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Work in Progress: India’s March Towards a Feminist Foreign Policy     

26 Jun 2024
By Akanksha Khullar
Scenes from the opening of the 64th session of the Commission on the Status of Women held in the UN General Assembly Hall at UN Headquarters in New York on 8 March 2020. Source: UN Women /

The time is ripe for India to walk the talk in terms of integrating gender in international relations as well as domestic policies. Using a feminist foreign policy, it must deconstruct dominant power structures that hinder its growth and embrace its leadership potential.

Over the past decade, India’s standing on the world stage has gradually transformed with the expansion of its regional and global profile, great power ambition, and the subsequent development of a progressive voice on some of the most pressing challenges of our times. However, it has not yet realised the fact that amid the numerous opportunities and challenges presented by the prospect of a multipolar world order, it is the urgent advancement of an inclusionary lens to policies and institutional structures that can bring about a more transformational change to its ability to shape international politics. The discourse on feminist foreign policy (FFP) for India has, therefore, remained a work in progress.

The ideation of FFP in India

FFP traces its genealogy to feminist IR theory, which according to Aggestam and others, “challenges the absence of women in international relations on many fronts, both in theory and in the practice of foreign policy and global politics more broadly.” However, in reality it has no fixed universal definition. Its core idea suggests the application of an intersectional approach to security issues from the viewpoint of women and those who are marginalised.

A closer reading of the concept, in fact, reveals that its definition and understanding are always influenced by the context in which it is discussed. So far, eight FFPs have been announced across the world, seven adopted and one rolled back by Sweden, thereby, making FFP a regular part of the foreign policy lexicon in the West today. In India, too, discussions around FFP have become increasingly common within academic circles, feminist organisations, think tanks, and even among officials.

Taking a step further, the Indian External Affairs Minister, Dr S Jaishankar in August 2021 acknowledged the necessity of a “gender-balanced” foreign policy and stated, “I agree that we need to look at the world from the perspective of women, we need a gender balanced foreign policy.”

Since then, India has been seen adopting a more proactive gender approach and undertaking rigorous efforts to include a feminist perspective in international development projects. This was particularly visible during its G20 presidency in 2023, which brought about a paradigm shift in gender-based policymaking. It fostered the idea of women-led-development that aims to channel the potential of women to actively shape and drive economic, social, and political progress at all levels of governance.

India’s position, reflecting its gender commitments, also witnessed an improvement on the international stage with India ranking 108th out of 193 countries, according to the Gender Inequality Index 2022, which is a significant jump of 14 ranks compared to 2021, where it stood at 122 among 191 countries. In another instance, India’s ranking also improved notably as per the Women, Peace and Security Index released by the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security, rising from 148th out of 170 countries in 2021-22 to 128th out of 177 countries in 2023-24.

Even on the domestic front, the Indian government has launched numerous welfare schemes that have aimed to empower women and make them equal drivers of India’s development journey. A milestone was achieved in September 2023 with the passing of the Nari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyam, which seeks to reserve one-third of seats for women in the Lok Sabha, State Legislative Assemblies, and Delhi Assembly.

Facing reality

Despite these achievements, a deeper analysis of India’s feminist foreign policy discourse and gender equality commitment reveals how these efforts tend to address the cause at an arms distance. This isn’t to suggest that no progress has been made, just that it has been limited.

To begin with, the FFP language, approach, and rationale prioritises equal treatment and equal opportunity to those traditionally excluded in thinking or decision-making processes, while being gender-responsive across policies. However, India has not yet been able to fully open-up the conservative, male dominated institutions to the presence and influence of women. As a result, women and minorities in India continue to wrestle with a lack of representation at work as well as in political apparatuses.

For instance, in the Ministry of External Affairs—the main institutional carrier and implementer of FFP—the percentage of women is a mere 13.5 percent. At the Under Secretary level it stands at 29 percent, and the heads of divisions as well as heads of missions are only around 13-15 percent. In the legislature, despite the passing of the women’s reservation bill in 2023, which has not yet come into effect, the recent Lok Sabha elections witnessed the election of only 75 women among a total of 543 Lok Sabha constituencies.

The incorporation of feminist perspectives seeks to challenge patriarchal systems that perpetuate inequality not only internationally but also nationally. And while the public conversation in India is often steered towards removing discriminatory practices and socio-cultural barriers that perpetuate inequality and discrimination, the Indian societal situation continues to be based on a patriarchy, caste, and class system as well as religious prejudices that in a way fuel discrimination.

This can be particularly seen through India’s skewed gender ratio, which according to the National Family Health Survey, stood at 929 girls per 1000 boys during 2019-2021. Adding to this, the National Crime Records Bureau reported that in 2022, a total of 4,45,256 cases of crime against women were registered, which is an increase of four percent over 2021. Many Indian citizens are also aware of the widespread practices of child feticide, child marriage, sexual abuse and harassment, disparities in access to education, healthcare, and employment, as well as gender stereotyping that remain prevalent across the country even today, and underreported.

It is also important to talk about India’s international gender commitments that, in a way, form the foundation for India’s FFP journey. These commitments, without a doubt, look highly impressive on paper. But a closer investigation reveals its gaps. A good example of this would be India’s repeated verbal commitments to advance the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda that remains bereft of a National Action Plan to implement the agenda at home. Similarly, even though India ratified the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 1993, it has not yet ratified the Optional Protocol that allows people to directly approach the CEDAW committee if the national systems fail to uphold the principles mentioned in the agreement.

India has never shied away from providing explanations for undertaking these actions, but a deeper commitment to gender issues should not be superficial and necessitates a more assertive approach through the full adoption of available international mechanisms.

Way forward

With the gradual expansion of India’s global footprint and presence in the UN, there is immense potential for the government to be the flagbearer of change and establish itself as a model emerging power that is concerned about those who are marginalised. However, it must first breakdown the dominant power structures that internally hinder its growth. Perhaps the formal adoption of FFP—focusing on the three Rs of rights, representation and resources—serves as a perfect solution to this problem.

The time is ripe for India to move away from symbolic practices and begin walking the talk in terms of integrating gender in international relations as well as domestic policies, thereby bringing about real political and social transformation.

Akanksha Khullar is an independent scholar working on gender issues, in particular an understanding of the women, peace and security agenda, and identifying how national, regional and international organisations contribute in shaping the UN Security Council Resolution 1325.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.