I’m dismayed at the lack of women in politics and diplomacy is no exception. A quick Wikipedia search reveals that currently only 20 of 193 countries have female foreign ministers. Addressing this yawning gender gap is vital, but so too is capitalising on the efforts of the UK’s male foreign secretary in championing gender equality and tackling violence against women.
I’ve just returned from Kosovo where young men are challenging notions of what it is to ‘be a man’ in a society that has been dominated by violence and hyper-masculinity. Through education 78% of young men (compared to 48% before) now believe it is wrong to beat a woman. These young men are taking their messages to the masses via a social media campaign that is spreading across the Balkans. This work convinces me that engaging men to tackle violence against women is a vital part of the equation.
For too long violence against women has been viewed as ‘a women’s issue’- and when it comes to politics, the issue is usually given to the ‘gender ministry’ or tagged onto the role of a female minister whatever her official portfolio might be. This tends to mean that either (a) other relevant ministries ignore tackling the issue because ‘that’s what the gender ministry does’, or (b) they don’t have the necessary clout or access to do anything more than be a symbolic figurehead.
Whilst working at the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), I remember how civil servants were scurrying around trying to find a woman (Lynne Featherstone as it turned out) to be the government’s champion on violence against women and girls globally. But at the time she was a Home Office Minister. Why weren’t we asking the male foreign secretary to be the champion? The person who has the ability to discuss these issues at the highest levels with their male counterparts?
As it turns out Hague himself has led a personal crusade and put sexual violence front and centre of his foreign policy agenda for the last two years. An issue traditionally seen as a ‘soft’ security issue is right up there with his other ‘hard’ security priorities including Syria and Ukraine. 151 states have signed the Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict and that is largely down to his effective personal lobbying, often of other male counterparts, and it’s because the whole FCO network (also still largely male-dominated at the very top) has been ordered to promote the campaign through embassies around the world. If you click on #timetoact on Twitter you’ll see a number of Ambassadors who have taken action on the issue.
It’s also interesting to see how Hague’s personal commitment has led to a reprioritisation of resources and effort. Whilst the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict and the Declaration build on a number of earlier efforts that the UK government have supported over the years, including UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security, delivery on these commitments has, until now, generally been left to a junior desk officer in London – a post that often struggles to be filled as it’s not seen as a job that will help them climb up fast through the system. Contrast this to today where there is a 30 strong team leading the UK’s work on ending sexual violence headed by an award-winning – and female – civil servant, Emma Hopkins.
As a feminist clearly my ideal would be that there was gender parity in the diplomatic world and we wouldn’t struggle to be heard amidst the competing foreign policy agendas, but surely we should also be ensuring that today’s male foreign secretaries and Ambassadors become active champions and allies on this agenda.
Sign the petition calling on William Hague to urge governments around the world to include teaching on gender equality and ending violence against women in their national curriculum.