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COVID-19 and Canada’s Feminist Foreign Policy

This blog by Erica N. Rosser documents the Foreign Policy by Canadians Inaugural Conference and some of the discussions that were led by members of the Gender and COVID-19 Project.

The Canadian International Council (CIC), the Canadian Partnership for Women and Children’s Health (CanWaCH) and Global Canada invited a diverse cross-section of their compatriots to discuss foreign policy priorities for the coming decade at the Foreign Policy By Canadians Inaugural Conference. This included Canada’s roles in global engagement, global public health and the global economy. Advertised as an innovative grassroots event and an inclusive forum for policy making, the conference featured presentations and discussion from academics as well as representatives from civil society and government. The Canadian Minister of International Development, Karina Gould, shared her vision for Canada’s role in international development in a special keynote address. The event was livestreamed on YouTube and via Zoom while the conference hosts and audience members posted live updates on Twitter.

A particular focus of the conference was on the impact of COVID-19 on Canada’s Feminist Foreign Policy. President of the CIC National Capital Branch, Elizabeth Kingston, gave welcome remarks for the second expert panel, which was moderated by Jocalyn Clark, Executive Editor of The Lancet. Jocalyn emphasized the importance of multilateralism to the COVID-19 response declaring,

“There will be no health for all unless we have successful collective responses to this pandemic and subsequent pandemic threats. This pandemic has proved that nobody is protected unless everybody is protected.”

She invited listeners to read The Lancet’s Series on Canada as they considered the nation’s commitment to gender equality and their role as global citizens and health leaders on the international stage.

The expert panel featured two members of the Gender and COVID-19 Project,  Rosemary Morgan and Julia Smith. Rosemary opened by discussing the importance of taking an intersectional perspective on the impact of COVID-19 in the context of Canada’s feminist foreign policy. She explained how the pandemic has exacerbated the ways that gender intersects with other social stratifiers to create individual experiences of marginalization, citing the example of women losing jobs at greater rates than men; in particular women of color who do low wage, domestic work, service work and childcare. Similar patterns were observed during the Ebola outbreak in Africa and the Zika epidemic in Brazil. Dr Morgan described how the secondary long-term impacts of COVID-19 threaten to erode important gains in gender equality; however, she also pointed out that the global pandemic has drawn increased attention to issues of intersectional gender equity.

Launched in March 2020, the international Gender and COVID-19 Working Group that Rosemary co-coordinates now has more than 500 members from across academia, government, civil society, and multilateral organizations. These members represent diverse disciplines engaged in addressing gendered impacts on the health, and socioeconomic security of women, men, and gender minorities. By working together, this group has been able to amplify messages on the intersectional needs of populations during the COVID-19 response and recovery. Rosemary also highlighted the need to draw on existing resources, including Hawaii’s and Canada’s Feminist Economic Recovery Plans, about which the Gender and COVID-19 Working Group recently published a brief.

Julia followed by encouraging stakeholders to maintain Canada’s feminist course in foreign policy during the current COVID-19 crisis, and to also see this time as an opportunity to expand Canada’s focus around infectious disease outbreaks, by looking beyond maternal and child health to consider the gender dimensions of health more broadly. Julia illustrated how the pandemic has created a crisis in the care economy that threatens goals related to women’s economic empowerment, which are central to Canada’s feminist foreign policy. She urged listeners to use this moment to advance Canada’s feminist foreign policy around women’s economic empowerment by considering the care economy and other unpaid work in economic planning. She then closed by highlighting Canada’s history as a positive force for change in global health governance and the present opportunity to expand on that legacy.

The speakers discussed that while COVID-19 has exposed the long neglect of sex and gender in public policy it also provides an opportunity to take transformative action to ensure that international and national policies address these needs.

Many thanks to the CIC, the CanWaCH and Global Canada for organizing a unique and inclusive conference on Canadian foreign policy. Learn more about the featured speakers and the event.