“As A Superpower, The World Looks To the US for Leadership On Gender Equity And Foreign Policy Matters.” Dr Shirley Graham

By Dr Shirley Graham, Director, Gender Equality Initiative in International Affairs (GEIA) at The Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University.

On this day last year, I met Zarifa Ghafari, the first woman Mayor in the conservative district of Wardak Province in Afghanistan.[1] She was one of ten awardees of the U.S. State Department’s International Women of Courage Award in 2020, an annual award recognizing the incredible bravery it takes for women to defend human rights in many parts of the world today.

When Zarifa offered me the gift of a small capsule of Saffron proudly stating “it is the best in the world,” I saw her badly burned and swollen hands. “What happened? “I asked. She looked down and then met my eyes with her steady gaze and said, “I was attacked by Taliban men.  This is their way of warning me that my life is in danger if I continue as mayor.”  As a woman, and a leader with social and political power, Zarifa stands for the very values the Taliban abhor—women’s rights and gender equality. She told me that 80% of burns victims in Afghanistan are women who have been attacked by the Taliban for similar reasons, simply doing their jobs.

Misogynistic Hate Speech by Political Leaders

In a 2019 United Nations report, the Secretary General cited misogynistic, sexist and hate speech by political leaders against women politicians and human rights defenders as one of the key triggers for the increase in gender-based violence against those women globally.[2] The report highlighted progress made towards the Women, Peace and Security agenda, a UN policy framework created through a series of UN Security Council Resolutions calling for countries to make the necessary political, economic, legal and social transformations that lead to women’s empowerment. The focus of the agenda is on women’s participation in conflict prevention, in all aspects of formal peace and security processes, and for women to be given full access to their human rights and to be protected from violence. The Women, Peace and Security agenda is supported by governments through the implementation of national action plans[3]setting out the steps they will take to prioritize women’s rights in foreign and domestic policy.

Mexico recently published its national action plan[4] on Women, Peace and Security.[5] It also has a progressive feminist foreign policy,[6] adopted in January 2020, which focuses on gender equality, combatting gender-based violence, and reaching a target of 50% of women in its foreign ministry by 2024. However, it has been heavily criticized for not protecting women in its own country from gender-based violence. Shockingly, 11 women were killed every day in 2020 due to femicide, a gender-based crime against women usually committed by a male partner or family member.[7]  So, while the development of a feminist foreign policy is a step in the right direction, it needs to be underpinned by gender equality policy, implementation, and enforcement domestically as well as abroad.

Violence against Women and Covid-19

In 2020, violence against women increased by an average of 20% globally due to the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.[8] This is being labelled as the “shadow pandemic” by the United Nations.[9] In China’s Hubei province, near the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak, police reported that domestic violence tripled during February 2020 compared to February 2019.[10] European countries also saw a 60% spike in the increase of calls to domestic violence hotlines.[11]

Before Covid-19, the World Health Organization estimated that 35% of all women experience physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime and most of this is at the hands of an intimate partner.[12]  Since the pandemic, economic insecurity, restricted movement and social isolation have increased women’s vulnerability to violence in the home. Quarantining is linked to abuse of alcohol, depression, and post-traumatic stress symptoms. All of which can aggravate violence. As women are separated from family, work, and other support systems they are more isolated and placed in higher risk situations.[13] Despite its global prevalence, gender-based violence has been one of the most neglected outcomes of pandemics.[14]

137 Women are killed by a Member of their Family Every Day[15]

Domestic violence is a form of gender-based violence,[16] a crime committed against somebody due to their gender. It includes emotional and economic abuse, and coercive control, as well as physical and sexual assault. Gender based violence is rooted in gender inequalities and in all societies women and girls have less power than men.  Domestic violence is underpinned by one person having power over another and using that power to control that person. In some countries, the number of women experiencing violence by an intimate partner can be as high as 70%.[17]

In 2020, the UNDP published a report of the Gender Social Norms Index which emphasized that progress towards gender equality and women’s rights is not something we can assume. The report revealed that almost 90% of people, both women and men, display “prejudiced sentiments” towards women and the problem is getting worse![18]

So, what’s the good news?

