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Feminist approach - Innovation and effectiveness guidance note

This note on the feminist approach provides guidance for developing and institutionalizing processes and practices to support the implementation of the Feminist International Assistance Policy. The Feminist International Assistance Policy’s core premise is that promoting gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls in all their diversity is the right thing to do and the smart way to reduce poverty and inequality and build prosperity.

Achieving gender equality and supporting women’s empowerment are ends in themselves and have a high impact on progress across all Sustainable Development Goals. Reaching the poorest and most marginalized who may face increased discrimination based on intersecting identity factors is essential to leaving no one behind and achieving the 2030 Agenda. However, pursuing a feminist agenda is not only about what we do, but also about how we do it. Global Affairs Canada requires a continued, significant and deliberate shift in its international assistance processes and practices to maximize the impact of its actions and meaningfully operationalize the objectives outlined in the Feminist International Assistance Policy. This note provides practical guidance toward this goal by deepening existing mechanisms and identifying new approaches and actions.

Implementing the feminist approach is the responsibility of all Global Affairs Canada staff. While the department staff working in international assistance are the primary audience for this guidance note, the principles and strategies outlined are relevant to all streams (development, diplomacy, consular and trade) and support Canada’s feminist foreign policy. Stakeholders and partners who work with Global Affairs Canada on programming, policy and advocacy will also find the note relevant.

International assistance context

Canada’s international assistance mandate is to reduce poverty and build a more peaceful, inclusive and prosperous world. The Feminist International Assistance Policy identifies gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls in all their diversity as the best way to contribute to this mandate as well as to contribute to larger commitments and obligations, both departmentally and globally. The feminist approach is anchored in and supports the following policies, commitments and obligations:

Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women

The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) are two critically important global instruments that outline and serve to promote, protect and advance the rights of women and girls specifically. The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, adopted by 189 United Nations member states in 1995, envisions a world in which women and girls realize and exercise their rights, have the freedom to make choices and live free from violence. The Platform for Action outlines commitments under 12 critical areas to realize this vision: areas such as health, the economy, the environment and armed conflict. Governments and civil society have turned Platform for Action commitments into concrete actions that have led to changes in laws on violence against women, more women in political office and greater access to health care for women and girls. Nearly 25 years after its inception, the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action remains a critically important instrument that countries look to as a benchmark for advancing gender equality and women’s empowerment. CEDAW, often described as the bill of rights for women, sets out a comprehensive set of rights for women in civil, political, economic, social and cultural sectors. Adopted by the United National General Assembly in 1979, CEDAW is one of the core human rights treaties of the United Nations system and has achieved nearly universal ratification with 189 states parties. While many states have entered reservations against particular aspects or articles of the convention in order to limit their obligations under the treaty, CEDAW remains one of the most important international instruments used to hold states to account and secure the human rights of women, such as women’s equal right to education, health and work.


Global Affairs Canada’s feminist approach seeks to bring about transformative change to make societies more equal, prosperous and peaceful. In pursuit of this goal and anchored in a human rights-based approach, this guidance note identifies entry points and opportunities for powerful change within the department. The department has opportunities to:

The feminist approach requires supporting the voice, agency and empowerment of women and girls in all their diversity and others who face discrimination or marginalization. It also requires holding accountable powerful actors such as duty-bearers and responsibility-holders for their human rights obligations and responsibilities to rebalance the distribution of power and achieve just and inclusive societies. The feminist approach values diversity and inclusion as essential assets for achieving transformative change and sustainable development and responds to lived experiences by taking into account intersectional dimensions of discrimination and inequality. Such an approach creates space for advocacy and dialogue, builds alliances in pursuit of common objectives and meets international human rights obligations.

Levers for change: doing things differently

Since the Feminist International Assistance Policy was announced in 2017, the department has been implementing aspects of the feminist approach. Some examples include:

While these initiatives demonstrate concrete actions Canada has taken to support the achievement of the Feminist International Assistance Policy’s goals, they must be accompanied by changes in internal processes and systems for Global Affairs Canada to credibly and capably achieve the transformative change that it seeks to deliver in collaboration with its development partners. Building on the good practices that have informed Canada’s approach, the department is:

In doing so, the department seeks to:

A human rights-based perspective

While Global Affairs Canada has historically strived to advance the human rights of people who are living in poverty and who are marginalized, including women and girls in all their diversity, this note provides guidance on institutionalizing a human rights-based approach. This is fundamental to achieving the Feminist International Assistance Policy’s feminist vision. Recognizing that international assistance policy and practice exist on a continuum, adopting a human rights-based approach enables a shift in perspective:

Pathways for moving from words to action

To implement the Feminist International Assistance Policy, the department must change how it works. It must ensure that its programming, policies and overall enabling environment contribute to transformative change.

