Taking a feminist approach to international relations: position paper

This position paper sets out the scope and guiding principles of our feminist approach to international relations.

Scotland’s Approach

1.1 What is a feminist approach and why do we need one?

Globally, there is growing momentum towards adopting a feminist approach to foreign policy, one that is fair, intersectional and human rights based.

The global climate and biodiversity emergencies are twin reinforcing crises which disproportionately impact those who have done least to cause them. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated structural inequalities within Scotland and globally. Similarly, the UK’s exit from the EU highlights a significant number of potential and continuing social and equality impacts, particularly for the most vulnerable. As concerns about women, children and marginalised groups in Ukraine, Afghanistan and the Middle East and other countries affected by conflict continue to grow, the impact of conflict on women is ever clearer.

Gender inequality affects everyone – not just women and girls. And yet the world is not on track to achieve gender equality by 2030. The latest Progress on the Sustainable Development Goals demonstrates the rights of women and girls around the world continue to be rolled back. By protecting and promoting equality, inclusion and human rights the Scottish Government can help to challenge and change this.

In the current global climate it is more important than ever that we drive an ambitious and progressive agenda to ensure equality, inclusion and human rights are embedded in all we do, both at home and abroad. These global challenges are interconnected and gendered. Tackling the root causes and power structures which cause these inequalities will benefit all of us.

The Scottish Government aims to be a good global citizen in everything we do internationally, making distinctive contributions to addressing these global challenges. As part of this the Scottish Government is committed to a feminist approach to international relations (FAIR). A feminist approach for Scotland will leverage all aspects of Scotland’s international policy to advance gender equality and the rights of women, girls and marginalised groups in pursuit of a fairer world. Our approach prioritises peace and gender equality, while also questioning and challenging existing power structures. We believe a feminist approach can support all international actors to advance a more equitable world.

This means prioritising collaboration and cooperation over adversarial processes. It means championing democracy, multilateralism, and a rules-based international system. It means promoting a post- colonial and anti-racist vision of international policymaking. It means protecting and promoting human rights, paying particular attention to protecting and promoting the rights of the most marginalised. It means considering the collective wellbeing of both current and future generations.

The Scottish Government is a strong supporter of multilateralism and the rules-based international system and seeks to have international influence and communicate shared interests in international fora. We place great importance on Scotland being a good global citizen and act accordingly by participating in international networks and sharing knowledge that can be of mutual benefit to Scotland and partners around the world. A feminist approach will continue to support efforts to strengthen international institutions and ensure appropriate representation and the influence of a diverse range of voices in key multilateral processes for a system that works for all.

The Scottish Government recognises the distinct forms of disadvantage, harm and injustice experienced by individuals when multiple categories of social identities are considered, such as race and ethnicity, socio-economic background, religion, disability, and all genders. The inequality faced by women and girls is complex and harmful and this gender inequality affects everyone – it affects us collectively.

As part of FAIR we will continue to strive to give people most affected by structural inequalities and injustice, conflict, climate change and environmental damage a platform to speak for themselves and influence and make decisions.

There is more that we can, and should do as we seek to implement a feminist approach to our international work. We will continue to take an anti-racist, inclusive, collaborative approach by harnessing a range of diverse voices, and to ensure we confront historic and continuing injustice. An inclusive approach requires us to play our part towards dismantling the barriers that impede Global South representation. We must be open to contending with our past while contributing to addressing global challenges and achieving fairer outcomes in the world today.

Crucially, we must recognise Scotland’s FAIR as a journey and as an ongoing process. We know that our work must be evidence-based and that a ‘one size fits all’ approach will fail to deliver for us all. This position paper commits us to a set of principles which will help us guide our work and identify the focus and parameters of the policy. We will set out aims and desired outcomes which will help us track progress over time. In line with our commitment to international knowledge exchange and policy partnerships we are committed to continuous dialogue with stakeholders. We remain open to constructive challenge, and acknowledging gaps – and to take action as a result of improved understanding.

1.2 Action to date

Scotland has a proud record of engaging internationally within the current constitutional arrangements. As set out in our background note, we also have a strong commitment to advancing feminist policies internationally, demonstrated from our Women in Conflict 1325 Fellowships all the way through to the work we are taking forward in our Vision for Trade. We want to build on this to help contribute to a fairer world, applying a feminist lens to all Scottish Government policies and programmes with an international dimension.

1.3 Scotland Act

The Scotland Act 1998 states that “international relations, including relations with territories outside the United Kingdom, the European Union (and their institutions) and other international organisations, regulation of international trade, and international development assistance and cooperation are reserved matters”. This means that powers over defence and national security, foreign affairs, immigration and asylum, and trade policy are reserved to the Government of the United Kingdom.

Notes on clauses to the Scotland Act explain that Scottish Ministers can communicate with other countries, regions or international institutions so long as they do not purport to speak for the UK or to reach agreements which commit the UK. In addition, Scottish Ministers are not prevented from pursuing their interests internationally and Scottish Ministers can enter into agreements that are not binding Treaties.

Scottish Ministers may assist Ministers of the Crown with international relations, including international development assistance. Like all other parts of the UK, Scotland has always contributed through its taxpayers to the UK Government’s international development work – delivered through the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) and other UK Government Departments such as the Ministry of Defence (MoD).

With the agreement of the UK Government, the Scottish Government established its international development footprint from 2005. Our international development work is funded from within the Scottish Government’s own budget and, like any other part of that budget, is subject to Scottish Parliament approval and scrutiny. However, the UK Government takes account of all of the Scottish Government’s international development spend, therefore our International Development Fund, Humanitarian Emergency Fund and Climate Justice Fund are all included in Official Development Assistance.