There is now a growing body of evidence linking women’s rights and gender equality with global stability, security and prosperity.[19] Countries with higher levels of gender equality are linked to good governance and are less likely to engage in violence, either within their own borders or with neighboring countries, to resolve conflict.[20]

In December 2020, the European Commission adopted a feminist foreign policy[21] calling for having a minimum of 50% of women in all decision-making positions.  The policy also called for an 85% allocation of European Union development assistance to programs that specifically support gender equality.[22]  The following four countries also have feminist foreign policies: Sweden, Canada, France, and Mexico which focus on gender equality and the rights of minorities.[23]

What’s the U.S. got to do with it?

As a superpower, the world looks to the US for leadership on gender equity and foreign policy matters.

The creation of the new White House Gender Policy Council[24] is one of the Biden-Harris administration’s initiatives signalling that the administration is prioritizing gender equity. The Gender Policy Council is headed by Julissa Reynoso and Jennifer Klein[25] who will be supported by three policy experts. Thus far, the Council’s agenda is focused on domestic policy which includes gender-based violence, childcare, and economic justice, but it is expected that a foreign policy expert will join the team.

The work of the Gender Policy Council will be woven into policymaking across the administration. Issues such as the gender pay gap, sexual harassment, and sexual and reproductive health and rights, will not be separated from the administration’s broader priorities. The executive order will call for cabinet members to ensure there are representatives within their agencies who will be in charge of advancing gender equity at work.[26] This will require government agencies that work directly on foreign policy to work together to ensure that policies are streamlined creating a whole-of-government response. The Department of Defense, U.S.AID, Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of State will be required to make gender equity a key focus of their work, which they have already begun through their delivery of the U.S. Women, Peace and Security Strategy and its implementation plans.[27]

What about Zarifa Ghafari in Afghanistan?

In her remarks at the U.S. State Department in March 2020, Zarifa Ghafari called on the U.S. government not to abandon Afghani women in the ongoing peace talks.[28]  Yet in September’s intra-Afghan talks, only four women were included in the 21-member negotiation team for the Afghan government. No women were included on the Taliban’s team.[29] Presently, more girls can attend school and women are part of economic and political life, but they are still the target of harassment and violence, particularly if they are considered to have stepped out of line—Zarifa’s burnt hands.

Despite the danger and risk, it is women who are the leaders in their society who have worked across political and religious divides to mobilize support for the peace process. Women have played crucial roles in countering extremist narratives. Women have brokered local deals facilitating hostage release, and women have led important processes that support the reintegration of former combatants into society.[30]

It is the Afghani women who now need support and leadership from the U.S. government.  The Biden-Harris Administration must use its voice to ensure that women’s rights are enshrined in the Afghan peace agreement. This will be crucial to ensure women in Afghan society can continue to enjoy the freedoms they have gained since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001.

As I write these words, I am thinking of Zarifa and her bright smile and her courage in the face of such adversity. I think of women everywhere, like her, who are bravely battling for their rights, their safety and their security and I wonder “will they have a Happy International Women’s Day?”.

Call to Action

To raise awareness of these issues, myself and a group of dynamic student leaders at the George Washington University, Elliott School of International Affairs, have created a Washington D.C. University consortium[31] on Women, Peace and Security. The aim of the consortium is to promote understanding of the role gender plays in peace and security. Through our relationship with the U.S. Civil Society Working Group on Women, Peace and Security (CSWG)[32]—where we serve as a mini-think tank—we are creating research and writing policy briefs to inform policymakers of the need to include women and gender minorities in all decision-making processes. As such, we are calling on the U.S. administration and governments across the globe to adopt a feminist approach to foreign policy.

