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The Noise of Populism and Changing the Tone towards Feminism and Peace

September 18, 2018

There is way too much noise! It seems that we cannot think rationally for the excesses of  media coverage of Trump, Swedish democrats, Brexit, populism … you name it! We hear nothing but the noise of dissatisfaction, disappointment and hopelessness. Yes of course we face difficult times but news coverage is relentlessly focused on the conflict, on the negative, to the extent of actually pushing us towards a self fulfilling prophecy. If solutions are not openly put out there for people to gravitate towards then how can we possibly move towards the sustainable peace that WILPF has been advocating for over 100 years?

During the weekend of 8-9 September, in a rather unknown city in the United Kingdom (UK), Kettering, some 2,000 people, mainly women, attended the 2nd conference of the UK Women’s Equality Party. This Party has over 45,000 members – which is almost double as many as UKIP (23,600 members as of 3 September 2018), the UK extreme right party, whose activities and views are constantly paraded in the media – but did you hear about the Women’s Equality Party’s conference in the news? I guess not.

So little media coverage is almost criminal! But not a surprise.

I am a proud member of the Women’s Equality Party. So are some of our UK WILPF Section members as well, and I can wholeheartedly say that the message the Party is putting out there is ours too!

I invite you to take a look at the Leader of the Women’s Equality Party, Sophie Walker’s speech. If you want to understand Brexit, how we got into the mess we are in, then you will find the answer in this speech. It tells it all – and it tells what needs to be done: how to address austerity and the massive distortion to the political economy that results, how to address inequality in health care, in unpaid labour, in wage disparity, in addressing the scourge of violence against women, and not  least; how to effect feminist foreign policy!

Earlier this year, WILPF and close allies organised a small meeting in London with Sophie Walker and others from the Women’s Equality Party, to discuss what the essence of a feminist foreign policy would look like. We discussed, revised, learnt from the evolution of the Swedish foreign policy, and this is what came out in Sophie Walker’s conference speech:

“As the world has grown wider and broader, as we have become more interconnected, so we have seen a welcome emergence of different stories and perspectives; a diversity of experience; the beginnings of an understanding that as we are linked together on this planet, that our actions have reactions; that we are responsible for each other and for injustice and inequality beyond our own borders.

Foreign policy has not kept pace with this. Traditional models are patriarchal and power-focused. In a world of global challenges foreign policy is still rooted in domestic priorities that are depressingly concentrated on the capacity of one country to get control over another. On doing deals, where success lies in being able to tell domestic voters that you got one over on the other guy. On making false distinctions between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ And as the limitation of that approach has been revealed by the scale of the global challenges we face, so populist politicians seeking to protect their own interests have doubled down, reverting to an even more defensive approach.

This backlash has become a rising tide of nationalism that is fuelling isolationism, protectionism and militarism across the world. This renewal of hateful ideologies that we mistakenly believed to have been extinguished is exacerbated by austerity measures that are disproportionately harming women. The widening equality gap is further at risk as populist politicians with a focus on protecting men’s roles and jobs seek to reverse women’s workplace rights and reproductive rights.

We know that women are always the testing ground for assaults on democracy. That they are often in the front line of human rights abuses and that violent confrontations are more likely in states where women are unequal. We know that women’s equality is a greater factor in a state’s sustainability than democracy or GDP. But we still haven’t factored that into how we do foreign policy.

I think it’s time to construct a feminist foreign policy. One that reflects our domestic policy priorities but faces outwards. One that understands we must connect and work with the rest of the world. One that will help this Party to build and connect with a global movement of feminists. I believe our desire to build women’s equality into the foundations of the UK’s future and that of our relationship with the European Union are made stronger if they are matched by policies to ensure that strengthening women’s equality is a normal part of – indeed a crucial part – of the UK’s wider international relations.

Some of our current policies – for example those relating to asylum seeking and refugee women – recognise the intersectional inequalities at play; but we don’t yet have the policies to address the causes of their multiplied experiences of oppression.

I would like us together as a party to create feminist foreign policy committed to a radical overhaul and a new direction towards inclusivity, equality, human security and anti-militarism. I believe this can offer a more secure, fair and sustainable future for all.

If we are to understand and tackle migration flows, climate change, rising levels of inequality, organised armed violence and armed conflict – we have to replace knee jerk policies focused on those we exclude with a foreign policy that is inclusive and reflexive. That means treating foreign policy as a process that must be subject to ongoing critical scrutiny. It means recognising the limits of our knowledge and how each country’s claims are partial. It means being open to new priorities, objectives and strategies.

Therefore I am asking Conference to support this motion that the Women’s Equality Party pledge as party policy to create a Department for Peace and Freedom that would govern the work of the Foreign Office, Department of International Trade and the Home Office, pulling together work that is still bound by and delineated by a template of our time as an Empire.

Such a Department would promote women’s equality at home and abroad as a universal aim and thus overturn old policies based on patriarchy and colonial oppression.

It would build an anti-discriminatory approach to future foreign policy-making so that, for example, trade and immigration policy is created with an understanding of how it will impact women;

It would advocate for an anti-militarist approach committed to all alternative means of dispute resolution, in particular supporting women’s networks dedicated to conflict prevention and resolution

And it would advocate too for gender budgeting and the allocation of resources to deliver on the gender equality promise of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.

I am very grateful to members who have helped me to do initial work on this – particularly Madeleine Rees, Secretary General of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom; and Louise Arimatsu, Distinguished Policy Fellow in the LSE’s Centre for Women, Peace and Security.

I am very excited by the potential that this work now offers to us.”

The Conference adopted the motion!

I am excited too. In her main address, Sophie Walker referenced something many have been thinking for some time: how to build a coalition of feminist parties in Europe to really change the dynamics within the European Parliament.

It is time to organise, Sisters! We need to generate an alternative note or notes, a tone which evokes hope, as opposite to the dirty, rusty noise of populism. Where the present noise is leading to fear and hatred, our music will lead to peace and equality. We need to support those who will bring feminist policies into governance structures – or actually be the ones inside the governance structures governing!

And we have to be better at insisting that the media pay attention to the tone, to what we have to say. Me, I am rubbish at social media, so I will ask those of you who know how to use the power of social media: Bring this call, play our music.

Different skills are needed for alchemy … and we have all of them so let’s put them together!

Madeleine Rees, WILPF Secretary General

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