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Canada’s New Foreign Aid Policy Recognizes the Ripple Effect of Women’s Rights

By Marie Wilken

On Friday, Canada’s Ministry of International Development released its Feminist International Assistance Policy, which refocuses Canada’s foreign aid on combatting gender inequality. Its unprecedented focus on gender sends a clear message about Canada’s dedication to women’s rights, and the policy will have a broader impact. The policy is an acknowledgement of the effect women’s rights have on poverty reduction, peace-building, and other humanitarian goals. While not the first country to create gender-based foreign aid policies, Canada provides a good example for and sharp contrast to countries like the United States, which—far from building foreign aid policy around feminist principles—has withdrawn funding from international women’s organizations through its Global Gag Rule.

With its new policy, 15% of Canadian foreign aid will be used for gender equality programs within five years, compared to the 2% dedicated to gender equality programs during 2015-2016. It requires all government projects to integrate a women’s empowerment and gender equality component, and existing programs and partners must involve local women in the decision-making and implementation of projects. As part of its international assistance policy, Canada announced the Women’s Voice and Leadership Program. The program will allocate $113 million (USD) over five years to support local women’s organizations in developing countries that are working to advance the rights of women and girls. These measures will make Canada the single largest contributor of bilateral funding to women’s rights organizations. (These policies have drawn some criticism, however, because they do not allocate new money to international aid and instead reallocate existing funds.)

Canada clearly considered the ripple effect of gender equality when forming their foreign assistance policy. Their press release highlights their motivation: “Canada believes that society is more prosperous, peaceful, secure and united when women’s rights are respected and women are valued and empowered in their communities.” And the research supports this. Many have acknowledged that investing in women and girls brings positive socioeconomic effects. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) found a strong and broad correlation between gender equality and human development. A UN Women report proved that gender equality programming amplified the effects of humanitarian action, improved access to and outcomes in education, increased access to food security, and more. Similarly, a University of Connecticut Economic & Social Rights Empowerment Initiative discovered a correlation between gender equality and economic and social rights fulfillment.

This policy builds on Canada’s previous commitments to international women’s rights. Canada promised $14.9 million (USD) to family planning services at the She Decides Conference in Brussels this year, and in response to the U.S. Global Gag Rule, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau put $483 million (USD) toward reproductive health rights and services. Other countries have adopted similar measures: the Netherlands created a large fund for women’s rights in 2008, and a couple years ago, Sweden applied a feminist approach to its entire foreign policy agenda.

Not all countries, however, have followed suit. Canada’s initiative starkly contrasts with the United States’ recent policies. While Canada has reinforced its commitment to reproductive rights and increased its funding for women’s groups abroad, the U.S. Global Gag Rule has restricted its aid to women’s groups by withholding funding from projects that provide abortion information or services.

Canada’s policy is exemplary not only because of its expected positive impact but also because of its reframing of gender issues. With this shift in the way humanitarian aid is delivered, Canada shows that gender equality and women’s rights are not just “women’s issues” that benefit only women; they are critical socioeconomic and security factors that benefit all of society.

Photo credit: Development Canada