In April 2018, over sixty feminist activists from the global south and G7 countries gathered in Ottawa to build a feminist vision for the G7. This was the first time a G7 public engagement gathering explicitly used the ‘feminist’ label and framed their analysis in this way.
Participants articulated key actions needed in the areas of climate change, peace and security, the economy, sexual and reproductive health and rights, violence against women, and feminist movement building. “All issues are feminist issues” was an over-arching theme as participants urged G7 leaders to invest in gender equality and women’s rights. They also encouraged leaders to engage with women from marginalized communities and incorporate feminist approaches into all their policies and investments.
Early on in Canada’s G7 presidency, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau highlighted, “gender equality and women’s empowerment” as top priority. Trudeau noted that gender equality would be both a specific priority and integrated across all G7 discussions.
In order to support this work, Trudeau appointed a Gender Equality Advisory Council to advise the G7. Membership on the Council included Nobel laureates Leymah Gbowee and Malala Yousafzai, philanthropist Melinda Gates, Canadian feminist activists and others. The Council produced a comprehensive report with wide-ranging recommendations to “Make Gender Inequality History.” As well, they met with G7 leaders at a breakfast during the summit itself (which notably featured a late arrival by Donald Trump).
A feminist W7 – a first in the history of the G7
Traditionally, a number of civil society “engagement groups” form part of the G7 calendar: L7 (labour), Y7 (youth), etc. This year the W7 or Women’s 7 took a different path, with the tagline “feminist visions for the G7.” This meeting was organized by a group of Canadian civil society organizations. We pushed for participation from the global south to highlight voices and perspectives often not heard in G7 discussions.
As the organizers of the W7, we did not expect the G7 to adopt our recommendations. We had no illusions that this elite gathering would – overnight – adopt a feminist approach, which promoted dramatic action on climate change, peace, and economic justice, for example). However, we did aim to push the boundaries of the debate, and highlight the voices of diverse women and feminist activists from around the world. Issues like rights, safety of activists, accountability of leaders to existing international commitments on women’s rights, intersectional approaches, “nothing about us without us”, and support for feminist movements ran through the discussions.
Trudeau met with the W7. Although the discussion was off the record, there was a free exchange of views on issues ranging from the situation of Indigenous people in Canada to women’s participation in peace processes, from the urgency of action on climate change to the protection of land defenders, and women human rights defenders.
As expected, conditions at the G7 Summit itself in June were not conducive to carrying through on the feminist recommendations of the W7 and the Gender Equality Advisory Council. Trade, tariffs, and the Trump factor dominated the pre-Summit press coverage. The anticipated difficulties in negotiating a Summit declaration were proved correct as US President Donald Trump pulled out the previously announced joint declaration.
So, what were the gains?
First, more attention was given to both gender equality and feminist perspectives on the issues under discussion by the G7 than ever before. Unprecedented attention was given to gender perspectives across G7 preparations and lead-up discussions. For example, preparations for the discussions on countering violent extremism included a one-day discussion on how and why a gender perspective was relevant (and even raised sexual identity considerations).
Second, many lauded the announcement on new funding (US$2.9 billion) for women and girls education in crisis and conflict settings. Other G7 commitments included: support for women entrepreneurs, strengthening gender equality and women’s empowerment in humanitarian assistance, addressing gender-based violence and harassment in digital spaces, and a new set of “women, peace and security” partnerships.
Third, it seems likely that there has been a shift in the G7 culture, with the establishment of the Gender Equality Council and the explicitly feminist W7. Eyes will be on France – who will hold the G7 presidency in 2019 - to see if they build on these two innovative practices. Will the discussion continue to bring in diverse feminist voices or will it revert to the traditional G7 focus on business women and more conventional female voices?
According to one observer: “Canada’s G7 presidency may not have fulfilled the Gender Equality Council’s bold call to ‘make gender inequality history,’ but it did provide some important nudges in the direction of a more gender-equitable and inclusive international order.”
Others were not so optimistic. Some analysts argued that the Summit fell short of being truly transformational on gender equality issues, noting the lack of specificity and accountability and avoidance of key issues such as reproductive rights. Others pointed out that despite the new funding for education in crises, overall financial commitments did not live up to earlier summits. Feminist activists were disappointed but not surprised by the Summit’s outcomes, with some pointing out that it was still a step forward.
Feminist voices creating feminist spaces
Perhaps one of the gains of the G7 process was the expanded space for government/civil society dialogue on key issues. One Canadian commitment coming out of the G7 was Foreign Minister Freeland’s invitation to host a meeting of women foreign ministers prior to the United Nations General Assembly meetings in September. Members of the W7 organizing committee were invited by the Canadian government to suggest how the voices of feminist activists could be brought to this meeting.
In September 2018, Freeland and the EU’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini hosted this two-day gathering in Montreal. Over breakfast, the women foreign ministers met with ten women human rights defenders from Canada and around the world. Once again the discussions of feminist foreign policy moved forward.
Critics may point out that many of the gains are at the level of rhetoric or even that it is just an exercise in branding. While there is a need to back words with commitments and positive statements with resources, the discussion is nevertheless moving in a positive direction. The articulation and implementation of a feminist foreign policy faces many challenges and expectations must be tampered with realism. As Lyric Thompson and Christina Asquith have pointed out: “The goal of critique is not to shame those governments that have been brave enough to try [a feminist foreign policy]. Instead, we should critique with an eye toward strengthening the overall approach.”
The feminists at the W7 articulated a vision. The women human rights defenders meeting with the women foreign ministers in September elaborated on that vision and continued pressing for change. Both groups stressed the importance of feminist organizing and movements. Today in many parts of the world, the space for these discussions is closing. In this context, breaking through and breaking into formal, institutional spaces is so important. Hearing feminist voices on the global stage paves the way for feminist voices in local settings – and vice versa.