What Can We Say about the Emerging Feminist Foreign Policies in Latin America?

Chile’s Undersecretary of Foreign Affairs, Gloria de la Fuente (left), and Undersecretary for International Economic Relations, Claudia Sanhueza (right), are pictured during the Foreign Ministry's launch of its feminist foreign policy in June, 2023. (Source: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Chile.)

Since Sweden published its first feminist foreign policy (FFP) in 2014, about a dozen countries have followed suit. Most are part of the Global North (e.g., Canada, France, Spain, Luxembourg, Germany), but the recent emergence of FFPs in Latin America has tilted the trend toward the Global South. FFPs are generally considered to be a transformational approach to foreign policy that prioritizes the promotion of gender equality and women’s rights in external action—and allocates the resources to do so. Yet there is no universal agreement on what makes a foreign policy “feminist.” While this can create confusion regarding the purpose of the label and its priorities, it also opens up space to examine different approaches to what FFP might mean in different contexts.

The emergence of FFPs in Mexico (2020), Chile (2023), and Colombia (announced but not yet published) are the first examples of Latin American countries interpreting feminist policymaking and shaping global governance regimes in this sphere. In these three cases, their FFPs serve as a platform for political and institutional innovation to promote gender-focused policies in multiple areas, including diplomacy, the design of budgets, multilateral negotiations, international trade, regional cooperation, and mediation processes. The published FFPs put forth by Mexico and Chile, along with the priorities expressed by Colombia, shed light on how Latin America is contextualizing and reenvisioning the relevance of international feminist agendas. Mexico emphasizes gender parity and preventing violence against women within its foreign ministry as an intersectional effort, while Chile highlights unique priority areas such as climate change, economic cooperation, and comprehensive care. In Colombia, the peace process is challenging the existing gender relations by resisting heteronormative stereotypes around defined gender roles, a priority that will likely be present in its future FFP.

There is growing recognition that FFPs should also seek to disrupt unequal, systemic power structures. However, there are risks that, as an initially Western-led initiative, they could end up reproducing dominant global hierarchies, affecting the idea of creating a Global-South inclusive multilateral system. Understanding how these countries are approaching FFPs may provide insight into the role of Latin America, and the Global South more broadly, in guiding the transformation toward a more just multilateral system. Likewise, it may offer new strategies to ensure inclusive and intersectional global feminist policymaking efforts. Amid these three emerging feminist foreign policies, potential pitfalls and opportunities exist for advancing multilateral feminist policies in the Global South.

Possible pitfalls in the implementation of FFPs in the Global South: The Case of the WPS Agenda

International experience has shown that it is not enough to publish a policy for it to be accepted in highly male-dominated institutions. A clear example of this is the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda, which has become a key precursor of FFPs in both the Global South and North. The WPS agenda, adopted in 2000 through UN Security Council Resolution 1325, recognized the impact of conflict on women and their participation in peacebuilding. Nevertheless, in the development and consolidation of the agenda at the UN, previous efforts from the Global South have been minimized or ignored, and the agenda has been critiqued as reinforcing imperialist narratives. As summarized by Soumita Basu (2016), the agenda appears to be a tool used by powerful Global North countries to implement policies primarily in the Global South, yet this means “that actors in and from the Global South tend to appear as passive recipients of policies that are developed elsewhere.”

For instance, the participation of women in peacebuilding in Latin America does not necessarily fit into the binaries established by the WPS agenda. To think that this agenda is the only way in which women can commit to working for the peace and security of their countries is often seen as an uncomfortable imposition. Many local initiatives have been dedicated to this effort for years, such as the “Ruta Pacifica” Movement in Colombia, which has been working to promote women’s participation in peace negotiation initiatives since 1996, predating the WPS Agenda. However, they receive less recognition because they are not circumscribed to an influential global agenda such as WPS. This kind of silencing is one of the reasons why the WPS agenda has generated some resistance among local communities. While national action plans are an attempt to implement and contextualize WPS, many of them are outward-facing and focus on external action rather than the domestication of the agenda. As a result of attempts to universalize WPS outcomes rather than recognize the priorities of countries in the Global South, we have seen some disaffection and resistance in the implementation efforts of this agenda in Latin America.

In response, the rising popularity of FFPs in Latin America can be a new way for countries to contextualize international feminist agendas and translate local feminist advocacy to the international arena. In a context of increased backlash against gender equality efforts worldwide, FFPs also represent a potential new way of intentionally engaging with multilateralism. For example, at an event launching the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW)’s FFP Index, a panelist from Colombia highlighted that the WPS agenda is often seen as out of sync with the times. In this scenario, FFP can be a way to infuse a contemporary focus and “revamp” the principles found in the WPS agenda to make it more relevant to contexts outside of traditional conflicts. In the case of Colombia, this includes mainstreaming and integrating concerns of the LGBTQ+ community, an area of the WPS agenda that is under-prioritized.

