Canada’s inaction in Gaza marks a failure of its feminist foreign policy

“Peace and prosperity are every person’s birthright.” So opened then Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland’s introduction to Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy (FIAP).

Launched in 2017, the policy stated that Canada would take an explicitly feminist approach to international assistance, including a commitment to protecting women’s sexual and reproductive rights. Many considered it to be a forward-thinking policy that builds on the past work of NGOs and other international partners.

However, the policy also revealed shortcomings. It was criticized for its fuzzy definition of feminism, its surface-level engagement with the overlapping forms of inequality women actually face and for its neoliberal approach to feminism that seeks to fix problems within the Global South, with little engagement with how these problems arose in the first place.

And now, as Israel’s offensive on Gaza marches on unabated and the civilian death toll mounts, Canada’s tepid response calls the strength and sincerity of its feminist commitments into doubt. Furthermore, the country’s continued sale of military equipment to Israel suggests where Canada’s stated feminist values conflict with other political interests leaving Palestinians by the wayside.

On a recent visit to Israel, Minister of Foreign Affairs Mélanie Joly expressed solidarity with Israeli victims of sexual violence committed by Hamas and announced $1 million dollars in support. In addition to funding, Joly also offered RCMP support to help investigate the crimes of sexual violence against Israeli women.

In December, Joly issued strong condemnations in response to allegations of rape committed by Hamas on Oct. 7, 2023.

In February 2023, Joly also pledged millions for Ukrainian victims of sexual assault along with Canada’s support for the investigation and prosecution of sexual and gender-based violence committed during Russia’s war against Ukraine.

Will Canada do the same for Palestinian women affected by military and sexual violence?

A Palestinian woman prays for a relative killed in the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip in Khan Younis on Feb. 26, 2024.
(AP Photo/Hatem Ali)

Palestinian women’s rights long ignored

Joly condemned the sexual and gender-based violence being committed against Palestinian women in Gaza in February 2024, but without explicitly naming who the perpetrators of violence are.

Her statement came after United Nations experts expressed alarm over “credible allegations of egregious human rights violations to which Palestinian women and girls continue to be subjected in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.” They cited reports of arbitrary executions, killings, detentions and sexual abuse of Palestinian women and girls by Israeli forces.

Even before the current escalation of violence, Canada’s support of Israel’s actions have long been identified as a significant limitation of FIAP.

In the policy’s peace and security section, Canada commits to advocate for the “respect and protection of the human rights of women and girls in its international and multilateral engagements.” It also says that ensuring the safety and security of women and girls is one of the key steps to ensuring peace.

In Gaza, this security is not being assured. Israel’s bombardment and tightened blockade has killed more than 31,000 people, most of whom are women and children. Those who survive live under constant threat and without access to basic medical aid, food and water. Over 85 per cent of the total population of Gaza — about 1.9 million civilians — have been displaced from their homes.

Palestinian women also face increased risk of sexual violence. There are credible reports of sexual violence being used as a tool of war against both Israeli and Palestinian women.

Two women wearing face masks in a room handling diapers.
Palestinian women sew diapers in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, Feb. 15, 2024. Palestinians in Gaza have experienced severe shortages of basic necessities since the war began on Oct. 7, 2023.
(AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

Reproductive health in Gaza in a dire state

FIAP identifies a full range of reproductive healthcare as key to ensuring women and girls’ equality and empowerment.

In Gaza, these rights are besieged daily.

An estimated 50,000 pregnant women in Gaza are at increased risk of miscarriage, stillbirth and maternal death. This is in part due to Israeli attacks on health-care facilities. These attacks have led not only to direct casualties, but have also severely restricted access to prenatal and natal care.

Women are giving birth without appropriate medical care. This puts their lives and the lives of their babies at risk, contributing to higher rates of maternal and infant death.

The widespread food crisis has also had dire implications for reproductive and maternal health. The United Nations Children’s Fund has voiced concern over the nutritional vulnerability of over 155,000 pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers.

Malnutrition can make breastfeeding difficult, if not impossible, and yet formula has been difficult (and for some, impossible) to access. This has been exacerbated by high prices and delays and restrictions on delivery of humanitarian aid. Malnutrition affects maternal health, and can also have long-term consequences for the health of mothers and their children.

A woman at a protest holds a placard reading: no feminist struggle without Gaza
A woman holds placards at a protest outside a United Nations office in support of Palestinian women on International Women’s Day, in Beirut, Lebanon, March 8, 2024.
(AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

Canada must act

After mounting public pressure, including country-wide protests, Canadian officials first uttered the word “ceasefire” in December, two months after the start of the war. They did so on Dec. 12, 2023, in a non-binding UN resolution vote.

Meanwhile, Canadian exports of military equipment to Israel have not only continued, but have increased since October. Global Affairs Canada claims these exports are only for non-lethal equipment.

Nevertheless, they contribute to Israel’s military capacity. They undermine the legitimacy of Canada’s commitments to peacebuilding, and call into question whether its commitments to protecting the rights of women and girls extend to Palestinians.

Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy claims to be “a reflection of who we are as Canadians.” It expresses the belief that “it is possible to build a more peaceful, more inclusive and more prosperous world — a world where no one is left behind.”

By its own standards, Canada has a responsibility to do more than verbalize support for a humanitarian ceasefire and provide humanitarian aid.

Canada’s delayed and inconsistent response to Israel’s military violence in Gaza represents a failure to evenly apply its own foreign policy.

Canada’s current strategy of providing humanitarian aid to assuage the effects of military violence, while simultaneously continuing to sell military equipment, points to paradoxes within its foreign policy. An effective feminist foreign aid policy needs political action to address the root causes of poverty, violence and sexual and reproductive harm. In Gaza, this includes military occupation, violence and blockade.

If Canada truly wants to create a more peaceful and prosperous world, they must not leave Palestinian women behind.

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