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Canada’s feminist foreign policy: International assistance policies sometimes fail women & girl

According to a new report produced by Oxfam Canada, conflicts and humanitarian crises are especially hard on women and girls.


Canada's internationally celebrated feminist foreign policy is a work in progress and cannot yet be declared a success. Indeed, the Canadian government must still address a number of challenging issues when it comes to formulating and delivering humanitarian assistance programs in conflict situations

Under the guidance of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Canada has formulated a set of international policies that aim to reorder Canadian foreign policy, including peacekeeping and international assistance.

According to the Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy, Ottawa is placing “gender equality at the centre of poverty eradication and peacebuilding efforts by challenging the discrimination faced by women and girls around the world and by recognizing that inequalities exist along intersectional lines.”

For example, Canada is committed to allocating 15% of bilateral international development assistance to programs to “advancing gender equality and improving women and girls’ quality of life.” These initiatives include efforts to combat sexual and gender-based violence and support for women’s rights groups.

Women in conflict

War, civil conflicts, and other conflict situations generate humanitarian disasters and cause untold human suffering for both sexes. However, female refugees and Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) tend to suffer more than male refugees and IDPs.

According to a new report produced by Oxfam Canada, conflicts and humanitarian crises are especially hard on women and girls. “They face increased risk of violence, exhausting workloads to ensure their families survive and lack full control over decisions that affect the trajectories of their lives,” states the report, which is entitled Protected and Powerful: Putting Resources and Decision Making Power in the Hands of Women in Conflict. The report is written by Brittany Lambert, Oxfam Canada’s Women’s Rights Policy and Advocacy specialist.

According to the Oxfam report, when civilians are displaced by conflict, women and girls are more vulnerable than men and boys due to “pre-existing social norms” that tend to put them at greater risk of insecurity and violence. And women and girls are “less likely than men and boys to have adequate access to food, healthcare, shelter, nationality and documentation.”

Women and girls tend to be caregivers when their communities are displaced by conflict. And this tends to put them at increased risk, because “they might have to leave camps and wander into insecure territory in search of food, water and firewood or be exploited by those who have power over these supplies.”

In addition, conflict disrupts local economies, causing the loss of livelihoods. And Oxfam says that this “puts women and girls at heightened risk of exploitation, trafficking and child marriage.” For example, among Syrian refugees living in Lebanon in 2015-2016, the child marriage rate hit a staggering 40%.

In the Oxfam report, Lambert explains that there is a clear link between gender equality and peace. She notes that societies affected by conflict “tend to have weak public services, repressive and corrupt governance and justice systems, and highly marginalized groups.” And the Oxfam official also points out that conflict and violence retard societal development.

“Countries characterized by these dynamics are classified as fragile,” the Oxfam report states. And in these dysfunctional countries, poverty, conflict, and fragility tend to be circular.

Lambert stresses the importance of understanding the political, social, and economic factors that fuel conflict. Such challenges are also linked to gender inequality. The author cities the example of “high bride prices” that “encourage cattle raiding and conflict between groups” in conflict plagued South Sudan, which gained independence in 2011 only to descend into civil conflict in Dec. 2013.

Oxfam reports that sexist family laws—marriage, divorce, custody, and inheritance—tend to contribute to conflict in developing countries. These discriminatory laws tend to reinforce “heavily-male dominant” societal values that supposedly “glorify bloodshed and war” and “an economic system based on raiding and accumulating personal profit at any cost.”

In addition, countries with sexist family laws tend to “experience higher levels of violence against women,” Lambert writes. And the normalization of violence “on a small scale” tends to feed violence on a larger scale. “Indeed, socially constructed notions of masculinity play a key role in driving conflict everywhere in the world.”

Failed humanitarian policies

According to the Oxfam report, humanitarian policies often fail women and girls, because “their needs aren’t prioritized and the complex drivers of conflict, which include gender inequality, go unaddressed.”

For example, the humanitarian nongovernmental organizations (NGO) alleges that many humanitarian interventions designed to help the 700,000 Rohingya refugees displaced by a campaign of ethnic cleansing unleashed by the Myanmar military were put in place without the involvement of Rohingya women. As a result, the humanitarian response is not adequately meeting the needs of refugee women.

To tackle the problem, the NGO urges the Trudeau government to adequately funded “transformative humanitarian action” with the aim of re-balancing “gender power relations.”

The self-proclaimed feminist NGO wants Canada to specifically place greater emphasis on gender-based violence and sexual health of women. And Oxfam is specifically pushing the federal government to invest more in reproductive health—which is another way of saying, at least in part, that Oxfam wants Canada to make abortion services available to women living in conflict and crisis situations.

Oxfam warns that progress on achieving gender equality will be limited if Canada does not implement feminist values in other areas of its foreign policy. “Canada needs policy coherence across all foreign policy actions—in aid, diplomacy, trade and defence,” Lambert writes. In other words, government policies should never override the human rights of women.

