Speech by Foreign Minister Baerbock on the 75th anniversary of the German Women Lawyers Association

29.01.2024 - Speech

“Men and women shall have equal rights.”

Nowadays many people might think it obvious that this simple sentence appears in Article 3 of the Basic Law.

But, as Professor Blumenthal has already made clear, it most certainly was not obvious at the time. Back then, 75 years ago, when the mothers and fathers of the Basic Law convened – four mothers and 61 fathers, it has to be pointed out – these seven words amounted to a feminist revolution. Because they weren’t included in the text somehow automatically. Rather, they eventually found their way into the text of the Basic Law as a result of a long process and lengthy discussions – that’s putting it very diplomatically; actually, it was more like a tough battle.

And we owe it above all to the devotion of a founding member of the German Women Lawyers Association: Elisabeth Selbert.

Elisabeth Selbert was a member of the Parliamentary Council which, just over 75 years ago, was charged with elaborating a constitution for the Federal Republic of Germany. At that time, women could not enter into a contract, open a bank account or work without their husband’s consent. Even then, Elisabeth Selbert very clearly realised that this was wrong.

At the time, she was the only one who saw that it was wrong. Even her female party colleagues warned her: “Do you really want to cause legal chaos, including a sentence like that in the constitution?”

Her male colleagues didn’t put it quite so nicely, mostly subjecting her to ridicule, malice and personal attacks. But she refused to let herself be intimidated. She had courage and she had stamina.

Nevertheless – and it’s extremely important to me to say this, not least for younger colleagues here today or watching the livestream: we shouldn’t simply brush aside this ridicule, this malice, these personal attacks and say that women simply need courage and stamina, because that would mean putting the blame on women who don’t show courage and stamina if they don’t succeed.

And I think we have all experienced how this ridicule and malice, and these days unfortunately even more these personal attacks on social media, are not a matter of chance, but continue to be a strategy.

That’s why it’s up to all of us to address precisely that and to be there whenever such attacks break out. This, too, we learn from Elisabeth Selbert. It takes others who feel the same way. It takes a team.

In an unprecedented campaign, she persuaded thousands of women to join her. In the Regional Parliaments, in women’s associations, among metalworkers. And eventually this pressure had an impact.

When the Basic Law of the Federal Republic of Germany was unanimously adopted on 8 May 1949, Article 3 (2) was approved as well: “Men and women shall have equal rights.”

Looking back on this chapter of our history, we can rightly say that as a society we have achieved a great deal since then. This progress has been possible in part thanks to associations like the German Women Lawyers Association. Now we can see – particularly through the lens of West German history – what exactly this progress is.

Not only that women could finally open an account or work without their husband’s signature, but that the so-called paternal authority that automatically gave fathers the final say in family conflicts was abolished.

That marital rape is now at last a punishable offence. That doctors are no longer criminalised if they provide information about termination of pregnancy on their websites. None of these milestones would have been possible without the clever arguments of courageous women lawyers, without the voice of civil society in all these struggles.

Younger people will remember paragraph 219a. There, too, it took not only courage and stamina, but a joint fight against hatred, malice and ridicule.

We women saw just what is possible if we persevere, even sometimes over decades, like Elisabeth Selbert.

But we also have to acknowledge that we have not yet attained true, complete equality. Here, though, I would say this: given that democracies, fortunately, are always living entities and we are always evolving together, then there will never be a real end, a final flag.

Nevertheless, there is still work to be done in some areas – and better yesterday than tomorrow.

Many of you probably know the mechanisms, criticism and mockery one encounters when trying to change something. Even if all you’re saying is that it would be good to try and ensure a degree of equality in a particular decision-making body. In male groups, you then often have to listen to an explanation of why unfortunately it was impossible on this precise day to find a woman for the board or the selection panel.

Or why it’s pretty normal after all for a male colleague to earn 15% more. I believe many of you will also be familiar with that scornful smirk you get in response when you criticise sexist remarks and point out that they certainly aren’t standard phrases. Or that casual-sounding question: “By the way, I was just wondering, what arrangements have you got for your children? Will you really manage to be at the meeting next week?” Or the raised eyebrows when you stand up for women’s rights, because after all there are far more important things to worry about just now than women’s rights or amending legislation on women’s issues.

Yes, “feminism” is still a trigger word, even today. It is for that very reason that we have called our foreign policy “Feminist Foreign Policy”. When we introduced it, Svenja Schulze and I were asked: “Did you really have to kick up such a fuss with this?”