Opportunities for FFP implementation within Latin America

The adoption of FFPs in Latin America is an opportunity to see how the region reimagines feminist advocacy that is attuned to their local contexts but resonates globally. Their transformative potential and innovative approaches can be highlighted through four main themes and areas of opportunity.

First, most Global North countries with an FFP are also NATO members, facing regionally specific tensions, conflict, or wars. Thus, using these policies as a reference for the design of the FFPs of the Global South could distort their own objectives and impede the success of FFP implementation in institutional, budgetary, and strategic contexts different from those of the NATO context. For Mexico, Chile, and Colombia, using or not using these countries’ FFPs as a reference has risks and opportunities. One risk is that it will be a passive co-optation and loss of transformative potential. For instance, there has been some critique that adopting FFPs is just a nation-branding exercise to signal that a state is a “good” multilateral actor intent on upholding liberal values. While this creates a danger that feminist agendas will be instrumentalized and seen as a means to that end, interrogating how states interpret feminism and feminist engagement also offers a way to refresh participation in the multilateral system, as Latin American countries create FFPs on their terms and with their priorities. For instance, Colombia’s government has announced that pacifism will be one of the guiding principles of their FFP, alongside participation and intersectionality.

The second area emphasizes combatting colonial power dynamics through prioritizing the link between local and global advocacy. Critiques of Mexico’s FFP have raised questions about the connection between its domestic and foreign policy. While Mexico’s FFP focuses primarily on its foreign ministry, high femicide statistics and problematic remarks from the president have been cause for concern. As Daniela Philipson Garcia and Ana Velasco noted, better linking local actors and supporting women’s networks is a key opportunity for Mexico to localize its FFP and mitigate potential risks of losing ground due to changes in the administration or the waning of global support. As they observe, an FFP from a developing country such as Mexico “has the potential to radically transform policymaking globally,” in particular by breaking the local/global binary and thus disrupting power asymmetries between developing and developed countries.

Third, Latin American (and other) countries must acknowledge that this type of policy has been made possible by the emergence of progressive governments. When these governments leave power, backsliding will likely occur, affecting not only women’s rights but also potentially national reputation. This was the case with Sweden, which dropped the label of “feminist” and rescinded its FFP in 2022 after a new government was elected. While Sweden has remained active in FFP spaces in the UN and stated that it will continue to pursue gender equality efforts in development and foreign policy, this has opened up debate on the significance and power of the label, as well as how to ensure institutionalization and sustainability of FFPs. This means that decision-makers must be creative enough to design policies capable of withstanding setbacks and rising backlash against gender equality (as Margot Wallström has noted). Promoting measures that aim at institutional change beyond merely increasing gender parity may be an effective avenue to protect the continuity of the FFPs in the long term. In this vein, it will be interesting to watch the case of Chile, where the Ministry of Foreign Affairs will create a Gender Affairs Division, linked to its recently published FFP, to coordinate the political and administrative implementation of this policy. Chile’s FFP also emphasizes that the policy is “in permanent construction, adopting the characteristics of a ‘living document.'” This iterative approach allows the policy to remain adaptable and resilient to changing global norms.

Finally, FFPs can help transform the leadership role of Latin American countries on the multilateral stage, improving their credibility as foreign policy actors and potentially enabling greater regional integration through the unique opportunity to cooperate and propose agendas on shared priorities and challenges. For decades, Latin America has seen how regional integration initiatives based on rigid association structures tend to fail. However, if flexible schemes are designed based on specific regional challenges (e.g., irregular migration, porous borders for drug trafficking, protection of natural resources, strategic autonomy in multipolarity scenarios), ministries of foreign affairs will be better able to propose sustainable, equitable, and democratic cooperation schemes without paying the costs of failure associated with institutional rigidity. The transformative potential of this new phase of Latin American integration would likely entail concentrating efforts on common threats and interests and from there creating efficient routes of action capable of reaching agreements between governments of different political sensitivities, which should help allow FFPs and other policies to outlast changes in government. Latin American FFPs, in this context, must also reflect what it means to be part of a community led by democratic values ​​and the inalienable protection of human rights.

As FFPs continue to emerge and evolve, the examples from Latin America showcase regional leadership and innovative approaches to what they might encompass within different contexts. With such nascent policies, accountability and implementation remain to be measured, but there is undoubtedly much to learn from these efforts as multilateral policymaking continues to build on a long tradition of feminist advocacy in Latin America.

Daniela Sepúlveda Soto is Director of Nueva Política Exterior (Chile). Evyn Papworth is Policy Analyst for the Women, Peace, and Security program at the International Peace Institute.