In her introduction to the government’s discussion paper on international assistance policy, Minister of International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau noted areas in which she believed Canada could make a difference.

“We must empower women and girls and protect their rights, as they are equal agents of change in the development of their communities and countries,” she wrote.

The paper goes on to underscore that a “feminist lens will be applied throughout all of Canada’s international assistance activities.”

For CARE Canada, which sees unequal power relations – and gender inequality in particular – as an underlying cause of poverty and instability, this was welcome news. The impact that can be achieved by working with women and girls is today a guiding principle in international assistance here and around the world.

Adopted in September 2015, the United Nations 2030 Global Agenda for Sustainable Development notes that, “the achievement of full human potential and of sustainable development is not possible if one half of humanity continues to be denied its full human rights and opportunities.”

Similarly, the Paris Agreement on climate change and the UN’s Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction underscore women’s central role in developing more effective approaches to poverty eradication and fostering more prosperous and resilient communities.

While the wisdom supporting these principles is encouraging, it is not new.

Numerous high-level declarations and policy frameworks have underscored the imperatives of gender equality, women’s rights and their meaningful involvement in international development and humanitarian response over the past two decades.

Yet these promises continue to fall short in practice.

In south Syria, for example, men are 71 percent more likely to manage how relief items are distributed, as compared with fewer than 12 percent of women.

This is despite the fact that women have taken a leading role in Syria since the 2011 uprising – for instance, filling the gaps left by the collapse of health and rehabilitation services and educational institutions, and finding new ways of supporting their families amid a spike in female-headed households.

Although gender dynamics are changing in the world’s most urgent emergency situations, women’s perspectives are too often a secondary consideration. Women’s potential also continues to go largely untapped in non-emergency settings.

Research from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, for example, shows that women could increase yields on their farms by 20 to 30 percent if they had the same access as men did to resources for production, such as agricultural tools and services.

That increased productivity could in turn raise total agricultural productivity in developing countries by 2.5-4 percent, and could bring food security to an additional 100-150 million people.

For Justin Trudeau’s government, which has spoken of the link between climate change and food issues as a “risk amplifier” for security, investing in women’s development and relief potential is imperative for not only human rights and development effectiveness but also global prosperity and stability.

Shifting power relations

Not all gender-sensitive international development programming can be considered feminist. When gender equality is combined with other issues such as sexual and reproductive health and rights or the rights of children and youth, its broader impact is unclear.

In addition to being incorporated into all international assistance policies and programs, therefore, a feminist perspective requires that gender inequality be treated as an underlying cause of poverty and instability, and that women’s empowerment be regarded as a foreign policy objective in and of itself.

International assistance delivery mechanisms must be redesigned to meet these objectives.

The inner workings of government
Keep track of who’s doing what to get federal policy made. In The Functionary.
The Functionary
Our newsletter about the public service. Nominated for a Digital Publishing Award.

Because gender and power relations are so delicately entwined with our identities as individuals and as societies, achieving true equality for all genders entails transforming our social norms. This involves changing attitudes and behaviour in recipient countries, one individual at a time. For example, helping women to secure deeds to agricultural land in patriarchal communities can take years of sensitization and advocacy work. Showing these communities that women can excel at farming when they are given the same opportunities doesn’t happen overnight.

By adopting longer-term programming cycles, Canada and its development partners can achieve more definitive demonstrations of change, thereby enabling reporting according to the targets set out in the 2030 Agenda.

It took CARE’s flagship programming around gender-based violence in Sri Lanka 10 years and three programming cycles to move from basic programming on awareness-raising and keeping women from harm, through engaging men and beginning to discuss this topic openly in communities, to the point where men and women were involved in policy dialogues with government officials to advocate for broader change.

A successful Canadian feminist foreign policy, after all, relies on not only well-designed directives and good intentions, but also the government’s internal capacity to coordinate and account for gender equality results.

Too often, gender analysis and responding to gender-related needs are regarded as add-ons and not priorities. Program effectiveness and accountability for gender outcomes must therefore be underpinned by the systematic gathering of sex- and age-disaggregated data.

Finally, women’s rights organizations are the most effective at identifying and meeting the needs of their constituents and advocating for change. They are also often the first to arrive on the scene of an emergency or to respond with solutions to safeguard food needs in times of drought.

But in spite of the evidence demonstrating these realities, over the past five years Canada’s investment in women’s rights organizations and programs where gender equality is the principal objective has amounted to only 1 or 2 percent of total program funding.

Emphasizing women’s agency

In recent years, Canada’s international assistance has mostly treated women as victims, mothers or potential mothers, or the passive recipients of assistance. A truly feminist international assistance policy must treat women not as beneficiaries but as agents of change.

This will involve enacting a rights-based approach that seeks to address the root causes of problems. It will also involve transforming unequal structures and systems. To do this will require working at multiple levels simultaneously — with individuals in communities, local or regional government officials and other powerful people — to create awareness about women’s and girls’ rights and facilitate activities in which women and girls are safe to speak out and act to claim their rights.

Such an approach seeks to change community rules and policy implementation so that women, men, girls and boys have equal opportunities to make a living and discover new potential.

New measures must go beyond service delivery, they must be aimed at strengthening women’s autonomy and empowerment.

Women’s rights organizations must be supported so they can influence policy reform and implementation, transform gender norms and stereotypes, and foster changes in attitudes and behaviour.

Throughout its review of international assistance policy, as well as on the international stage, Canada has positioned itself as an up-and-coming global leader on gender equality. The new policy and funding framework that is set to be unveiled in the coming weeks provides a rare opportunity to establish a feminist Canadian international assistance approach — in practice.

Photo: Anton Ivanov/

This article is part of the International Assistance special feature.


Do you have something to say about the article you just read? Be part of the Policy Options discussion, and send in your own submission. Here is a link on how to do it. | Souhaitez-vous réagir à cet article ? Joignez-vous aux débats d’Options politiques et soumettez-nous votre texte en suivant ces directives.

Gillian Barth
Gillian Barth is president and CEO of CARE Canada. She brings to CARE more than 30 years of international development and humanitarian experience, having worked in or travelled to 55 countries.

You are welcome to republish this Policy Options article online or in print periodicals, under a Creative Commons/No Derivatives licence.

Creative Commons License