Canada’s New Plan to Prioritize Women and Girls

Canada has unveiled plans to introduce a “feminist international assistance policy” that will see at least 95 percent of Canadian foreign aid allocated to help women and girls by 2021.

“We will not break the vicious cycle of poverty and violence without stepping up efforts to give women and girls a voice,” International Development Minister Marie Claude Bibeau told a crowd at the Global Affairs Canada headquarters in Ottawa, “and the opportunities to choose their own future and fully contribute to their community.”

The feminist international assistance policy will allocate $150 million for the creation of the Women’s Voice and Leadership Program, which will assess and address the needs of local organizations focused on women in 30 developing nations. At least half of the funds will be directed to sub-Saharan Africa, while the policy will implement as “human rights” based approach to six focus areas identified as paramount after a year’s worth of consultation with other government actors, academics, NGOs, aid workers and people living and working in developing nations. The areas that will be emphasized are gender equality, environment and climate action, human dignity, inclusive governance, inclusive economic growth and peace and security. The policy comes in the wake of a three-year global initiative introduced by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on International Women’s Day pledging $650 million to protect women and girls’ sexual and reproductive rights.

There is ample reason for other countries to pay close attention to women-centric measures. A body of research shows that when women and girls are given the opportunity to thrive, entire families, communities and nations will follow suit. Bibeau says the policy will make Canada “a global leader in promoting gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls.” Long term, it seems this may be where the policy stands to create an even more significant impact when it comes to assessing Canada’s and the world’s diplomatic priorities.

In 2015, Sweden—where over 50 percent of government ministers are women—announced the country would be taking a proactively feminist approach to its foreign policy, prompting headlines around the world as policymakers, NGOs and citizens tackled “what a feminist foreign policy looked like.” In becoming only the second country to put feminists at the heart of its government policy, Canada amplifies the issues both countries’ choices bring to the forefront.

While Canada’s feminist foreign policy agenda has been praised as “bold” by some leading Canadian newspapers, the government has come under fire for failing to increase the government’s expenditures on foreign aid. “We’re excited about what [this policy] promises,”Julia Sanchez, president and CEO of the Canadian Council for International Co-Operation, told the Globe and Mail, “but we don’t understand how this is going to be realized without new funding.” In the days following the announcement, Bibeau pledged to fight for increased funding for the initiative and encouraged supporters to welcome the new policy as an opportunity to open further discussion.

In her remarks, Bibeau also vowed that Canada would cease to work with international partners that were unwilling to put women and girls at the forefront of their diplomatic policies. She may have been alluding to President Donald Trump—who, only days after taking office, reinstated and expanded the Global Gag Rule, and whose administration has supported a range of other policies hostile toward women.

No one, Bibeau said, should “underestimate the value of Canadian leadership right now.” With a government that is prepared to put women and girls at the forefront of its policies—and budgeting debates—their leadership is most welcome.



Lauren Young is a Ms. contributor. She has a Master’s Degree in European and Russian Studies from Yale University and a Bachelor’s Degree in Government and Russian Civilization from Smith College. Follow her on @thatlaurenyoung.