It can accomplish this by:

Evidence base and analysis

To ensure that international assistance is based on evidence and contributes to addressing the root causes of poverty, eliminating systemic discrimination and transforming unequal systems of power, all initiatives are guided and informed by a multidimensional analysis.

This analysis is undertaken at the outset of an initiative and considers the broader cross-stream implications of the feminist foreign policy. It is grounded in research, data and evidence that values and includes the knowledge, experience and perspectives of diverse groups of women and girls and of marginalized persons. The process directing analysis seeks to rebalance the distribution of power. The multidimensional analysis includes the distinct but complementary gender-based analysis plus (GBA+) and human rights analysis. The GBA+ assesses how diverse groups of women, men and non-binary people may experience policies, programs and initiatives by virtue of multiple intersecting identity factors. The human rights analysis examines the human rights situation at the national, regional and sectoral levels; identifies the core problem from a human rights perspective; considers stakeholders, including duty-bearers and the most marginalized rights-holders; and identifies gaps in the human rights capacity of these groups. This analysis moves beyond basic needs to examine barriers to the full enjoyment of human rights in a given context (including unequal power relations) and emphasizes the participation and empowerment of development stakeholders throughout the process, including the most marginalized and the hardest to reach.

In the policy context, this means:

In the programming context, this means:

To facilitate analysis, the department will develop new tools that:

Engagement and participation

To support the voice, agency and empowerment of women and girls in all their diversity and all those who face discrimination or marginalization, the department facilitates their meaningful engagement and participation. This ensures that international assistance responds to the lived experience and the expressed needs and interests of women, girls and affected groups and individuals.

In particular, the department seeks to work hand in hand with women’s rights and other equality-seeking movements and organizations, including at the grassroots level, to shift the traditional balance of power among stakeholders. Engaging men and boys to promote gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls in all their diversity is important, as is engaging stakeholders not traditionally associated with promoting gender equality or human rights—such as certain international organizations and government or private sector actors. Modalities for engagement and participation should be based on sound analysis and understanding of the local context.

In the policy context, this means:

In the programming context, this means:

To facilitate engagement with organizations that represent the most marginalized or non-traditional stakeholders, the department will:

Accountability and transparency

To support accountability both to Canadians and to the department’s partners and stakeholders, the department works toward achieving, sustaining and communicating transformative change for gender equality, human rights and poverty reduction. This is in line with Canada’s obligations under international and domestic law and its commitment to the 2030 Agenda.

Doing so means taking a long-term perspective given the complexity of socio-political and systemic change; acknowledging that challenging power relations introduces risk; situating tactics and strategies to achieve transformative change within context-specific realities; and valuing flexibility, innovation, learning and adaptation.

In the policy context, this means:

In the programming context, this means:

To foster an environment that reinforces accountability for achieving transformative change, the department will:

In terms of monitoring, evaluation and learning, this means:

Advocacy and communications

To demonstrate a resolute stance in favour of transformative change, gender equality and human rights, the department creates space across its streams for advocacy and dialogue and builds alliances to pursue common objectives. Through advocacy and public communications, Global Affairs Canada responds to and reflects the lived experiences of people and the intersecting dimensions of inequality and discrimination.

In the policy context, this means:

In the programming context, this means:

To foster an environment that supports advocacy and communications, the department will:

Capacity development

Developing staff capacity is necessary to implement the feminist vision and objectives outlined in the Feminist International Assistance Policy and underpins all the above areas of action. This builds upon the department’s long-standing history of mainstreaming gender equality and experience in advancing human rights. While capacity exists within the department in the form of specialized training, tools (for example, Gender Equality Toolkit, GBA+ tool, Advancing Human Rights Guidance Note) and technical support, more effort is required. The department will renew its approach to learning and knowledge, update tools and promote fit-for-purpose human resources and corporate services. The department will also seek to support the capacity of partners and stakeholders to do likewise and encourage mutual learning.

Enhanced capacity will better equip the department’s staff to:

Implementation and monitoring

The Global Issues and Development Branch will take the lead to ensure shared ownership and accountability across the department for applying the feminist approach as outlined in this guidance note. The branch will elaborate and communicate the practical considerations, actions and oversight required to fully implement the activities described in this note and track progress using the indicators and reporting mechanisms currently in place in the department.