For instance, Lambert recommends that Canada should reconsider its participation in the arms trade, increase diplomatic support for women’s rights defenders, “and mobilize resources and political will to implement its commitments to women, peace and security.”

However, not all of the shortcomings of international assistance policies can be blamed on government assistance policies. In fact, Oxfam acknowledges that the failure to involve Rohingya women in the planning the humanitarian response to the crisis was “due to pre-existing conservative gender norms in the Rohingya community, and the speed at which the crisis unfolded.”

So what is the solution to the problem? “A feminist approach to humanitarian action should seek change both within communities affected by conflict and within the humanitarian system,” the report states. And the NGO wants Canada to push for change “by bolstering gender-transformative programming” by “empowering local women’s rights actors.”

However, the Oxfam report criticizes the Trudeau government’s Feminist International Assistance Policy for the lack of stable funding for gender-transformative initiatives. “Short-term funding and a lack of funding opportunities for gender equality in humanitarian assistance are some of the biggest challenges,” the report states.

The federal government is increasingly using multi-year funding for NGO humanitarian projects, which tends to assist humanitarian organizations in testing feminist programs. However, Canada tends to fund proposals from humanitarian groups that dovetail with the main sectors of humanitarian intervention, including health, protection, water and shelter.

However, Lambert points out that “stand-alone gender programming is not a category, which means that most gender interventions in humanitarian programming are mainstreamed.” As a result, the Canadian approach “makes securing funding for gender-transformative programming very difficult.” In other words, Oxfam and other humanitarian NGOs must make their feminist projects conform to Canada's traditional international assistance priorities.

Recommendations for Canada

“With a self-declared feminist government and an ambition to be a world leader on gender equality and feminist foreign aid and policy,” writes Lambert, “Canada can make a strong contribution to world peace by tackling gender inequality before, during and after conflicts.” But to realize the goal of a more equitable world, she asserts that Canada “must continue to transform the way it delivers humanitarian assistance—and adopt a coherent feminist foreign policy.”

The government of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has declared itself to be feminist.

Oxfam offers a series of very ambitious recommendations for the Trudeau government, many of which will likely be brushed aside with a sympathetic smile. For example, the NGO wants Ottawa to come up with a ten-year plan to implement the United Nations official development assistance target of 0.7% of gross national income. Although Canada tends to pay lip service to the 0.7% target, successive governments—Liberal and Conservative—have failed to reach it.

A more intriguing and realistic proposal concerns the creation of a special fund for programming dedicated to addressing gender imbalances. The fund, which would account for at least 15% of Canada’s total humanitarian assistance budget, would support local women’s rights actors and pay for a monitoring mechanism that would evaluate humanitarian responses from a feminist perspective.

In addition, the NGO wants Canada to close “loopholes in legislation to accede to the Arms Trade Treaty,” making sure that the Canadian Commercial Corporation does not broker weapons sales that lead to human rights abuses. And Oxfam recommends that weapons export licenses be denied to nation-states with poor records on gender-based violence in conflict situations.

On Sept. 22, 2018, Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland announced the establishment of the post of ambassador for women, peace, and security.

Oxfam also wants the post of ambassador for women, peace, and security—which was announced in Sept. by Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland as she hosted the first ever gathering of women foreign ministers—to be adequately funded. Similarly, the NGO is calling for the establishment of a well-funded research institute on women, peace, and security.


Although the Oxfam report is well thought out, there are barriers to the implementation of some of its recommendations.

For example, it seems highly unlikely that the federal government will curtail the arms trade. Indeed, the Trudeau government has been very reluctant to cut off arms sales to Saudi Arabia, which persecutes and tortures bloggers and dissidents and brutally murdered Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Another barrier to the full implementation to the Oxfam strategy is its insistence that “reproductive health and rights” be given priority in Canadian humanitarian policy.

Oxfam reports that “sex, pregnancies and the spread of sexually transmitted infections still occur during crises.” And this means, states the report, that there is “need for contraceptives and other reproductive services is also heightened as risks increase during times of instability.”

In humanitarian situations, abortions are reportedly “rarely provided.” According to Oxfam, “this is a big gap considering that rape is widely used as a weapon of war, and that 25% to 50% of maternal deaths in refugee settings are caused by unsafe abortions and related complication.”

Oxfam is calling upon the Canadian government to fund “a comprehensive package of sexual and reproductive health services in humanitarian settings.”

However, this controversial recommendation would almost certainly be opposed by faith communities and pro-life organizations in Canada. And with a federal election in Canada less than a year away, it seems highly unlikely that the Trudeau government will act on Oxfam’s abortion recommendation.

