Speech by Foreign Minister Heiko Maas on International Women’s Day 2020 at the Federal Foreign Office

03.03.2020 - Speech

I would like to start with a subject that generally gets little attention at an event like this. Namely: men.

This might come as a surprise to some of you, but I fear there’s no getting past it. Which is in itself a nice bit of wordplay: you can’t get past them.

Let me start by asking you to take a look around, at your neighbour right and left. I would say, looking around, that in about 80 percent of cases you aren’t looking at a man. It’s usually a very different picture.

Ladies and gentlemen,

To be honest, I find it sad. We’re talking here today about women’s rights, and you might be led to believe it’s a subject most men aren’t interested in.

Those of us here today are all of like mind. We all know that equal opportunities benefit all members of society. We all know that equal opportunities mean the same rights and freedoms for all, irrespective of their gender, their sexual orientation, their appearance.

That is, you will see, not an issue restricted to women! It is, in fact, nothing less than one of the most pressing core issues of our day, not least in foreign policy.

And so I am extremely grateful to our Gender Equality Representative, Claudia Böhm, for having started something with last year’s International Women’s Day event that we want to continue with you here today. I don’t want to dub it a tradition; anyway, it’s probably best to avoid referring to traditions in this field if possible.

But in this case, I think what we should be saying is “carry on!” and “keep up the good work!” – that’s what we at the Federal Foreign Office have undertaken to do, not only today, but in our day-to-day work.

Because to my mind the question of the extent to which we, the Federal Foreign Office, have made progress on gender equity, both internally and externally, not only defines how advanced we are at this moment. It also defines how successful and sustainable we will be in the future.

Only if we practise what we preach can we have any real credibility.

And that’s why we are talking about two sides of the same coin if we aim for more gender justice with our foreign policy while simultaneously striving for more gender justice within the Federal Foreign Office.

One cannot be had without the other.

The huge interest shown in today’s event, and the various controversial discussions in the ministry in recent months, tell me that gender equality is a subject of interest to many of us.

Especially, of course, the colleagues who work so passionately on the issues presented in our report “Gender Justice in the Federal Foreign Office and German foreign policy”. This event is all down to them, and I would like to express my sincere gratitude on behalf of all the colleagues.

Nice as it is that we have managed to make a fair bit of progress in this area in recent years, ladies and gentlemen, it is no more than a start.

There’s a Chinese proverb that says “Women hold up half the sky”.

But I think one has to say, above all, that they bear the brunt of hell.

The majority of human rights violations in our age are directed against girls and women. We cannot fight for human rights worldwide without fighting for the rights of girls and women.

That is why our engagement focuses on implementing the Women, Peace and Security Agenda and Security Council Resolution 1325, which must not be allowed to be a mere paper tiger.

Last year we committed to twelve measures designed to drive even harder on implementing the resolution up to its 20th anniversary in October.

Eleven of them have been or are currently being implemented, including, for example, gender-just guidelines on transitional justice and security sector reform.

Furthermore, we will in future systematically evaluate all our aid projects and conflict analyses by whether and how they promote gender equity and inclusivity – in the same way as we already do our humanitarian assistance projects.

At the beginning of the year, we asked our embassies and consulates around the world to suggest concrete projects promoting women's rights and gender equality in conflict-affected and post-conflict countries.

Over the past few weeks, more than 40 proposals and ideas have been submitted, and now we want to breathe life into them.

I can only encourage you, and especially our colleagues at our missions abroad, to keep working on this. Don’t slacken your efforts. Help us to look for projects and initiatives. These are so important for this issue.

In Mali, I saw for myself how women are being involved in processes of reconciliation. We are providing support there, organising training sessions on negotiating techniques and sometimes exerting political pressure too. Because we are convinced that this is the only way to ensure lasting peace.

Another visit I will never forget was to the hospital run by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Dr Denis Mukwege in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Here, women and girls, survivors of the most horrific sexual violence, receive medical treatment and psychological support. Being there, you really do see how important it was for us to push through a Security Council resolution which places the focus much more on support for those affected, including in the work of the United Nations.

We did so in the face of opposition from countries who actually used to be our partners on this issue.

So we are pushing back the pushback we are seeing from very different quarters: from arch-conservative groups, for instance in the United States or Brazil; but also from other regions of the world that want to restrict women’s rights more and more, under the guise of tradition or religion.