The Scottish Government has nine international offices to promote its relationships, plus engagement strategies with the US, China, Canada, India and Pakistan. It is active in a range of regional and subnational multilateral coalitions. Within Scotland, private and public sector bodies have a good deal of autonomy over procurement and investment, which can have implications for relations with countries outside Scotland.

1.4 Policy development

The Scottish Government is committed to a consultative and collaborative feminist approach to international work. We have learnt from an evidence review, expert interviews as well as feedback from the Scottish Government gender stakeholder group and National Advisory Council on Women and Girls (NACWG). We will continue to engage with a diverse range of groups and expertise as our approach continues to develop and be implemented.

Scotland’s International Development Alliance and the Scottish Council for Global Affairs were contracted to run a series of workshops with UK and Global South based stakeholders. The aims of the externally commissioned work were to:

1. Inform the policy focus and measurable outcomes of Scotland’s feminist approach to foreign policy;

2. Identify and fill gaps in existing knowledge about global gender issues, thereby improving the Scottish Government’s evidence base;

3. Help to shape the definition of the Scottish Government’s feminist approach to foreign policy; and

4. Build relationships with key stakeholders and develop long-term networks.

The feedback from the workshops was consolidated into an independent report which outlines recommendations to inform our approach in Scotland. The Scottish Government has also engaged with key stakeholders throughout the process, including: the Scottish Youth Parliament, LGBTI+ stakeholders, international development stakeholders, trade and business groups, Global South Advisory Panel, National Advisory Council on Women and Girls, Human Rights Defenders and many others.

Following a multi-criteria analysis process, this position paper responds to these inputs by outlining how Scotland’s international relations policies and programmes will be developed in line with a feminist approach.

1.5 Defining a feminist approach for Scotland: our guiding principles

In line with international best practice, our stakeholder engagement and evidence review sought to define the parameters of a feminist approach to international relations in Scotland. This has informed the following set of core principles, which will guide the Scottish Government’s approach to international relations:

  • Transformative: We prioritise addressing the shared systemic barriers which drive inequality and insecurity. We collaborate and speak out in pursuit of innovative, progressive solutions.
  • Intersectional: We view inequality through an intersectional lens and understand the compounding impact of marginalisation and oppression.
  • Equitable: We commit to an equalising power agenda which seeks to be actively anti-racist and anti-colonial and we ensure reducing inequalities is central to how we work.
  • Participatory: We engage in participatory consultations at home and abroad and adopt accessible, collaborative approaches with civil society and women, girls and marginalised groups around the world.
  • Consistent: We ensure coherence between international, domestic, and local policies, integrating feminist principles across all aspects of our international policymaking.
  • Accountable: We promote transparency and accountability in Scotland and abroad in measuring both policy process and impact.

1.6 Where will a feminist approach apply?

Our feminist approach to international relations complements our domestic objective to address inequality in Scotland. The Scottish Government is working to ensure no one in Scotland is denied rights or opportunities because of their gender. We will ensure our focus on equality, inclusion and human rights in Scotland is mirrored in our international activity.

Our international engagement provides us with the opportunity to help deliver on Scotland’s domestic objectives and the First Minister’s three missions of equality, opportunity, and community. We recognise we must focus resource where Scotland, as a devolved nation, can add most value.

Working across the Scottish Government, we will continually review our policies and programmes, where they have an international dimension, to ensure they reflect our guiding principles as set out above. Doing so recognises the importance of being led by our values while acknowledging the power Government has as an actor, and the need for the Scottish Government to be adaptable.

1.7 Delivering a feminist approach

Scotland’s feminist approach to international relations recognises that the challenges we face are interconnected and require a cross-government response. To ensure feminist international policymaking is mainstreamed across the Scottish Government, our approach will align with our commitment to mainstream equality and human rights. This includes:

  • Ensuring learning and development for our staff in Scotland and in our overseas network is guided by an understanding of feminist principles for international policy.
  • Aligning with the developing Equality and Human Rights Mainstreaming Strategy, with a focus on building organisation capability, capacity and culture.
  • Developing and piloting a human rights impact assessment framework for both legislative and policy work.
  • Embedding equality and human rights within the economic policymaking process and build capacity and capability across economic policy officials. The Scottish Government’s first Centre of Expertise in Equality and Human Rights was established in May 2022 with an initial focus on mainstreaming gender equality and gender intersectionality across economic policy development and implementation, including through upskilling officials in gender competence.
  • Considering the best means and models to set up more Centres of Expertise as part of our work to develop a mainstreaming equality and human rights strategy.
  • Recognising, within other initiatives, such as the Scottish Human Rights Defender Fellowship, the relevance of feminist principles and of the contribution made by women in advocating for human rights, equality and environmental justice, including in the Global South.
  • Continuing to engage our International Board and the recently established Senior Leadership Group on Equality and Human Rights, which will scrutinise and bring challenge to the Scottish Government’s strategic approach to embed equality and human rights, ensuring they are at the heart of policy development. This will follow the three key themes of – Leadership, Accountability and Creating Conditions.
  • Continuing to take a progressive approach to international development as we seek to implement our International Development Principles and further align with our new feminist principles. We are committed to ensuring that a human-rights based approach, the equalisation of power and reducing inequalities are central to how we deliver our international development work.
  • Continuing to engage our Global South Advisory Panel on our international development policy and programming. As we work with the Panel and our other partners in the Global South to consider the future purpose, structure, and remit of the Panel, we will explore opportunities to harness Global South expertise on wider Scottish Government policy as it relates to a feminist approach to international relations.
  • Using our principles to guide the Scottish Government’s international engagement, including the work of our overseas offices and our approach to working with Scots around the world.


Email: laura.maclaughlin@gov.scot

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