If I had called it “Implementation of Article 3 of the Basic Law” or “Implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women”, then – let’s be honest – no one would have batted an eyelid. That was one reason why I raised the subject at the outset and pointed out that if you meet with resistance it generally shows that you’ve stuck a finger in exactly the right wound.

Nonetheless, particularly in these times of crisis, I am repeatedly asked: “Well, Ms Baerbock, isn’t it time for some real hard security policy? Hasn’t reality finally hit you with these terrible crises and conflicts?” The truth is that Feminist Foreign Policy is hard security policy – in a hard reality.

Because whoever ignores half of society will never be able to attain long-term stability and peace. Not anywhere. That is why in my view – and this is basically the core of our Feminist Foreign Policy – women’s rights are always a yardstick for the state of a society, and also for the state of our own democracy.

Sabine Fischer has written a really fantastic book on the subject. I would recommend it to you all, because she underpins precisely this theory with facts, in ever such an impressive way. In “The Chauvinist Threat”, she makes it clear how sexism and imperialism are no coincidence, not least with an eye to Russia’s brutal war of aggression.

How the 2017 amendment to Russian criminal law that means that you have to have beaten up your wife several times so badly that she needs hospital treatment before it can be reported as a crime was not a coincidence, as so often stated when women’s rights are under pressure, but rather part of the massive attack on democratic processes and part of an imperialist world view.

That is why it is so important for us in the context of our Feminist Foreign Policy to put rights at the very top: rights, representation, resources.

We will go into this in some more detail during the discussion. The Federal Foreign Office has now mainstreamed this concept, anchoring it across the board. So it is not the case that there is one directorate-general dealing with Feminist Foreign Policy while the others have nothing to do with it.

No, it is now mainstream throughout the Federal Foreign Office, from crisis management to personnel policy – because we have some way to go there – but especially in the hard security environment.

I would love to invite everyone who wonders on my trips “Oh gosh, why do you want to go meeting women’s groups?” or “Why are you going to that village where Boko Haram was? Can’t you engage in hard security policy?” – I would love to invite them to participate in those talks.

Because when you talk to a woman who as a 15-year-old was kidnapped from her school by Boko Haram and held captive for more than eight years, and who tells you how she managed to engineer her own escape from captivity after eight years with her two young children – honestly, talks with the Russian Foreign Minister or other gentlemen are, by comparison, more of a walk in the park, emotionally speaking.

Nonetheless, it is true that when it comes to our Feminist Foreign Policy, we not only have to explain a great deal, we also have to look carefully at how we can expand it. Today, the undisguised ridicule and mockery isn’t quite as much the fashion. We saw just over a year ago in the Bundestag how completely discrediting Feminist Foreign Policy no longer gets quite such a great response.

But that doesn’t mean that it is not under pressure. Today the mockery takes a slightly different form. More like this: “So. If you’re pursuing your Feminist Foreign Policy, how come you still haven’t got the mullahs sorted out? We might as well stop working for women’s rights in Iran or elsewhere.”

No, quite the opposite. There’s no bigger favour we can do those regimes than to say: “Unfortunately we didn’t manage to solve the women’s rights problem today. So we’ll give up now.”

What we have learnt, in our own country, is that sometimes it takes decades. Precisely that is our lodestar.

Because Feminist Foreign Policy is not a magic potion; it means that we have to be in it for the long, hard haul. And that’s exactly what we are. With confidence. Like Elisabeth Selbert.

We know, and you know too, that we need to be patient. And we are.

In this spirit, I would like to share with you two examples from my day-to-day work that show clearly how being patient, even if things take quite a while, can make a difference every day. Because a mother might be able to escape with her children. In order to fulfil her greatest dream throughout her captivity, the thing that kept her going: to be able to go back to school at long last. Because in the refugee camps the Federal Foreign Office supports, we talk to the women and not just to the UN authorities or local institutions, so that even with a small amount of funding we can make that possible: we offer education not only for the children, but for all the women who were robbed of their education for eight years.

In the first months after I took office, a few weeks after the beginning of the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine, I travelled to Bosnia and Herzegovina. There, I spoke with survivors of the Srebrenica massacre, with women who told me how they had been raped, and how their daughters had been raped before their very eyes.

The women who described their experiences to me had one wish above all else that they wanted to get across: “Ms Baerbock, even after all these years, it’s not over. I feel the pain every day, from every pore.”

Because there has been no justice. Not for the mothers of Srebrenica and their daughters – for some perhaps, but certainly not for all. Because, at the time, rape was regarded as almost a natural side-effect of war.