Our launch event[33] takes place on Tuesday March 9th (9am-6pm ET), in honor of International Women’s Day which is March 8th. We will be joined by world-renowned experts on Women, Peace and Security: Ambassador Melanne Verveer,[34] Sanam Naraghi-Anderlini MBE,[35] Dr Kathleen Kuehnast,[36] and Dr Chantal de Jonge Oudraat[37]There will be a series of workshops throughout the day focusing on four different policy issues: Engaging Men & Boys in Gender Equality in Foreign Policy, LGBTQ+ Perspectives & Understandings of international security policy, Intergenerational Gendered Trauma and its historical context, and Feminist Foreign Policy.

All are welcome! To register click on this link: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/the-dc-student-consortium-on-women-peace-and-security-launch-event-registration-141199456375


[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/06/world/asia/afghanistan-mayor-zarifa-ghafari.html

[2] https://reliefweb.int/report/world/report-secretary-general-women-and-peace-and-security-s2019800-enarru

[3] http://1325naps.peacewomen.org/ and

[4] http://1325naps.peacewomen.org/

[5] https://www.gob.mx/cms/uploads/attachment/file/604429/PNA_1325_Plan_Nacional_de_Acci_n__M_xico._ver._ingl_s.pdf

[6] https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/01/14/mexican-diplomacy-feminist-foreign-policy/

[7] https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/12/30/mexico-feminist-foreign-policy-one-year-in/

[8] https://www.unwomen.org/en/news/stories/2020/4/statement-ed-phumzile-violence-against-women-during-pandemic

[9] https://www.unwomen.org/en/news/stories/2020/4/statement-ed-phumzile-violence-against-women-during-pandemic

[10]Fraser E. Development UAftDoI; 2020. Impact of COVID-19 pandemic on violence against women and girls. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7195322/

[11] https://www.france24.com/en/france/20201102-france-fears-fresh-wave-of-domestic-violence-amid-second-covid-19-lockdown

[12] https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/violence-against-women

[13] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/15/us/domestic-violence-coronavirus.html

[14] https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fgwh.2020.00004/full)

[15] https://www.unwomen.org/en/what-we-do/ending-violence-against-women/facts-and-figures

[16] https://www.unicef.org/protection/gender-based-violence-in-emergencies

[17] https://www.unwomen.org/en/what-we-do/ending-violence-against-women/facts-and-figures

[18] Report reveals nearly 90 per cent of all people have ‘a deeply ingrained bias’ against women | | UN News

[19] https://www.cfr.org/report/understanding-gender-equality-foreign-policy

[20] https://www.researchgate.net/publication/236814201_The_Heart_of_the_Matter_The_Security_of_Women_and_the_Security_of_States

[21] https://centreforfeministforeignpolicy.org/report-feminist-foreign-policy-for-the-eu

[22] https://www.cfr.org/blog/women-week-feminist-foreign-policy-europe

[23] https://www.cfr.org/blog/women-week-feminist-foreign-policy-europe

[24] https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/16/us/gender-council-biden-administration.html

[25] https://timesupnow.org/newsroom/times-up-applauds-jen-klein-and-julissa-reynoso-bidens-picks-to-co-chair-white-house-gender-policy-council/

[26] https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/16/us/gender-council-biden-administration.html

[27] https://www.usip.org/programs/advancing-women-peace-and-security

[28] https://edition.cnn.com/2020/03/04/politics/afghan-women-us-taliban-deal/index.html

[29] https://www.cfr.org/womens-participation-in-peace-processes/afghanistan

[30] https://www.cfr.org/womens-participation-in-peace-processes/afghanistan

[31] https://geia.elliott.gwu.edu/the-dc-student-consortium-on-women-peace-and-security-wps/

[32] https://www.usip.org/programs/advancing-women-peace-and-security

[33] https://www.eventbrite.com/e/the-dc-student-consortium-on-women-peace-and-security-launch-event-registration-141199456375

[34] https://giwps.georgetown.edu/melanne-verveer/

[35] https://www.lse.ac.uk/women-peace-security/people/%EF%BB%BFSanam-Naraghi-Anderlini

[36] https://www.usip.org/people/kathleen-kuehnast-phd

[37] https://www.wiisglobal.org/profiles/dr-chantal-de-jonge-oudraat/



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