is why we have set our goal at “85% gender-sensitive” and not 100% (and I hope we will at least make it to 85%). But the important thing is for us to finally begin, not to be afraid of tearing down barriers, and not to be afraid of perhaps not reaching 100 percent in the end.

Because yes, it is true – when women are safe, then everyone is safer. But what is also true is that if we want to make policy that achieves precisely that, that looks closely, at the safety of everyone who makes up our society, then we too must reflect our society in all of our diversity.

Policy that includes rather than excludes. Policy by everyone and for everyone. Eighty-four million, whether loud or quiet. The better we represent them, the better we can represent our country on the world stage, too. That, for me, is feminist foreign policy in the twenty-first century. That, for me, is foreign policy in keeping with the times. Thank you very much.


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