Here's Why Sexual and Reproductive Rights Must Be the Linchpin of Feminist Foreign Policy

Sophia Sadinsky, Guttmacher Institute, Zara Ahmed, Guttmacher Institute and Lauren Cross, Guttmacher Institute
Abstract / Summary

Key Points

  • The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed and exacerbated a global gender equality crisis, provoking alarming increases in gender-based violence, a sharp decrease in women participating in the workforce, and new challenges in access to contraception, abortion and other essential health care.
  • Sexual and reproductive health and rights are foundational and necessary for gender equality, as well as to a full recovery from the economic consequences of the pandemic.
  • Feminist foreign policy provides a critical vehicle for the United States and the global community to promote gender equality and to ensure sexual and reproductive health and rights are prioritized in these efforts.

    As global leaders are taking decisive steps to begin rebuilding many of the systems devastated in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, they have an opportunity and a responsibility to optimize this moment of reconstruction and address structural, gender-based disparities.

    The combination of long-standing inequities and pandemic-exacerbated conditions has clarified that sexual and reproductive health and rights are foundational and necessary for gender equality, as well as to a full recovery from the damage caused by COVID-19.

    What Is Feminist Foreign Policy?

    Traditionally, foreign policy has treated issues like gender equality as separate from and peripheral to core aims, such as promoting national security and trade. But a new and growing body of evidence illustrates how improving gender equality is in fact central to those aims, resulting in healthier and more prosperous societies. For example, equalizing women’s participation in the workforce with men could boost the global gross domestic product by $28 trillion annually and would benefit countries at all income levels. There is also evidence that gender equality is associated with peace and stability; the larger the differences between men and women’s experiences and opportunities in a given country, the more likely that country is to be involved in violent conflict.

    The first official recognition of gender equality as a global priority was in 1995 at the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, but it is only in the past decade that countries have begun to develop and adopt feminist foreign policies. This approach has evolved from tackling gender equality as just one of the many disparate aims of foreign policy, and instead applies a gender lens to every foreign policy decision, from aid allocations to political representation. It also acknowledges how gender inequality overlaps with other forms of oppression, such as racism and classism, and takes an intersectional approach to feminism.

    What Does This Mean for the United States?

    Sweden was the first to launch its version of a feminist foreign policy in 2014, followed by Canada, France, Mexico and, most recently, Spain. Drawing on these frameworks, a broad coalition of advocacy groups has produced a vision for a formal and unified U.S. feminist foreign policy, which has seen increased momentum under the Biden-Harris administration. The Guttmacher Institute is among dozens of organizations that developed and endorsed this vision, which is based on three principles: women’s rights are human rights; U.S. foreign policy should be representative, inclusive, responsive and accountable to all stakeholders; and a feminist foreign policy should take an intersectional approach to feminism.

    The vision proposed by this coalition calls for action in several areas: policy articulation, leadership and coordination structures, funding, and accountability mechanisms across a range of technical areas, including health, trade, climate and security. While the Biden-Harris administration has made significant progress on the first two measures, such as by repealing the "global gag rule" and creating a White House Gender Policy Council, much more remains to be done over the next four years, including through partnership with Congress. To this end, Reps. Jackie Speier (D-CA), Brenda Lawrence (D-MI), Lois Frankel (D-FL) and Barbara Lee (D-CA) introduced a resolution in the U.S. House of Representatives on March 8, 2021 in support of "taking a feminist approach to all aspects of foreign policy, including foreign assistance and humanitarian response, trade, diplomacy, defense, immigration, funding, and accountability mechanisms."

    Where Do Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights Fit?