UN agenda

Earlier this year to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict, UN Women posted a statement on the United Nations website celebrating the tenth anniversary of “the adoption of the United Nations Security Council’s landmark resolution 1820 (2008), which classified the use of conflict-related sexual violence as an impediment to the restoration of international peace and security.”

The United Nations recommends all member-states formulate National Action Plans on Women Peace and Security.

Although UN Women heralded the advancements in the fight against conflict-related sexual violence, including “successful prosecutions by national and international tribunals against perpetrators who appeared untouchable” and the creation of “codes of conduct for security forces to ensure sensitization and training on conflict-related sexual violence,” the UN agency acknowledged that “sexual violence continues to be used as a tactical, effective and cost-free strategy to terrorize communities and facilitate territorial, political and economic gains in the war field.”

UN Women asserts that the community of nations must have a “be clear-cut, comprehensive, prompt and sustainable” response to the scourge of sexual violence. “Preventing these crimes should be our number one priority.”

The UN agency has undertaken strategies to combat sexual violence in conflict, such as supporting “supporting National Action Plans on Women Peace and Security as tools to promote women’s participation, leadership and protection from gender-based violence and conflict-related sexual violence, and acting as the Secretariat of the Women, Peace and Security Focal Points Network, an informal, cross-regional forum for more than 80 Member States and regional organizations to share best practices.”

Not only does UN Women stress the importance of preventing sexual violence, the agency also maintains that “strong accountability for sexual violence in conflict is urgently needed.” And UN Women aims to “do more to convert a culture of impunity into a culture of deterrence, by ensuring that efforts to document and investigate international crimes prioritize sexual violence.”

To that end, UN works with legal partners "to rapidly deploy experts to investigate sexual violence in conflict.” For example, investigations were launched in South Sudan, Yemen, and Syria in 2017.

Like Oxfam and the Canadian government, UN Women says that it’s “essential to ensure that women play a key role in peace and security processes.” And the agency notes that female participation in peacekeeping mission is “a critical factor contributing to mission success, both in the United Nations normative frameworks, as well as by commanders on the ground themselves.”

However, UN Women laments the “extremely low number” of female military personnel deployed in current peacekeeping missions. To address this challenge, the UN is trying to boost the number of female officer involved in peacekeeping operations through the Female Military Officers Course (FMOC). Last year, reports UN Women, 123 female officers were trained in peacekeeping.

National Action Plans

Much of the Oxfam strategy to feminize Canadian policies echoes the women, peace and security agenda set out in a number of United Nations Security Council resolutions that demand that nation-states protect the human rights of women and girls be respected in conflict situations, prevent sexual and gender-based violence, and include gender equality in peace and security situations.

The UN urges all member-states to draft and implement national action plans on women, peace, and security.

Canada unveiled its first National Action Plan in 2010 under the government of Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper. The plan covered 2011 to 2016.

In April of 2015, Canada, then governed by the Harper Conservatives, announced an additional $5.5 million to fight sexual and gender-based violence, which included initiatives in Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo. According to statement issued at the time by the Department of Foreign Affairs, “the campaign to end sexual violence in conflict is a priority for the Government of Canada. Violence against women and girls is one of the most prevalent human rights abuses in the world.”

The Trudeau government launched Canada’s second National Action Plan last year, and it covers the period 2017 to 2022. According to a statement issued by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, this second plan represents “a key component of Canada’s feminist foreign policy, which includes the Feminist International Assistance Policy and Canada’s Defence Policy.”

According to Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy is designed “to contribute to global efforts to eradicate poverty around the world.” And to achieve that objective, Canada will supposedly work to empower women and girls. The policy document states that Canada “recognizes that supporting gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls is the best way to build a more peaceful, more inclusive and more prosperous world.”

The Canadian government is implementing its Feminist International Assistance Policy.

To that end, the government pledges to “support greater participation of women in peacebuilding and post-conflict reconstruction efforts, help to increase women’s representation in the security sector and enforce a zero-tolerance policy for sexual violence and abuse by peacekeepers.”

One of the concrete initiatives undertaken by the Liberal government was the Nov. 2016 allocation of $1.5 million to the Women’s Peace and Humanitarian Fund, which Trudeau described as “a financing mechanism aimed at enhancing women’s participation in peace and security.”

Hard times in peacetime

Even in times of peace, notes the Feminist International Assistance Policy document, extreme poverty and low levels of education are persistent problems in sub-Saharan Africa, as well as parts of Asia and Latin America.

Women and girls encounter “gender-specific challenges” that limit their social and economic opportunities. For example, the government echoes humanitarian NGOs when it states that “in many societies, women and girls often eat last—and least.” And they tend to have “more limited access to essential services such as education and health care, and fewer opportunities to work or earn a good wage.”

Women and girls, even in peacetime, are at great risk of sexual and gender-based violence. For example, the Canadian government notes that more than one in ten girls (120 million) around the world have experienced rape or sexual assault.

