What does a feminist foreign policy mean for building peace?

How alternative peacebuilding approaches in the context of a feminist foreign policy provide an opportunity for transformative conflict management on the African continent.

Globally, inter and Intra-state conflicts are on the increase. The Global Peace Index noted that 2022 was the deadliest year for armed conflict since the 1994 Rwanda Genocide. The African continent bears not only the largest number of active conflicts, it has also witnessed changes in the nature of these conflicts.

Out of the democratic transitions of the 1990s and disappointed hopes for post-colonial state building, peace dividends and social justice, new protracted and sometimes transnationalised conflicts have emerged. Issues of identity and belonging, marginalisation and oppression, resource scarcity and a rise in criminal networks are driving public discontent, political polarisation and radicalisation. Violent extremism often is a feature of the emerging conflict settings. The term refers to “beliefs and actions of people who support or use violence to achieve ideological, religious or political objectives. Violent extremist groups generally do not abide by international humanitarian law, and ruinously target both combatants and non-combatants” (SASR 2023). Attacks on civilians, rape as a weapon of war, mass killings and other war crimes have become normalised.

Conflicts of this nature do not lend themselves to mediated resolution, either because no mutually hurting stalemate has been achieved, or because non-state actors are not interested in participating in the current governance structures, or because the foundational elements for co-existence differ so radically that compromise is far harder to find. The past decade has therefore seen far fewer peace agreements signed. The quest for creating just, inclusive, equitable, democratic and peaceful societies seems to be more and more elusive in many conflict settings.

Current conflict management approaches appear inadequate in this context. The adoption of feminist foreign policies (FFP) in a growing number of states could offer opportunities for more comprehensive and sustainable peacebuilding approaches, which address the challenges of protracted and radicalised conflicts..

Feminist ideas transformed traditional peacebuilding approaches

A key assumption underpinning traditional peacebuilding approaches is that one can bring opposing sides to a peace table to agree on a common vision for their society, often informed by western forms of state-building and organisation of polities.This may no longer be as desirable to conflict actors as it was two decades ago. The current war tables are about interests, power and politics, as actors with the ability to do harm divide the spoils of the state between themselves. Also, the linearity that was associated with peacebuilding approaches is no longer applicable as there are often multiple conflicts happening simultaneously in a country and conflicts shift backwards and forwards along the conflict management continuum. That implies that frequently no peace negotiations are initiated before peacekeepers and stabilisation missions are deployed.  

These factors foster in many cases robust military reactions and undermine the innovations of the UN Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda for more comprehensive and sustainable conflict settlements.

The WPS-Agenda, in its original conceptualisation, aspired to more than the mere inclusion of women into predefined male peace processes to discuss women’s issues, or simply trying to “make wars safer for women.” Instead, feminists promoting WPS sought to transform the ways in which we defined what was constitutive of peace and security and methods for achieving this. Gender equality and the promotion of intersectional gender perspectives underpinned the WPS agenda but, which was decidedly anti-militarist, calling for disarmament, transforming gender power relations, recognising and promoting women’s local level peacebuilding processes and emphasising the need for peaceful resolution of disputes.

After the adoption of UNSCR 1325 the shift has been towards promoting women’s inclusion in the security sector and in national mediation processes, irrespective of the form, content and actors at these war tables. Those promoting WPS had at first sought to be a different voice in addition to being a different gender. Feminism is abouttransforming patriarchal systems that reinforce multiple forms of inequality and oppression. These aspects have been silenced in the ways in which the WPS agenda has subsequently been promoted and mainstreamed. The adoption of feminist foreign policies could resituate the WPS agenda, and in so doing peacebuilding more broadly, to focus on these transformative aspects that are necessary for sustainable conflict management.

Feminist foreign policies and sustainable peacebuilding

Many of the feminist foreign policies are structured around rights, representation and resources. Equality and justice are posited as preconditions for peace and security and they seek to deal with the structural and systemic causes of inequality using an intersectional approach. Germany’s FFP-approach aspires towards being decolonial, anti-racist and critically reflexive. It recognises that the West can no longer serve as a benchmark against which the rest of the world is measured, that donor-recipient relations have to change, that those at the forefront of the conflicts are the knowledge bearers of their situations and should therefore lead in proposing sustainable solutions for their crises. This indicates a willingness to transform how peace processes, and the subsequent structures they give rise to, unfold, to recognise and transform unequal power relations, and to preface gender equality as a marker of peace and security. FFP potentially allows for alternative ideas of co-existence to emerge. It is built on trust and respect between partners that promotes more enabling peacebuilding to occur, since peace is not a project that is embedded in logframes.

Peace is primarily about restoring and building relationships. Though inscribed in peace agreements its sustainability is rooted in its uptake by communities, often with women peacebuilders at the forefront of its implementation. Investing in women’s peacebuilding skills is therefore key to transforming societies. This should be the bedrock of any feminist foreign policy as it relates to peace and security. Feminist foreign policy approaches have much to offer. But, their political clout depends on whether they understand the gaps of traditional approaches they have to fill, the quality of their intersectional analysis of oppressions and power relations, and the boldness of their gender transformative ambition to put feminist and women actors on the ground in the driver seat.


Prof. Cheryl Hendricks is the Executive Director of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR) in Cape Town/South Africa. She holds a PhD in Government and International Relations from the University of South Carolina and a Masters in Southern African Studies from the University of York. She has a wealth of knowledge and expertise in the areas of conflict management; women, peace and security; and African Regional Security Architectures. She has published widely on these topics and regularly provides policy advice to decision makers on national, regional and international level.


The opinions and statements of the guest authors expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the position of  the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung.

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