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  • Dr. Theologia Iliadou

Ethics in the West: reality or fallacy? - A Gender and Security Perspective

Gender emerges as a crosscutting element in every development central to the contemporary national and international politics agendas. From migration, rape as a weapon of war and arms trade to simple questions about democracy and one’s right to self-determine their own gender identity. Whereas it is easy and logical to conceptualise and theorize women’s rights and end to gender-based violence upon a human rights framework, topics such as gender equality and reproductive rights pose ethical challenges in their framing and politicization. But even in topics that are linked to fundamental human rights, such as the right for equal involvement in the social, economic and political spheres, safety from physical harm we observe that these rights have relatively recently been legally established and in practice political and social resistance remains strong.

Certain examples from the news and starting domestically from the UK:

  • The 18 female British MPs that won’t run for re-election due to harassment, threats and abuse

  • Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s statement that women go to university to find husbands

  • The decision of a school in East Sussex to introduce gender neutral uniforms in the form of trousers banning skirts as part of their gender inclusive policy and police being called against the female students refusing to comply

The USA:

  • Trump’s misogynist rhetoric and the Kavanaugh case

  • USA’s threats to veto UN resolution on rape as a weapon of war due to language on sexual health linked to conservative agenda on reproductive health rights


  • Rise of trafficking of women for the purposes of sexual exploitation

  • Feminisation of migration

  • Gender inequality in the composition of governments

A gender lens not only brings forward existing unaddressed abuse and inequalities, but it also provides a deeper understanding of the power and structural dynamics behind certain phenomena such as for example human trafficking within the context of population movements. A feminist domestic and foreign policy agenda within this context does not only just serve the ethical considerations of women’s lives and bodies but it can be a tool for more responsive and human-centred policy making.

In 2015 Sweden was the world’s first country to define its foreign policy agenda as feminist with a commitment to gender equality and human rights for all women and girls based on cosmopolitan norms of global justice and peace. In practice that meant protection from sexual and gender-based violence, addressing sexual and reproductive health and rights and a more equitable distribution of global income and natural resources. The implementation of this approach saw the ethical challenges and criticisms with regards to the ability of the state to maintain its power as a global player without compromising the specific agenda. One example demonstrating these ethical and power dilemmas is the role of Sweden as a global arms seller and its contract with Saudi Arabia a country with high levels of gender-based violence.

New Zealand’s liberal agenda based on well-being is another example of a human rights-based approach to policy with a proactive focus on gender-based violence. New Zealand’s Prime Minister demonstrated this ethical approach to governance in the Christchurch shooting incident 8 months ago where she focused on human-centred ethical principles rather than ethnic and religious basis to construct the national moral culture.

On the other side of the world Trump’s clear rhetoric on fear, hate, and misogyny has been informing not only his domestic but also foreign policy. With migrant detention conditions at the borders with clear violations of basic human rights, a clear anti-feminist agenda on sexual and reproductive rights, misogynist power dynamics while conducting diplomatic relations with female foreign world leaders (the case of Denmark and language used), threat to veto UN resolution on rape as weapon of war due to language on sexual and reproductive rights. Hard governance and the capacity of the state to protect its national interests are associated to go hand in hand with misogynism and sexism.

These three distinctive cases demonstrate that political power and the global world order are gendered. Despite the fact that a feminist approach to conducting domestic and foreign politics is based on a cosmopolitan human rights basis it is associated with soft power diminishing state’s capacity to survive in a realist international arena. Nationalism and populism within that context are viewed as necessary evils as forms of hard power. BREXIT, within the context of European Union political developments, in itself questions the availability and capacity of states to commit to cooperation and principles of equality let alone women’s rights and gender equality. The feminist lens of looking into domestic and foreign politics exposes hard questions about the progress on human rights but also the structural changes needed to achieve so in the reorientation of how we approach and conceptualise governance.

A gender lens exposes hard questions and realisations that call us to ask ourselves whether we want to accept concepts of a human condition that lack the capacity to reconcile these dynamics or the setting of a challenging agenda that will aim at reorienting the way we organise ourselves on domestic and international levels. Can we work towards an outward looking and inclusive world order?

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