The worst thing, the women of Srebrenica told me, the worst thing is still the feeling that the perpetrators went unpunished and remain among them. The feeling that the pain can never end, because not only were you unable to protect your daughter from rape, but you still haven’t been able to obtain justice for her.

It is a feeling you encounter in many places around the world. Today I find it everywhere. In refugee camps in northern Iraq, where survivors of the IS genocide committed suicide especially in recent months or during the COVID pandemic, because they could not process the trauma of rape, but also because they knew that the perpetrators were living just a few kilometres away.

One senses it just as acutely in Bucha, in the area around Kyiv, in Mariupol. In conversations with Ukrainian women, girls, also Ukrainian men who report systematic sexual violence from their time in Russian detention as prisoners of war.

One senses it now in the Middle East, where on 7 October Hamas deliberately used sexual violence as a weapon, deliberately raped and abducted women, purposely filmed their deeds and spread the videos online, copying IS methods and structures.

And why? Because they wanted to hit right at the heart of Israeli society. Because rape is a systematic war weapon to break women in society.

In Rwanda, which I visited a few weeks ago, they have put it very succinctly on the Genocide Memorial: “A genocide that doesn’t touch women is not a genocide.”

It is the core of an attempt to destroy societies. That is why the most important part of our work is looking at the security of women, particularly in conflicts and crisis situations. At the moment, in the Sudan especially. There, it was women who were to the fore in the protests to remove the dictator al-Bashir five years ago. And there we are seeing that the strength of women’s movements is making such a huge difference at this time, which is why repressive systems are particularly afraid of women and seek to attack women’s rights.

And so, five years after the women led the push for democracy and freedom, it is no coincidence that in the ongoing civil war in the Sudan, it is again the women who are being most systematically attacked.

Here, too, mass rape is being used as a systemic weapon against women.

The women’s rights activists and women lawyers I have recently spoken to have said it very clearly: “This war in the Sudan is a war against women. Because they know that we would return to democracy only with women.”

And it is precisely for this reason, to help these brave women who are fighting so hard to shake off their powerlessness, that the work done by you, by women lawyers not just in Europe but worldwide, is so important. Because these women trust that one day they will obtain justice.

And that’s exactly why we at the Federal Foreign Office are continuing to fight impunity. In the wake of the crimes of Srebrenica and elsewhere, some progress has been made so that at last we can break through the oppression and thus the silencing of women. The Yugoslavia tribunals in the mid-1990s began this change, in part because women’s rights activists and associations like the German Women Lawyers Association exerted so much pressure.

The German Women Lawyers Association was also one of the first to insist so very strongly – in the face of huge resistance – on rape being included as a separate charge in the indictment against the former Serb leader Karadzic. And we still hear the same arguments against listing rape separately so often today, for instance in relation to the IS indictments. “But we can subsume that under ”terrorism“. But we can subsume that under ”crimes against humanity“.”

But if we did that, we would be ignoring the fact that it was a deliberate method, that it wasn’t a coincidence, that it was a deliberate attack against women in the form of direct sexual violence. And the victims would not obtain justice.

We have been able to close many gaps in international criminal law in the meantime. Since 2002, the International Criminal Court has been able to prosecute these acts of violence, which are now codified better and in greater detail: rape, sexual slavery, forced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilisation. Today all these count as crimes against humanity and are no longer subsumed.

This is stipulated in Article 7 of the Rome Statute. What counts is that it is no longer merely codified, but that the perpetrators are in fact called to account for deliberate crimes against women and girls in Ukraine, or for the crimes committed by Hamas or the militias in the Sudan.

Only then do we have a real chance of justice and thus a real chance of peace and reconciliation.

I would therefore like to take this opportunity to highlight and to thank all those women lawyers, and especially women criminal defence lawyers, because alongside the work done here on the ground, particularly in the legislative field and in the international context, they take part in international missions and then support women, for example in rural areas, in a civil war situation, as international lawyers, as criminal defence lawyers in local trials.

I think we could talk forever about how much we need to persevere. We see it now, particularly with regard to the crime of aggression, basically the core crime of international criminal law.

Here, too, if you start to do something, the first reaction is often this: “For goodness sake, why is that your priority at a time like this? Do we really need something as dry and boring as the international law you’re so keen on?”

Here, too, though, I believe that we must combine forces in order to emphasise the strength of the law in future, not the law of the strong.

The second aspect of Feminist Foreign Policy that I’d like to share with you today is a very different one. Not the codified legal issue, but our stance in Feminist Foreign Policy, particularly when it comes to strengthening international law. Because Feminist Foreign Policy is not a policy of preaching.

