Women We Need: Towards a More Female-centred Foreign Policy

The recent nomination by incoming President Barack Obama of Senator Hillary Clinton as the next Secretary of State and Susan Rice as the new US Ambassador to the UN confirms that more countries are choosing to appoint females to lead their countries in the international arena. Since Madeleine Albright became U.S. Secretary of State in 1996, the USA has been represented overseas by a woman for eight years out of twelve. And in Africa, there are eight female Ministers of Foreign Affairs.

The image of Carme Chacón, Spain's defence minister, inspecting the troops while eight months pregnant crystallised this image of change. But out of 27 Defence Ministers in the EU, only four are women. For Ministers for Foreign Affairs, the gender balance is even worse, with only two females.

We may have accepted in principle that politics should include both women and men, but this has not been adequately applied to foreign and security policy. A recent report by Operation 1325, a Swedish umbrella organisation working for women and peace, revealed that nine out of ten civilians sent to work in conflict areas are men. Women are not regarded as having enough knowledge or competence in security questions and, as a result, European peace-making missions remain a project by and for men.

Given the often determinate role that women's organisations have played on the ground in conflict resolution, it is absurd that they are so under-represented in the international work in this field. Not only does it reflect an important limitation to democracy, it is also a threat to global security and to women across the globe. By excluding women from conflict management, we exclude a female perspective and experience that could contribute to peace building projects that better correspond to the real needs of all those affected by conflict.

This would be consistent with the shifting perceptions of the nature of security in recent years. Globalization and the threat of international terrorism have made it necessary to view security as not just about the traditional questions of military and geostrategic threats, but a much wider concept, including environmental and poverty-related challenges to the individual's integrity.

To many women, this is more than obvious. Eighty percent of the world's refugees are women and children. 70% of the world's poorest people, living on less than one dollar a day, are women. 340 million women worldwide are not expected to live past 40, largely because of gender-based violence and poverty-related illness. Sexual violence and rape are prevalent in regions of war as well as in refugee camps. For people in poverty, being secure means earning enough money to feed your children, as well as having access to clean water, air and soil free from pollution. It also means having access to education and healthcare. It means freedom not only from violence but also from the poverty and social injustice that are often the root causes of violence.

Even in wealthy countries, the statistics of violence against women are frightening. What does it matter if your government has a good missile defence system, if you are afraid every time you walk home at night? What does it matter if diplomatic ties are improving between your country and its neighbour, if you are forced to flee your home because of a natural disaster caused by climate change?

Including women in policy-making and peace-making processes would reinforce democracy and be an important step forward, allowing them to fight for concerns that are close to their hearts. I welcome that Europe has acknowledged the importance of this by recognising the role of women in building peace in the review of the European Security Strategy, adopted last week by the European Council. The review also calls for the effective implementation of UNSCR 1325 on women, peace, and security. It is important to follow up this political commitment with concrete action.

Ultimately, of course, what all this boils down to is, in one word, democracy. Do we want a society where the input of over half of the population is ignored? Do we want to make the best use of our human resources or not? Do we want to be effective in dealing with international conflicts and with questions of global justice? The world needs recognise the major role that women have to play in the fight for a global, sustainable peace.

Margot Wallström, Vice-President of the European Commission and Chair of the Council of Women World Leaders Ministerial Initiative.