    Achieving full sexual and reproductive health and rights for all people is an essential precondition to achieving gender equality and is considered a central tenet of any feminist foreign policy. In this spirit, the proposed U.S. feminist foreign policy agenda calls for the adoption of the Guttmacher-Lancet Commission’s comprehensive definition of sexual and reproductive health and rights, which is based on the fundamental rights of all individuals to:

    • have their bodily integrity, privacy and personal autonomy respected

    • freely define their own sexuality
    • decide whether and when to be sexually active
    • choose their sexual partners
    • have safe and pleasurable sexual experiences
    • decide whether, when and whom to marry
    • decide whether, when and by what means to have a child or children and how many children to have
    • have access over their lifetimes to the information, resources, services and support necessary to achieve all the above, free from discrimination, coercion, exploitation and violence

    Taken together, these rights recognize that without the ability to exercise decision-making power over their own bodies, it is impossible for individuals to participate fully, freely and equitably in society, both in the United States and globally. The inclusion of sexual and reproductive health and rights as core to feminist foreign policy also has the potential to generate additional resources, greater technical capacity and a broader base of allies committed to fulfilling goals on this issue.

    Why Now?

    Globally, 2021 is an important year for driving progress on gender equality, particularly as policymakers in many countries take action to rebuild their economies and health systems after the COVID-19 pandemic. Governments, multilateral agencies, civil society organizations and the private sector are taking up the gender equality agenda through the Generation Equality Forum, a global initiative launched by UN Women and co-hosted by Mexico and France. It involves the launch of formal "action coalitions" setting out concrete targets dedicated to advancing gender equality for the period 2021–2026. One of these coalitions is focused on promoting bodily autonomy and sexual and reproductive health and rights, designating targets for increasing the provision of comprehensive sexuality education, contraceptive services, safe abortion care and more. This creates an opportunity to rally the global community and individual countries around sexual and reproductive health and rights as vital to achieving gender equality.

    In the United States, the Biden-Harris administration has committed to equity as a core principle of its agenda and begun to put in place the architecture to drive progress on gender equality, in recognition of the havoc wrought by the pandemic and the previous administration. This has included nominating a Cabinet that is largely representative of the gender and racial diversity of the country, establishing a White House Gender Policy Council and sending a high-level and diverse delegation to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, led by the Vice President. In addition, early action to repeal the expanded and dangerous global gag rule, reinstate reporting on women and reproductive rights in the State Department’s annual human rights report, and restore funding to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) all reflect how critical it is to establish momentum on gender equality and recovery from the pandemic.

    What Actions Should Be Taken?

    • Globally, governments, multilateral agencies and civil society organizations should:
      • Ensure inclusion of comprehensive sexual and reproductive health care and rights in global gender equality discussions and commitments, including COVID-19 recovery plans.
      • Create linkages between and deepen stakeholder engagement across the various Generation Equality Forum Action Coalitions to enhance their impact.
      • Develop and instate accountability mechanisms to monitor progress toward commitments.
      • Create opportunities to learn from different countries’ implementation of feminist foreign policies with civil society participation and leadership.
    • Among other actions, the White House and Congress should:
      • Develop and implement a U.S. strategy for a feminist foreign policy, with details on how gender will be integrated throughout foreign policy, adopted by all relevant agencies and supported in multilateral spaces.
      • Fully fund comprehensive sexual and reproductive health and rights programs so the United States pays its fair share, including at least $1.74 billion for global family planning and reproductive health programs and $116 million for UNFPA.
      • Push for the passage and enactment of policy changes to ensure the United States supports the full range of essential sexual and reproductive health services, including by permanently ending the global gag rule and the Helms Amendment.
      • Appoint full-time, foreign policy–focused members to the White House Gender Policy Council and additional gender-focused personnel to the National Security Council.
      • Support and pass the feminist foreign policy resolution, already introduced in the House of Representatives.

    At this moment of profound social, economic and political change, policymakers have a unique window of time to transform and advance gender equity. By adopting a feminist foreign policy, leaders in the United States and around the world can help communities in every country recover not only from the COVID-19 pandemic, but from the underinvestment in women and girls that has persisted for far too long.

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