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Women Are Central to Canadian Foreign Policy

09/30/2015 12:35 EDT | Updated 09/30/2016 05:12 EDT
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by Julie Delahanty, Executive Director of Oxfam Canada

Early reviews of Monday night's Munk Debate on foreign policy have been positive. There was a substantive airing of some important issues. And there was glaring oversight too. Slightly more than half of all Canadians were not represented on the debate stage. In other words, women and girls across the country had yet another opportunity to watch a "manel" (a.k.a. an all male panel) The lone woman leader of a Canadian political party was excluded from the debate. And even the moderator was a white male!

The absence of female voices in public policy debates is not simply a matter of demographic representation. Without women's voices, and more specifically feminist voices, we lose the perspective that strong women bring to the table and we lose the potential for far better politics and policies that champion the rights and interests of both women and men.

Until relatively recently, Canada was well known in the international community for its work on promoting women's rights and gender equality in its foreign policy and development assistance initiatives. Canada can continue to be a leader in this area by prioritizing the needs and rights of women and girls in foreign policy, beyond the focus on women as wombs, mothers and victims.

Promoting a feminist foreign policy would mean focusing on rights, representation and resources. It means asking the questions in all foreign policy, development and trade decisions about where the women are, how their rights are affected and whether resources are going to support them. It means, for example, that women are front and centre in peace and security discussions.

Had Oxfam Canada moderated the Munk Debate, we would have asked the leaders a different set of questions. Questions like:

• How much would you invest in funding for women's rights organizations -- both as a dollar amount and as a percentage of the overall aid budget?

• Do you see a connection between the international arms trade and gender-based violence?

• What concrete steps would your government take to implement the post-2015 development agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals at home and abroad, particularly in the areas of gender equality and women's empowerment?

• How would your government ensure that more women engage and play meaningful roles in peace processes and political negotiations aimed at ending armed conflicts?

• As part of Canada's aid budget, would your government fund the full range of services needed to allow women to exercise their sexual and reproductive rights?

• How will you ensure that Canada's international trade policies promote women's access to higher value-added jobs and sectors, safe and fair working conditions, and supportive social and labour policies?

To give modest credit where modest credit is due: Women's rights, maternal and newborn child health, sexual and reproductive health services and rape as a weapon of war were all mentioned very briefly during the debate. Briefly and inconclusively, before the "manel" moved on to other matters.

Without strong female representation in our politics and public debates, and without a commitment to a feminist foreign policy, Canada will lose out on the potential and strength that women and girls bring. When women are able to exercise their full and fundamental rights they not only fulfill their own destiny, they also positively impact many things -- from access to education, food and health security to the environment, peace building and good governance.

Our male leaders have now debated a largely male version of foreign policy. But a wise and effective foreign policy for the 21st century would and should have equality between women and men as its point of departure. Canada is best served by women playing an equal role with men in vital debates about the future of our country and its role on the international stage.

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