That’s another one of the main arguments used, in my view, to discredit the whole question of Feminist Foreign Policy or women’s rights. “So you’re going out into the world to lecture everyone else about women’s rights.”

The basic view underlying that is that women elsewhere in the world wouldn’t want to put their rights into practice at all. What kind of understanding of human rights or women’s rights is that, if you say it’s not an important topic in other parts of the world?

Here, too, codification over the past few decades has been so crucial – because I can give this answer: yes, if everyone has signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, then it’s clearly not just the invention of one or two individual countries.

But that means that, in terms of cooperation, we want to drive forward with alliances. So I would like to say this quite frankly and openly: no, the German Foreign Minister didn’t invent Feminist Foreign Policy. It would have been nice, but no, I didn’t. The Swedes in particular were instrumental in developing the concept of rights, resources and representation. But the actual idea came from many, including governments in Latin America. In many places I visit, for example South Africa, with which we have had differing stances, including on Russia’s war and other issues, the initial greeting has been the most positive sentence, the first thing I heard: “Now at last you’ve understood about women’s rights. Thank goodness we can now talk sensibly with you about this issue.”

Because they had learnt during their struggle against apartheid, when the West German Government of the day failed to stand on the side of those fighting for their rights: “When it comes to human rights, we can’t necessarily count on them.”

Our idea of our image in the world – “we are the trailblazers” – well, in all honesty it has to be said that when you go out into the world, you find that’s not how we’re viewed.

So in this respect, too, I am inspired by a great woman, the late US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who once said: “Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.”

For me, on all these issues, that is why your engagement, the engagement of the German Women Lawyers Association, is so important for all the successes, not least at international level: picking up from where others have gone ahead.

The Istanbul Convention, for example. If I were to travel to countries in Central Asia, for instance, and say “Right, let me just explain women’s rights to you”, then it would go in one ear and out the other.

But if you ask “Why did you actually ratify the Istanbul Convention?” or “Why haven’t you implemented that article yet?”, then it’s a completely different lead-in. The best approach is when I say “I wanted to ask how you’ve ensured equal representation here, because we’re still a long way off 50% in the German Bundestag, we’re only just over 30%. How did you manage to get to over 50% here in Rwanda?”

Or hearing in Mongolia that they have introduced a quota for their parliament in the latest legislative reform. Looking for lead-ins in areas where other countries are already further advanced also then opens up the possibility to talk about points where Germany is further ahead, for example combating domestic violence.

We can see how important that is not only here in Germany but all around the world. As I indicated earlier, talking about yardsticks for democracies, wherever domestic violence is on the rise or is widespread, there is a lack of justice in all areas of legislation.

That’s why we have a long way to go, here in Germany too, also when it comes to implementing the Istanbul Convention. In Germany, more than 14 women every hour fall victim to violence within their partnerships. All of us here today know that, but unfortunately not everyone in our society does.

Almost every day, a partner or ex-partner tries to kill a woman. That’s why it’s so important that, when we talk about the Istanbul Convention, we don’t just talk about others, but keep looking at how we can meet our own international obligations and how we can raise our standards.

Two years ago, a group of independent experts charged by the Council of Europe evaluated the implementation of the Istanbul Convention in Germany. The recommendations these experts made are important, and I would like to address them here again today, because there are some points where we still need some support to make sure they feed into all relevant legislation. For example, Article 46 of the Convention explicitly states that there should be a tougher sentence if an offence is committed by a former or current partner.

I have a feeling that those of you who work in criminal courts might have experience that suggests the opposite is true. Even today, you still come across judgements or hearings in which it becomes clear that what the German Women Lawyers Association has repeatedly said is true: partnership is perceived as a mitigating factor. When it comes to killings, for example.

Here, it could be a mitigating factor if the man had an intimate relationship with his victim. The logic being that it cannot be a perfidious act – which we take into account in murder and other issues – if the man kills his own wife or girlfriend. She is, after all, “his” woman.

Last year, in the Bundestag, we tried to tackle precisely this, in part in response to lots of pointers from the Association and others. So we amended the law to explicitly add “gender-specific” motives and motives “oriented against sexual orientation” as aggravating factors.

These motives must therefore now be explicitly stated and addressed at trial. This is a step forwards.

But we are not yet as far advanced as the Istanbul Convention would have us be. Another example that is of great concern to everyone with children, I think, is the implementation of Article 31 of the Istanbul Convention. Germany has committed to take incidents of violence by the partner into greater account in decisions on custody and visitation rights, especially if violence was directed at the mother of the children.

