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:
- Feminist foreign policy, which applies a feminist lens to all aspects of Canada’s international engagement, including the Feminist International Assistance Policy; the Canadian National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security; Canada’s inclusive approach to trade; and the new defence strategy. Feminist foreign policy calls for policy, advocacy and program efforts to focus on addressing fundamental structural barriers that prevent gender equality, taking into account the needs of those most affected by multiple forms of discrimination.
- Feminist International Assistance Policy, which outlines Canada’s feminist vision for international assistance. It commits Canada’s international assistance to be human rights-based and inclusive, strategic and focused, transformative and activist, evidence-based and accountable. The Feminist International Assistance Policy also presents six areas for action that define where Canada is focusing its international assistance efforts. This guidance note applies to policy, programming and advocacy across all of these action areas. Global Affairs Canada’s Policy for Civil Society Partnerships for International Assistance, which outlines the guiding principles for and overall objectives of Canada’s engagement with civil society organizations, provides further context for the elements of the feminist approach that relate to partnerships with civil society.
- 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, in particular sustainable development goal five—achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls—which is at the heart of Canada’s approach to implementing Agenda 2030. This feminist approach guidance note is consistent with Agenda 2030’s recognition of the centrality of human rights to development and its core commitment to leave no one behind.
- Official Development Assistance Accountability Act (ODAAA), which establishes the legislative criteria required for government funds to be counted as Canadian official development assistance. The feminist approach seeks to reinforce existing measures to ensure that each of the three criteria of section 4(1) of the ODAAA are met:
- with respect to poverty reduction
- with respect to taking into account the perspectives of the poor
- with respect to consistency with international human rights standards
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:
- orient its outlook and actions to effectively address the root causes of poverty
- analyze and eliminate systemic discrimination on the basis of sex and gender identity and expression, as well as on the basis of intersecting aspects of identity such as age, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation and religion
- transform patriarchal systems of power that reinforce and perpetuate inequality
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:
- supporting under-resourced women’s organizations and equality movements to reinforce their agency and capacity
- providing dedicated funding to advance human rights and improve socio-economic outcomes for LGBTQ2I people in developing countries
- adhering to ambitious commitments that advance disability-inclusive development and humanitarian action
- developing feminist monitoring and evaluation approaches for improved learning in projects and programming
- expanding partnerships to more effectively mobilize resources from non-traditional partners to support women’s empowerment
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:
- making a conscious shift toward targeting the root causes of poverty and inequality
- applying a deeper, more deliberate focus to reach those most at risk of being left behind
- integrating more meaningfully into its work the perspectives, rights and realities of the people it seeks to support
In doing so, the department seeks to:
- ensure capacity among staff, partners and stakeholders to identify inequalities and systemic discrimination, their root causes and the most effective solutions to address them through international assistance initiatives
- systematically undertake gender equality, human rights, political economy, power and intersectional analyses to ensure the reach, impact and sustainability of international assistance efforts
- address unequal partnerships that exclude, disempower or fail to give priority to the perspectives of the most marginalized and vulnerable, particularly women and girls in all their diversity
- change accountability systems and ways of working that focus on easily measurable and short-term results but that may lack incentives for the achievement of transformative change
- explore new funding mechanisms to support longer-term or flexible partnerships
- create spaces for constructive engagement and dialogue that could counter backlash against the objectives outlined in the Feminist International Assistance Policy
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:
- from using international assistance as a tool to meet needs to using it as a tool to advance human rights
- from focusing on the poorest as beneficiaries of international assistance to supporting the empowerment of marginalized or vulnerable people living in poverty as rights-holders and agents of change
- from focusing narrowly on achieving development results to recognizing the importance of results as well as the process by which results are achieved
- from ranking needs in hierarchical order to recognizing that human rights are non-hierarchical, inalienable, indivisible and interdependent
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:
- strengthening the evidence base of international assistance through analysis
- encouraging meaningful engagement and participation
- strengthening accountability and transparency
- supporting advocacy and communications
- developing staff capacity
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:
- ensuring that all policy analysis is informed by a strong evidence base and data
- leveraging knowledge and research platforms and partnerships to build the evidence base (for example, by collaborating with like-minded stakeholders both at home and abroad)
In the programming context, this means:
- applying the analysis at every level (project, program, country and regional framework, as appropriate)
- using the findings to guide program design, planning and implementation and supporting continued analysis and learning throughout a project’s life cycle
- informing sensitive areas of interventions, such as social norm change, by context-specific research and evidence
- assessing partners’ capacity to undertake such an analysis and working with them to develop this capacity
To facilitate analysis, the department will develop new tools that:
- translate the implications of GBA+ and human rights analysis to Global Affairs Canada’s international assistance policy and programming processes
- integrate other analyses that deepen and strengthen understanding of local contexts
- identify opportunities to create cross-stream synergies and to leverage expertise from across the department and the Government of Canada to ensure that the analysis reflects Canada’s whole-of-government engagement in a given country
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:
- fostering collaboration, knowledge sharing and learning among groups of stakeholders that reflect gender parity and diversity, while remaining mindful of power dynamics
- consulting with and engaging diverse groups of women and girls and other marginalized and affected groups in policy discussions and dialogue
In the programming context, this means:
