Africa: How Can Germany’s Feminist Policies Benefit Africa?

Germany wants to empower women and girls worldwide with new feminist foreign and development policy strategies. The need in Africa is great, but major discussions loom.

“If women are not safe, then no one is safe,” German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock wrote in her guidelines for feminist foreign policy. According to her own account, she heard the line from a Ukrainian mother just before Russia invaded. She has quoted it several times since then, including in a village in northern Nigeria that was devastated by the Boko Haram militia.

Baerbock’s travels usually include visits that allow her to witness firsthand the living conditions of local women. Not everyone is enthusiastic about her direct approach. During a visit to Uzbekistan last fall, her counterpart, Vladimir Norov, was surprised that the German foreign minister wanted to visit a women’s shelter and see how women lived there. When Narov expressed interest in coming along, she said that was not possible, as she wanted the women to feel like they could talk openly without a male government representative present.

Equal rights for all

Germany’s new guidelines for a feminist foreign policy are intended to improve the situation of women all over the world. And it is not only intended to target women — the aim is “what should be self-evident in the 21st century, namely that all people have the same rights, freedoms and opportunities, regardless of gender, regardless of religion, regardless of who their parents are, what they look like or who they love,” Baerbock said.

Federal Minister for Economic Cooperation and Development Svenja Schulze also presented guidelines for a feminist development policy. “We want our development cooperation to help fight global hunger, to fight poverty,” she said. “We want to make societies more equitable. You can’t do that without half the potential, without women.”

Both strategies focus on what is known as the “three Rs:” rights, resources and representation for women and other disadvantaged groups. By the end of the election period, the Federal Foreign Office wants to spend 85% of its project funds in a “gender-sensitive” manner, which means a project would only be funded if the concerns of women are taken into account. By 2025, the development ministry stipulates that more than 90% of newly committed funds are to go to projects that advance gender equality.

Huge progress, huge differences

The need in Africa is great. “Feminist strategies are very helpful within the African context,” said Ottilia Maunganidze of the South African ISS think tank. The African Union has also adopted a gender strategy. Women are more represented in politics than they were a few years ago.

“Some countries such as Kenya and South Africa have made some notable constitutional steps for inclusive representation in politics,” Grace Mbungu of the Berlin-based Africa Policy Research Institute told DW. But that does not apply equally everywhere: In Cape Verde, almost 38% of all deputies are female, but Nigeria’s House of Representatives listed fewer than four.

Much remains to be done in other areas, too. The World Health Organization estimates that 33% of all African women will be abused by a partner or ex-partner in their lifetime. Eighteen of the 20 countries with the highest frequency of child marriage are in Africa. In Guinea and Somalia, 90% of all women and girls between the ages of 15 and 49 have experienced some form of female genital mutilation, according to the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund UNICEF.

Tensions over reproductive rights

Germany’s strategies could also cause friction with African countries. Though well intended, they “could face a lot of scrutiny, and in some cases rejection from sections of the society,” Mbungu warned.

Sexual and reproductive rights might be one such example. The German development ministry wants to promote access to safe abortion for women and girls, something that is contested “in a number of countries and among African leaders,” Maunganidze told DW. “This is an area where some African countries enshrine the right to safe abortions within their laws, and other countries do not. So in countries where abortion is not legal, that particular aspect will be contested,” she added.

Another controversial issue are gay and lesbian rights, which both federal ministries also want to strengthen. Consensual homosexual sex is considered a criminal offense in many African countries. Ghana is planning even tougher rules: If a new bill is passed, members of the LGBTQ community could face up to 10 years in prison.

About four out of five Africans surveyed disapprove of gays and lesbians, according to a recent Afrobarometer review.

“We have social and cultural values that have existed for a very long time and often take generations to shift,” said Mbungu, adding it had been a similar process in Germany, the US, and other countries. “The German government and other Western governments need to be cognizant that their guidelines could come across as an interference of social and cultural values in some countries, or in parts of society in these countries.”

Not a ‘missionary pamphlet’

Both German ministries still have their work cut out for them. Even if Foreign Minister Baerbock made it clear her strategy was not meant to be a “missionary pamphlet to naively improve the world,” there has been criticism in Germany.

The Free Democratic Party (FDP) coalition partner opposed a motion in which the Bundestag would have symbolically backed Baerbock’s guidelines. Members of the Christian Democrats (CDU) demanded Baerbock should “stop uttering catch phrases and come up with something concrete” — for instance concerning Iran. “With an immediate and unequivocal positioning at the side of protesting women in Iran, the German government could have shown what feminist foreign policy means in practice,” argued J├╝rgen Hardt, a CDU foreign policy expert. It would seem, a lot of work lies ahead to convince partners — in Germany and abroad.

This article was originally written in German.

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