However, the full implementation requires department-wide commitment and engagement, including—to a certain extent—diplomatic, trade and consular streams. In particular, programming and corporate branches are responsible for complementary activities that operationalize transformative changes called for in the Feminist International Assistance Policy itself. For example, the department will explore how to apply the feminist approach to corporate services, including contracting, procurement, and budget and finance, with a view to allocating, managing and prioritizing resources to be more responsive to an increasingly diverse portfolio of projects. The department will also endeavour to embody the feminist approach in its human resources management by reflecting gender and other aspects of diversity across all levels and in all sectors, including at senior leadership levels. The Global Issues and Development Branch will support this department-wide effort while delivering on the core activities in support of the feminist approach.


With the Feminist International Assistance Policy, Canada has an opportunity to accelerate the achievement of gender equality and the realization of human rights so that no one is left behind. This requires innovation, experimentation, gathering and using evidence, and developing best practices.

The department will continue to build internal capacity to implement the Feminist International Assistance Policy and support gender transformative change. To this end, it will develop flexible funding mechanisms; learn from and adapt tools and programming informed by evidence; expand partnerships to include groups that represent the voices and interests of the most marginalized; and strengthen accountability, advocacy and communications on gender equality and human rights across all streams and action areas.

Annex 1: Glossary

Agency is an individual’s (or group’s) ability to make effective choices and to transform those choices into desired outcomes. (Source: World Bank)

Duty-bearers are state actors who have legal obligations to respect, protect and fulfill human rights.

Empowerment of women and girls is central to achieving gender equality. It is about women and girls taking control over their lives, setting their own agendas, gaining skills, building self-confidence, solving problems and ultimately developing self-reliance. It is not only a collective, social and political process, but an individual one as well; it is not only a process but an outcome. Outsiders cannot empower women: only women can empower themselves to make choices and to speak out on their own behalf. Through empowerment, women become aware of unequal power relations, gain control over their lives and acquire skills and confidence to overcome inequality in their homes, workplaces and communities. (Source: Gender Equality Toolkit)

Equality movements are civil society organizations that work to advance the rights of 2SLGBTQI+ persons and communities.

Gender equality means that diverse groups of women, men and non-binary people are able to participate fully in all spheres of life, contributing to an inclusive and democratic society. (Source: Women and Gender Equality Canada)

Gender transformative interventions go beyond gender responsiveness. They aim to transform unequal gender relations to promote shared power, control of resources, decision making, and support for the empowerment of women and girls. (Source: Canada’s National Action Plan 2017-2022 - For the Implementation of the UN Security Council Resolutions on Women, Peace and Security)

Intersectionality is a research and policy model that recognizes the complex composition of factors that shape and influence human lives. Intersectional analysis examines the consequences of interacting inequalities (such as gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and ability) on people occupying different social locations. Intersectional analysis addresses the way that specific acts and policies take into account the inequalities that various groups experience. (Source: Women and Gender Equality Canada GBA+ research guide)

Marginalization refers to a complex process whereby individuals or groups are situated within the margins of society economically, politically, socially or culturally due to exclusion and discrimination on the basis of identity factors (for example, sex, race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, language, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, age, disability) or other factors (for example, socio-economic status, geographic location, migrant labour or worker status, displacement or refugee status). Marginalized individuals or groups are denied equal rights, opportunities and resources for the realization of their human potential. In some cases, a group may make up a large segment of the population, but without equal access to political or economic power and participation in decision making processes, the group remains marginalized.

Responsibility-holders are non-state actors who have a responsibility to strive for the observance or promotion of human rights.

Rights-holders are all people. All individuals have rights; therefore, all individuals are rights-holders. With a human rights-based approach, it is important to identify the key rights-holders whose human rights are not being upheld and to support the empowerment of marginalized people living in poverty by developing their capacity to know, exercise and claim their human rights and to seek effective remedy for violations.

Systemic discrimination occurs when policies, practices or procedures within a system of power create or perpetuate discrimination against marginalized groups through unequal access or deliberate exclusion.

Transformative change is a process in which positive development results are achieved and sustained over time through the institutionalization of policies, programs and projects. The process addresses the root causes of inequality (in other words, unequal power relations) by shifting power into the hands of the marginalized and thereby creating more sustainable change. (Source: adapted from the UN Development Programme)

Vulnerability refers to a situation where individuals or groups have limited protections or limited ability to absorb and recover from significant events, crises or shocks. Vulnerable individuals or groups may also be at higher risk of experiencing situations that affect their resiliency or threaten their survival or their capacity to live with a basic minimum standard of social and economic security and human dignity.

Women’s organizations are civil society organizations founded and led by women and girls. They are active at the grassroots, national, regional and international levels and exist to bring about transformative change for gender equality and the rights and empowerment of women and girls. Their activities include advocacy, policy and budget dialogue, awareness-raising, service provision, research, and alliance and network building. (Source: Feminist International Assistance Policy Action Area Policy: Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women and Girls)

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