Our arguments here must remain quite clear: helping women gain greater influence and recognition is not only an act of justice. It is an act of political and economic reason. It has been empirically proven that wherever women play a greater role, the tendency to aggressiveness and violence declines. Wherever women work in well-paid jobs or run their own businesses, there is a boost to the economy.

That is why last year we founded UNIDAS, a network of women from Germany and Latin America. The aim is to promote an exchange of experience and to provide targeted support for women human rights activists, but also to join together in issuing a signal against the pushback. Including and especially in Latin America.

Similarly, as a member of the Human Rights Council, we will be making gender equity one of our focuses. I emphasised that point again at the Council just last week.

Ladies and gentlemen,

If we want our work here to have credibility on the international stage, then we, too, will need to change.

Yes, we have, I think, been going in the right direction for some years now. That said though, even in the ministry’s 151st year, not even a fifth of our missions abroad are headed by a woman.

Supporting women is not just a matter of promoting women.

But I do think we need to ask ourselves what signal we are sending if we are still lagging behind all the other ministries when it comes to gender equity. That is the sad reality. And are we really representing Germany in its entirety abroad if over 50 percent of the population aren’t represented in a corresponding number of our management positions?

Of course things are perhaps made harder in the foreign service by rotation, with the repeated relocations in all parts of the world. However, that should not prevent us from being a modern, forward-looking employer offering equal opportunities for women and men.

This should start during training. So we want to anchor the principle of gender equity more firmly in our training courses. In part with the help of external experts.

Because in the end gender equity benefits all employees.

In the year 2020, men, too, want to be able to look after their children or their infirm parents without it killing their career.

And that’s why we men should also help to ensure that gender equity isn’t a topic only for International Women’s Day.

By the same token, everyone needs to work to make our commitment to gender equity visible outside the ministry. When I am travelling, it is important to me to speak with men and women. In some countries this is not that easy. So it is all the more important to keep taking a broad view of societies and to keep on encouraging all sections of a society to look at their own country. Even if it sometimes seems uncomfortable and a great deal of effort. We also need to put far more of a focus on this in our reports and overviews.

But also when it comes to events and conferences here in Germany. Here, when the organisation is in our hands, we must ensure that women are equal members of discussion panels – not only on International Women’s Day. And not only as moderators! Not that I wish to denigrate the position of a moderator.

There are many amazing women, and it is up to us men, too, to tackle the exclusion of women at all levels.

So that no-one can say there aren’t any women who could be invited to join a panel on foreign or security policy, the Federal Foreign Office began support a few weeks ago for the public WoX Network, a database run by the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy.

It lists the names and fields of numerous women who are experts in foreign and security policy. And to those of you who aren’t on the list yet, I can only say this: get yourselves registered.

This is a useful initiative, not only for planning events. It also creates an awareness of the problem: there is no lack of women with expertise, they just don’t get the attention.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I know there is a great need for discussion about the foreign-policy priorities and the internal changes we have launched together in the last two years.

And we will talk about that here today as well. I am pleased that so many colleagues have been willing to talk at the Working Brunch at 20 thematic round tables about the issues currently affecting you and us.

By the way, our decision to open up the entire day to the public was a very deliberate one. Because we know that we have more than a few areas that need to be worked on. And that is why I think it’s a good idea to commission external experts to carry out a professional gender-sensitive evaluation here at the FFO. We should not be afraid of criticism; rather, it should spur us on to take a critical look at ourselves and see where we really can make improvements.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The women’s rights issue must not be hijacked for self-promotion.

Companies that try to give themselves an environmentally-friendly image are often accused of “greenwashing”.

And in the case of women’s rights you might almost think of “genderwashing” when you see who all are suddenly trying, mainly for tactical reasons, to get a woman “in their team”.

For that reason, one thing must be quite clear:

Women are not an add-on.

Women are not to be used as a fig-leaf.

Participation, representation, equal rights, equal opportunities – these are nothing less than democratic givens.

So any men who truly want to do something for women’s rights can perhaps concentrate on what they know best: men. A just society requires men to have a progressive view of themselves. That does not mean having to give anything up. It is enough to open one’s mind to what it is that our society needs.

Thank you very much.


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