Many NGOs and also the German Women Lawyers Association have criticised the fact that German family courts often attach greater importance to the perpetrator’s right of contact than to the safety of women and children.

But one of the terrible consequences of this is that it then seems to imply: your fear doesn’t matter here.

Again, I can recommend a good radio feature on the subject. A woman lawyer who has gone through it herself describes the process, talking about custody rights for her daughter, and how it ended up. The journalist starts her report like this: “If I had not done the research myself, I would never have believed my own report, never have believed that this is still possible here in Germany.”

Because even now custody decisions may force children to spend time with fathers who have mistreated either the children themselves or their mothers. The Council of Europe expert group criticised this state of affairs, this problematic state of affairs.

But here, too, it is not easy just to amend the current law, because of course it is incredibly important for children to have contact with both parents.

But it is a problem to be solved in the long term, and in my view it needs to be tackled by various professions working together. That is exactly why we in government took these recommendations seriously and established an independent rapporteur. And we, and the Federal Ministry for Families especially, want to do even more to better prevent and combat violence against women.

Why am I giving you all these examples?

Because I believe neither foreign policy nor the law exists to formulate things in abstract terms or to bring about abstract change. Rather, it is people that are at the heart of things. And it is always a matter of the individual case. Of course we cannot simply create a policy in response to an individual case. But seeing the sum of these individual cases, shining a bright spotlight very specifically on those who cannot fight for themselves – that is our job and that is part of Feminist Foreign Policy.

This also means pointing out the problematic aspects of court rulings, legislation or international agreements.

It’s a task at which we need to persevere, and that’s why I continue to need your support. That is why I am so thankful, in my field of foreign policy, not only that so many international women lawyers are here today, but also that we have such competent women in the various international courts, women we can work closely with and who make it clear again and again that it’s worth the effort.

It’s worth the effort, even if it takes time.


“Men and women shall have equal rights.”

Elisabeth Selbert described her fight for Article 3 back then as her finest hour. The history of this sentence illustrates how important this change is. And so it is no coincidence that the Federal Foreign Office named the programme to provide at-risk human rights defenders across the world with safe refuge here in Germany after her. Because we need these international partners.

Lore Maria Peschel-Gutzeit, Honorary President of the German Women Lawyers Association, who died last year, once described how she was a member of the Constitutional Commission charged in the early 1990s by the Bundesrat and Bundestag to come up with recommendations for an amendment to the Basic Law.

And how she experienced exactly what Elisabeth Selbert had experienced with Article 3, and how important it was, such a long time afterwards, to have those partners. Because then, too, the addition to Article 3 in the Basic Law that she was proposing was not a foregone conclusion, but met with strong resistance.

Other members of the Commission dismissed her suggestions. Not as “legal chaos”, as Elisabeth Selbert had heard decades previously, but rather, ever so charmingly, as useless nonsense. Nowadays you’d probably be accused of sounding off about a whole bunch of nothing.

Her big advantage was that she not only had more women on her side here in Germany, but could also point to many other countries where this so-called useless nonsense had clearly helped to strengthen both society and the law. In the end, as we know, she won through. That’s why today Article 3 also says: “The state shall promote the actual implementation of equal rights for women and men and take steps to eliminate disadvantages that now exist.”

We all know how important that sentence is. Every time someone asks why, if there are already two women, does there need to be a third one, so that you somehow get to 50%, and isn’t that discrimination against men?

Whenever I hear something like that, I point to our Basic Law. That is why I am very, very grateful that Ms Peschel-Gutzeit wrote that sentence in, to make it clear that it is a constitutional duty not simply to be satisfied if women are somehow making progress. Because women still come up against ceilings, it is our duty as government to drive forward their advancement, and to keep working together to do so. That is what we are all working for.

In conclusion, because today we're marking an anniversary, I would not wish to ignore the many, many positive things I have hopefully touched on and you have mentioned. Together we have achieved so much. You have achieved so much.

You who for decades have been fighting for equality in Germany and internationally. You have achieved so much for justice and for security, because equality, feminism, equal rights, equal participation and equal resources are not a whole bunch of nothing. No, they strengthen our democracy and our society.

On that note, thank you very much for 75 years in which you have pursued the interests of women and thus hard security policy.

Thank you very much for 75 years in which you have strengthened our country and our democracy.

I am already looking forward to celebrating the 100th anniversary in 25 years’ time, and to being able to look back and say: “Yes, yes, there was a bit of ridicule and malice. It took courage and stamina, but it made our country better, stronger and safer.”

Thank you very much.


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