Strengthening foreign policy in Australia requires the adoption of a human-centric and intersectional feminist foreign approach. This new policy approach could catalyse change within the causal masculine systemic and structural constraints currently shaping Australia's foreign policy. Moreover, engagement is valuable considering the growing rate of gender inequality in the Pacific, which undercuts stability and economic development and increases the risk of violent extremism. 

Strengthening foreign policy in Australia requires the adoption of a human-centric and intersectional feminist foreign approach. This new policy approach could catalyse change within the causal masculine systemic and structural constraints currently shaping Australia's foreign policy. Moreover, engagement is valuable considering the growing rate of gender inequality in the Pacific, which undercuts stability and economic development and increases the risk of violent extremism. 

Decades of peer-reviewed research indicate that gender equality and the security of women remain key indicators for conflict prevention across the globe. Governments must incorporate gender equality and women's empowerment into their foreign policy strategies because there is a well-established link between gender inequality and a society's susceptibility to civil unrest, internal conflict, and a gendered backlash to development initiatives. 

From the conception of the UN's Women, Peace and Security Agenda in 2000 (which includes the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 and nine subsequent resolutions), this landmark agenda continues to gain momentum in Australia and across the Pacific region. It can serve as a robust, fundamental framework for governments to conduct a gender analysis and apply a gender perspective to national, regional and global security issues.

Planning for Strategic Resilience

Australia's strategic planning around national security and foreign policy needs to be a coordinated and collective national effort as a measure to strengthen Australia's ability to endure threats, influence and meaningfully protect its national interests within the Indo-Pacific Region. Australia's success in meeting foreign policy objectives should not mean allocating more resources; but instead demonstrating a deeper resolve than our strategic competitors. 

Australia's national security profile is a collective responsibility and a joint venture of shared contribution from all levels of government. Our national security is interdepartmental and encompasses a whole-of-government approach. Engaged sectors include non-government sectors, commerce (e.g. defence and cyber industries) and individuals. All sectors can work collaboratively in a coordinated and focused manner to enhance Australia's national security awareness and strategic resilience. As a result, foreign policy objectives and influence will be more effective and determined than the individual efforts of any one sector alone.


Current foreign policy strategy


Australia's foreign policy, as strategised in the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper (FPWP), aims to prioritise stability and prosperity for an "inclusive and prosperous Indo-Pacific region" and "ensures Australians remain safe, secure and free in the face of threats". The FPWP's pragmatic and competitive approach to Australia's security paints a picture of Australia existing in a"contested space", "uncertain", and "dangerous"environment with adversaries as opposed to potential allies. The FPWP underplays opportunities for mutual support and collaboration between Australia and its neighbours while viewing conflicting political issues through a militarised lens. 

Adopting a feminist approach to building strategic resilience can shift the outlook of potential national security threats by emphasising enhanced diplomacy and partnerships, gender-responsive aid and development, education initiatives, and sustainable poverty reduction. This means a shift at the national level towards investment in peaceful conflict prevention strategies. As benchmarked by the Canadian example, a transformative approach to gender reform would see a more worthy pursuit of gender equality. This Canadian model comprises of a Feminist International Assistance Policy; Canada’s Women, Peace and Security National Action Plan; their ‘progressive’ trade agenda; and their Defence policy.

In 2015, Sweden became the first country to formalise a Feminist Foreign Policy that entrenches gender equality and women's empowerment as a primary goal. Sweden analysed their foreign policy approaches in terms of ' gendered and intersectional impacts. The Swedish Foreign Minister, Margot Wallstrom, led its creation with the notion of fundamental human rights of women and girls being '…both an obligation within the framework of [Sweden's] international commitments, and a prerequisite for reaching Sweden's broader foreign policy goals on peace, and security, and sustainable development.' 


The Four Rs of a feminist foreign policy


Minister Wallstrom talks about the Swedish foreign policy regarding the 'Four R's' Rights, Representation, Resources, and Reality Check. We can apply these four tenets to create gender-sensitive, gender-responsive and progressive foreign policy initiatives. Australian foreign policy could overlay a gender perspective using the combined government and non-government assets in the Pacific region. Applying the 'Four R's' concept could harmonise and complement Australia's foreign policy approach, as detailed below:


Women's 'rights'

A feminist foreign policy in Australia can look beyond a single sector as a tool to manage and maintain Australia's bilateral relationships in the Pacific region. Feminist foreign policy can support meaningful and gender-responsive contributions through the gendered interrogation of the impacts of policy on women's rights and freedoms and patriarchal power dynamics and gender norms that exacerbate gender inequality.