Moreover, the scourge of female genital mutilation poses a “persistent threat” to girls. The Canadian policy document states that approximately 200 million girls and women have been subjected to genital mutilation in 30 countries.

Peacekeeping and the Elsie Initiative

When it comes to peacekeeping Canada is acting on its feminist rhetoric. For example, Prime Minister Trudeau pointed out in a 2017 speech that “in Ukraine, Canada has trained police teams to respond better to gender-based violence and ensure that Ukrainian policewomen in particular have access to Canadian training on modern policing techniques.”

Almost a full year before Oxfam issued its report, the Trudeau government was making strong statements about protecting women and girls living in conflict situations.

“Women and girls are disproportionately affected by violent conflict,” noted a statement issued by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the UN Peacekeeping Defence Ministerial conference at Vancouver on Nov. 15, 2017. And he added that women and girls are “often subjected to rape, sexual slavery, forced prostitution and other forms of sexual violence.”

In addition, Trudeau noted that women “play a critical role in defending rights.” However, he went too far when he declared that women also play a critical role in negotiating peace. The reality is that in conflict situations, women tend to be left out of the peace process. And that is probably one reason why some conflicts, such as the protracted conflict in South Sudan, drag on.

To Trudeau’s credit, he acknowledged in his Vancouver statement that women “bring different perspectives and priorities into conflict prevention, resolution and peacebuilding process,” advocating for “a more equitable peace.”

Contradicting the assertion that he made at the top of his statement regarding the “critical role” women play in negotiating peace, Trudeau conceded that “women are rarely empowered to prevent, manage, and end conflict.”

During the peacekeeping conference, Trudeau took to social media to trumpet Canada’s approach to peacekeeping. “In peacekeeping, Canada is prepared to help lead the charge to protect the world’s children, empower women and girls, and build a more peaceful and prosperous world,” the Prime Minister said in Nov. 15, 2017 post on Twitter.

However, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan admitted in June of 2018 that Canada’s peacekeeping contingent in Mali would fall just short of the United Nations’ goal of women making up 15% of every military peacekeeping force. The defence minister revealed in a CBC News interview that 14% of the Canadian contingent would be female.

At the Vancouver peacekeeping conference, Trudeau announced the establishment of the Elsie Initiative for Women in Peace Operations. The multilateral initiative, named in honour of aeronautical engineering Elizabeth "Elsie” Muriel Gregory MacGill, is intended to boost the participation of women in peacekeeping operations. And the United Nations lauded Trudeau’s announcement that Canada would contribute 15 million dollars to jump-start the program.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres took to Twitter to praise Canada's Elsie Initiative on peacekeeping.

The Elsie Initiative flows from the 2015 Global Study on Women, Peace and Security, the High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations, and Security Council resolution 2242.

In Sept. 2018, during UN General Assembly Week in New York City, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres praised the Elsie Initiative. “Female peacekeepers increase the effectiveness of our work in conflict settings. But they are less than 4% of our military and 10% of our police contingent. I welcome Canada’s Elsie Initiative to increase the participation of women in our peace operations,” the Secretary General stated in a Sept. 26th post on Twitter.

In a Sept. 26, 2018 post on Twitter, Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland announced Ghana and Zambia have joined a Canadian peacekeeping initiative.

On Sept. 26th, Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland announced on Twitter that the Elsie Initiative on Women in Peacekeeping took “an important step forward” in the UN General Assembly that same day. “Pleased to have announced that #Ghana and #Zambia will be the first partner countries for this important initiative,” she posted.

On Oct. 18, 2018, the Canadian mission at the United Nations stated on Twitter that “there's a substantial link between women’s meaningful involvement in peace ops (operations) & the achievement of long-term, sustainable peace. We need to increase the presence of women peacekeepers and with the Elsie Initiative that is exactly what Canada is trying to do.”

Crux of Canadian policy

Despite the slick academic sounding rhetoric, the Trudeau government’s feminist policies have shortcomings. For example, Canada has not supported massive country-wide demonstrations in Iran against the oppressive Islamic regime that forces women to wear headscarves and accept a subservient position in the religious and male-dominant social order.

Images of brave women defiantly removing their headscarves in public only to be harassed or physically attacked by regime thugs should be strongly condemned by Canada’s feminist government. In addition, the Iranian regime’s use of sexual violence against dissidents—both male and female—should be vigorously condemned by the Trudeau government in the Canadian Parliament and at the United Nations.

According to UN Women, no single nation-state can end sexual violence in conflict situations. “But by prioritizing prevention, forging strategic partnerships and building on good practices, together we can provide sustainable and effective solutions for women, girls and societies.”

Geoffrey P. Johnston is a Canadian journalist, specializing in international relations, Canadian foreign policy, humanitarian issues, human rights, and religious freedom. Follow him on Twitter @GeoffyPJohnston

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