(Not) Upholding Feminist Principles in Peace and Security Policies


Feminist peace is directly linked to a commitment to demilitarization, but the concrete implementation of this often appears inadequate. A discussion with Hilina Berhanu Degefa and Barbara Mittelhammer.

Flowers and fists reaching to the sky

An active commitment to feminist peace means committing to demilitarisation (see WEDO, CFFP and WILPF). Yet, in reality, Feminist Foreign Policy (FFP) states like France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Spain called for militarised solutions when confronted with conflicts and crises. One example was the heavy focus on a militarised response by these states with respect to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Instead of already investing major financial resources into peace negotiations with civil society present when the annexation of Crimea happened, European states chose to accelerate ad hoc funds into the military complex after many people had already died in the conflict. This stands in stark contrast to the theoretical fundaments of FFP, which is stopping the cycles of violence and conflict. The prevention of further violence is not an easy task for FFP states. Mainly because most of the conflicts have historically grown over decades or even centuries. However, when a state claims to pursue feminist principles, its peace and security policies have to uphold these principles. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was not the only challenge states with a feminist foreign and development policy had to face. Together with Hilina Berhanu Degefa and Barbara Mittelhammer, I explored the potentials and contradictions of current security policies labelled as feminist - in a time where feminist peace seems to be in a very distant future.

The German urge for pragmatism

With respect to peace and security, the Federal Foreign Office has openly stated from the beginning that its feminist foreign policy is not synonymous with pacifism. Additionally, it “recognises the realities of foreign policy and faces up to the dilemmas that arise from them” (Federal Foreign Office, Guidelines for a Feminist Foreign Policy 2023, p.13).

Porträt Barbara Mittelhammer

For the German Foreign Minister, these dilemmas are no reason to stop pursuing a FFP. It would actually be the opposite, and show again why a FFP is a necessity (Speech by the German Foreign Minister, 13th November 2023 in Brussels). Someone could argue that Germany’s pragmatism is a strength by showing, thus, that Germany sticks to a Realpolitik that tries to “consider both the values and the interests of German foreign policy” (Federal Foreign Office, Guidelines for a Feminist Foreign Policy 2023, p.14). How does this pragmatism translate into actual policy?

When it comes to gender, peace, and security, the Federal Foreign Office has the lead responsibility for the implementation of the Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) agenda. It aims to advocate WPS at the European Union (EU), Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). This includes the thematic areas of sexual and reproductive health and rights, participation in peace and reconstruction processes, and ending conflict-related gender-based violence. For example, the Federal Foreign Office provides support for vulnerable groups affected by conflict in South Sudan.

“We know that peace and security are more sustainable when decision processes concerning security policy are inclusive by design.” 1 .


A sustainable understanding of security can also be found in the Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development’s guidelines. It mentions the need for food security and affordable access to social security. This includes programmes that advocate for food sovereignty, better access to land and land ownership for women, and decent and fair working conditions in global supply chains. The close cooperation between these two ministries is also obvious in the third WPS National Action Plan (NAP), which was introduced under the previous government led by Angela Merkel. However, Germany’s interest in WPS goes beyond project-specific support or thematic areas. Being the top donor to the Peacebuilding Fund, a United Nations fund for crisis prevention and peacebuilding, Germany also has the power to shape WPS within international organisations. Taking into account Germany’s strategic decision to combine the existing inter-ministerial cooperation as outlined in its NAPs could speak to this pragmatism.

The missing feminist reflex

When diving into the contradictions of Germany’s feminist policies, one particular aspect has to be made very clear. “There is no governmental feminist framework. It's not Germany that has a feminist agenda. It's only the German Foreign Office and the German Ministry for International Cooperation and Development. For example, their feminist principles are not reflected in Germany’s National Security Strategy. We need to have that in our minds when looking for contradictions and potentials”, highlights Barbara Mittelhammer. One way is to look at transformative approaches the Federal Foreign Office wants to put in place within its own institution. It wants to cultivate a feminist reflex. When it comes to its own internal structure, the data on Germany speaks for itself. Baerbock is the first-ever woman foreign minister in Germany. Moreover, the gender representation in Germany’s parliaments and ministries underlines the need for institutional change through a feminist reflex, adds Barbara Mittelhammer, who has worked on the #SheCurity Index initiated by the Member of European Parliament, Hanna Neumann.

Cultivating a feminist reflex overnight cannot be expected by Germany’s Feminist Foreign Policy, which has just been introduced. Yet, feminist approaches to peace and security were already punctually embedded in other governmental frameworks, which are still of importance under the new government. NAP 3, for example, states that women and other social groups are frequently not included until after a ceasefire has, as a first step, been negotiated with the (usually male) negotiators from the conflict parties” (p.25). With this, the German government acknowledges the importance of meaningful participation of historically marginalised groups in peace negotiations. Each conflict has a specific context.

Porträt Hilina Berhanu Degefa

Drawing from her experiences, Hilina Berhanu Degefa highlights that “there is often a disconnect between a state’s policy formulation and how a state actually acts”. The social groups that are excluded during national dialogue and ceasefire negotiations in Ethiopia might differ from the excluded groups in Ukraine. Cultivating a feminist reflex, therefore, means gathering context specific information about the intersections of oppression that result in the exclusion of social groups and acting upon the necessity to not reproduce further marginalisation.

How to practice what you preach

Diverse representation and meaningful participation are essential feminist practices. However, they have become buzzwords on paper that do not translate into reality. To ensure that feminist principles do not get lost in translation, it is necessary to share how much additional effort it takes to live up to these feminist principles. Hilina Berhanu Degefa describes how challenging and simultaneously rewarding it is to practice what you preach: “I'm a feminist learner. I'm not perfect in my feminist journey and learning the many values that I continue to work with is what makes me a better feminist every day. This was also the case when I briefed the UN Security Council at the Open Debate on Sexual Violence in Conflict in April 2022.” For example, Hilina’s consultation with pastoralists and minority communities ensured she brought an intersectional perspective of their demands before the council. For her, it is necessary that diverse feminist voices are well accounted for in making an intersectional approach work. States with a FFP and feminist civil society have to acknowledge the differences within communities while working towards liberation. This is not entirely the case at the moment. Barbara Mittelhammer and Hilina Berhanu Degefa made clear that Germany’s feminist peace and security policies have many contradictions and gaps. Yet, as the guidelines for Germany’s Feminist Foreign Policy “are designed as a living document” (p.14), Germany still has the opportunity to take diverse feminist demands into account, to reflect on how its current pragmatism is compatible with feminist principles, as well as how it plans to contribute to sustainable feminist peace.

  • 1(Federal Foreign Office, Guidelines for a Feminist Foreign Policy 2023, p.9)