A feminist perspective is critical in preventing the rise of religious extremism in the Pacific that continues to pose a growing threat to building and protecting women's rights and security. For example, in Papua New Guinea, the Kup Women for Peace initiative resolves local-level conflicts and maintains peace. In addition, the peace initiative informs religious and local leaders about legal avenues to address human rights breaches and The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) requirements. Also, in Papua New Guinea, The Spotlight Initiative forges partnerships between government and business leaders, women's empowerment organisations, and faith-based groups to address Sexual and Gender-Based Violence and the complex needs of disenfranchised and marginalised women and girls.  

By supporting and leveraging similar grassroots initiatives, the Australian Government can develop an intersectional and preventative approach to women's rights and protection against religious extremism and fully understand and mitigate any adverse second-order effects of Australia's role and engagement in the Pacific. 


Women's 'representation'

Tensions exist around Australia's role in aid and social programs. For example, the imposition of limitations on the Defence Cooperation Program to military-to-military (or military-to-police) engagement in the Pacific region. However, a foreign strategy with a holistic gender equality focus – supported by Australia’s National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security - would allow the Australian Government to shift past this limitation. As a result, Australia could ensure it is an active and responsive force in addressing threats against women's human rights defenders, women in high profile positions of influence, and those working at local-level gender equality initiatives.

Empowering and protecting women's meaningful participation is a crucial focus of the Women, Peace and Security Agenda. Recognising women’s formal and informal roles and influence within different societies is key – and will better place Australia to formalise its partnerships with the international community and civil society organisations in response to women's needs.


Targeted 'resource' distribution.

Governments are responsible for protecting women and girls' human rights and that women are empowered to participate in formal peace and security processes. Resource allocation to feminist foreign policies and engagements must reflect women's empowerment when Australia builds networks and resilience in the Pacific. 

The 2020 Federal Budget forecasts that by 2022-23, for every $1 spent on aid and development, the Australian Government will spend $11 on the military. However, despite the Australian Government actively prioritising one pillar of international relations at the expense of a preventative other, the ADF can still be employed as an instrument of action to support stability and human security in the Pacific region as a resource offset. For example, Australia can raise awareness of threat conflict indicators, support gendered capacity building and women-led initiatives that progress gender equality.  



A reality check analyses what women are experiencing on the ground - ascertaining the value of whole-of-government agencies supporting and prioritising local and grassroots initiatives in the Pacific. The Australian Government can play a crucial role in facilitating meaningful, inclusive and sustained communication with Australia's near and regional neighbours and civil society actors. Australia's position is recognised in the Pacific Island Forum's Boe Declaration and further in the UN Commission on the Status of Women. Australian foreign policy can integrate a gender analysis across foreign policy efforts. 

Climate is one of the greatest threats to the livelihoods, wellbeing and security of those in Pacific states. For climate-related concerns, effective communication needs to draw from the experiences of local women on the"frontline" witnessing the effects of climate change in their communities. Australia has programs and technology to support affected populations – to prevent potential conflict by ensuring stabilisation, using a feminist approach to strengthening climate change resilience.

Through leveraging on the collective capabilities and shared contribution from all levels of government to enact broader foreign policy objectives, Australia can build legitimacy as an equal and trusted partner of choice across its immediate region. Australia can achieve an active feminist approach with gender mainstreaming at the forefront of its policy in the Pacific. First, we can benchmark international best practices in foreign policy transformation, as accomplished in Canada and Sweden. Then we can adopt a feminist foreign policy that incorporates a gender perspective and strives to reinforce the rights, representation, and resource apportionment and measure the contribution. Finally, a feminist foreign policy can strengthen Australia's strategic resilience, gaining influence through respect and equivalence with our regional Pacific partners. 

About the author

Lyndsay Freeman is a mother of two and a Transport Officer in the Australian Army. She was the Chief of Army Scholar in 2020 where she completed research on gender and conflict, and is currently the Senior Instructor for the ADF's Gender, Peace and Security Courses. Lyndsay co-founded the publishing platform Propel Her - Defence Women's Leadership Series, and ‘Women in Future Operations’ through UNSW where she is a Senior Visiting Fellow. She leads the Youth Advisory Council for the National Institute of Strategic Resilience (NISR). Lyndsay seeks innovative ways to positively change and advance gender equality through her military experience, academic studies, motivation and vision. You can follow Lyndsay onTwitter @LyndsayFreeman8 or LinkedIn.



Lyndsay Freeman

Lyndsay Freeman leads the NISR Youth Advisory Council

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