- making space for coalitions of partners, particularly those that involve diverse groups of women and girls and local and Indigenous stakeholders and that represent the voices and interests of the most marginalized
- integrating gender equality and human rights capacity development components into the design of projects and programs to foster more sustainable results
- considering innovative finance and blended finance options to mobilize additional resources to implement the Feminist International Assistance Policy and address the barriers that women’s organizations and movements and other marginalized groups face in accessing predictable and flexible funding that is responsive to their priorities and concerns
- working with multilateral organizations or multi-stakeholder initiatives to identify and support the voices and interests of women and girls in all their diversity and the most marginalized in a particular context
To facilitate engagement with organizations that represent the most marginalized or non-traditional stakeholders, the department will:
- address structural barriers that prevent some organizations from working with Global Affairs Canada
- include smaller and non-traditional organizations in discussions on accessibility of funding and bring those organizations into decision-making spaces as appropriate
- increase flexibility to respond to local contexts, adapt to new challenges or take advantage of new opportunities (for example, by exploring how to provide timely funding to human rights movements)
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:
- ensuring that gender equality and human rights considerations and achievements are central to corporate planning and reporting (for example, funding decisions and corporate indicators)
- creating a bank of initiatives (both success stories and initiatives where course correction was required) that demonstrate transformative change, which can be drawn upon to illustrate the Feminist International Assistance Policy in action
- identifying policy questions to be included in program and project evaluations
- using program and project evaluations to improve policies
In the programming context, this means:
- using results-based management as a flexible tool that can accommodate and adapt to changes throughout the life cycle of an initiative
- developing longer-term theories of change that reflect an understanding of incremental change
- designing projects and programs to achieve transformative change and address root causes of a problem
- requesting and valuing disaggregated data and qualitative indicators and developing a system to easily collect, retrieve and use this information
- identifying, assessing and confronting social and political risks and developing and implementing clear strategies to manage and mitigate backlash against objectives outlined in the Feminist International Assistance Policy
To foster an environment that reinforces accountability for achieving transformative change, the department will:
- consider risks associated with changes in or disruption of traditional power relations when designing corporate risk tools and frameworks
- ensure that results-based management guidance and tools make it a requirement to seek the perspective and voices of affected individuals, particularly diverse groups of women and girls
- facilitate communication of complex and long-term objectives by capturing and reporting qualitative and anecdotal results
- target the most marginalized and most likely to be left behind by promoting the inclusive and ethical collection of disaggregated data
In terms of monitoring, evaluation and learning, this means:
- learning and adapting throughout project implementation based on continuous research and analysis
- working hand in hand with affected individuals, particularly diverse groups of women and girls and marginalized persons, to develop methodologies that allow their perspectives and voices to be meaningfully included
- undertaking monitoring and evaluation early in the project life cycle to inform future implementation, as well as after the completion of a program to assess longer-term change
- conducting research, collecting data and monitoring and evaluating initiatives in a manner that is collaborative, non-discriminatory, participatory, inclusive, accountable and transparent
- ensuring that terms of reference for evaluations and monitoring clearly outline questions of effectiveness and efficiency related to the achievement of transformative change
- ensuring that evaluators and monitors have the expertise to conduct evaluations that measure transformative change, such as changes in gender equality and other structures of power
- communicating results of program and project evaluations so that they contribute to learning to inform and improve policies and programs
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:
- leveraging participation in multi-stakeholder forums to advocate for transformative change, gender equality and human rights
- seeking engagements that create demand for gender equality and human rights
- ensuring gender parity and the inclusion of diverse voices on panels and at events
- elaborating strategic approaches that can be used in policy dialogue to counter backlash against objectives outlined in the Feminist International Assistance Policy
- developing foreign mission advocacy tools and messaging to share Canada’s experience with the transformative impact of a feminist approach, including how this approach relates to work across the department and aligns with Voices at Risk: Canada’s Guidelines on Supporting Human Rights Defenders.
In the programming context, this means:
- supporting partners’ contextually-informed advocacy efforts to transform harmful social norms or practices and promote accountability of state actors
- integrating advocacy into project or program design
- taking into account local context to ensure that advocacy and communications do not put feminist activists or human rights defenders at risk
- ethically and respectfully capturing lived experience through testimonials and photos to communicate in traditional and social media
To foster an environment that supports advocacy and communications, the department will:
- leverage policy dialogue, negotiations, participation in multi-stakeholder forums and representation at multilateral organizations to enable diverse groups of women and girls and stakeholders who are marginalized and living in poverty to claim their political space at all levels
- portray stakeholders as active and powerful
- communicate results in a manner that supports empowerment
- allow stakeholders to speak for themselves
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:
- assess whether initiatives address unequal power relations, particularly in relation to gender inequality, structural and systemic discrimination, and their root causes
- make funding recommendations and manage for results based on the potential for transformative impact of feminist international assistance
- advocate in favour of the Feminist International Assistance Policy’s objectives
- shift their perspective from a needs-based approach, where stakeholders are seen mainly as beneficiaries of international assistance, to a human rights-based approach where rights-holders, such as women and girls in all their diversity, are agents of change with economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights and the capacity to hold powerful actors (such as duty-bearers and responsibility-holders) accountable for their obligations and responsibilities
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 LGBTQ2I 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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