24 March 2022

Human lives vs. state interests: Why we need a feminist foreign policy to ensure lasting peace and stability

“Sometimes I feel afraid, but my work gives me strength. I want to stay in Ukraine and support civil society in the best possible ways,” says Eugenia Mazurenko, CEO of the Zagoriy Foundation.

She used to live in the suburbs of Kyiv, but since the war broke out she has had to move multiple times with her entire family. Zagoriy Foundation, a family foundation associated with a pharmaceutical company in Ukraine, aims to increase the culture of giving and support civil society in a war-torn country.

“We have spent our foundation’s annual budget on humanitarian aid within the first two weeks of the war. Now we realise that we need to focus more on identifying needs and providing mid-term and long-term support to Ukrainian local organisations. There are many grassroot organisations that offer tremendous help,” explains Eugenia to me, “but they rarely attract the resources of big international donors or humanitarian aid organisations. The latter struggle to understand the local context and often fail to coordinate their efforts in the most effective ways.”

Eugenia does not use the word feminism, nor does she speak about gender equality. Her thinking, however, is very much aligned with that of a feminist approach to foreign policy: empowering local, often marginalised communities ‒ giving them a voice, providing resources, ensuring security, justice and lasting peace, and focusing on long-term solutions.

The concept itself is relatively new, though one can find its roots in women’s activism during World War I, which took into account the divergent effects of war on women and men as well as the need to involve women to ensure peace. At the core of a feminist approach to foreign policy lies the recognition of gender equality and social diversity as prerequisites for sustainable development, equal opportunities, justice and lasting peace.

Sweden was the first country to officially introduce a “feminist foreign policy” in 2014. Canada, Mexico and Germany have since declared the same, while several other countries made commitments to ensure gender equality and apply feminist lenses to foreign policy.

This international shift in policy isn’t based on a whim. According to the UN, participation of women in negotiations “increases the probability of a peace agreement lasting at least two years by 20 percent, and by 35 percent the probability of a peace agreement lasting 15 years”. Furthermore, when women are involved, these agreements go beyond military solutions and aim at “political, social, and economic reforms, greater progress; and sustainable ways to create more equal, stable and peaceful societies”.

Women are often disproportionately affected by violent conflicts and war. “War does not have a woman’s face”, wrote Svetlana Alexievich, the Belarusian Nobel prize-winning author and investigative journalist, documenting stories of women and their inhumane suffering during World War II. They are often at the forefront of armed conflicts, caring for the wounded and meeting the most urgent needs. There are now over 3.3 million refugees who have left Ukraine in the wake of the Russian invasion. Most of them are women and children fleeing violence, destruction and a stolen future.

While many women have left Ukraine, many have chosen to stay, and some, like Berlin-based journalist Anastasia Magazova who is originally from Crimea, even found the courage to come back. The experienced war correspondent who covered the events in the self-proclaimed republics Donetsk and Luhansk for Deutsche Welle, left the safety of Germany and returned to Kyiv – three days after the invasion started.

“Am I tired? Yes, very much so. Am I desperate? Absolutely not! Yesterday and today I saw many terrible things”, she wrote on her Facebook page, sharing her latest report for the German daily newspaper taz from Irpin, a city near Kyiv left in ruins after continuous attacks. Unlike what President Vladimir Putin suggests, Russian troops “destroy not only infrastructure but also target residential areas,” reads Anastasia’s report that is full of stories of ordinary Ukrainians and how the war has changed their lives.

Human life is not usually addressed in Vladimir Putin’s speeches. It is Russia’s sovereignty, security, and political and economic interests he refers to and seeks to defend. In his address at the Munich security conference in 2007, which was a harbinger of Russia’s revamped foreign policy, Putin criticised the expansion of NATO to Eastern Europe and the establishment of a so-called “unipolar world” dominated by “one centre of authority, one centre of force, one centre of decision-making”.

This was a time when the Russian internet was still free. Political and societal debates flourished in numerous blogs such as LiveJournal. A wide range of independent media was available to Russians, including major international outlets that had offices and correspondents in Moscow. The “foreign agent” and “undesirable organisation” laws that would later brand so many Russian civil society organisations were at the time, still unimaginable.

Fifteen years later, in his address to the nation, which aired at 6:00 a.m. Moscow time on 24 February to mark the beginning of his full-fledged war in Ukraine, Putin reiterated his points and appealed to the legitimacy of his security demands.

He rarely speaks of the well-being of Russians or of a need to invest in local infrastructure, media and civil society. He never addresses the interests of the scientific community or how to future-proof Russia’s education system for the benefit of younger generations. There is no discussion of the now deepening isolation of the country, the impact of economic sanctions and their short-term and long-term effects on Russian society.

Instead, he speaks of Russian society as an abstract community, with no individual rights, serving the higher good – the state and its interests.

This is the opposite of the feminist approach to foreign policy, and one that we have seen, time and again, fails its people.

This is why philanthropy needs to take gender equality and social inclusion seriously. We must apply this feminist lens to our sector. It is an investment in the future and in the lasting peace, justice and security of our societies. By empowering local communities and strengthening their voices in domestic and foreign policies, we foster systemic solutions that benefit society and go beyond militarisation and the arms race.

This is why, despite being in the midst of war, surrounded by the humanitarian catastrophe currently unfolding, Eugenia is already thinking about the post-war needs of Ukrainian society for reconstruction and development.

If you want to share your view on this topic, please do get in touch.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and/or the specific Philea networks mentioned, and should not be interpreted as official positions of Philea.


Hanna Stähle