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Progressive women are developing a feminist foreign policy

By Representative Pramila Jayapal and Yifat Susskind. Jayapal represents Washington’s 7th District. She is the Co-Chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Yifat Susskind is the Executive Director of MADRE.

Women organizers, who led the resistance to the Trump administration from the president’s first day in office, propelled a movement that sent a record number of women to Congress in 2018.

Those fearless new women now making policy on Capitol Hill are not content to simply take office. Indeed, we see more equitable representation of women as only one step toward building a more just and feminist policy agenda—particularly within the male-dominated and notoriously entrenched realm of U.S. foreign policy.

To move towards a feminist foreign policy agenda, we must take our next steps alongside women worldwide who experience firsthand the impacts of U.S. policies. We must highlight the disproportionate burden that women face from the cruel impacts of war and we must push for a fundamental shift in how we view the U.S. role abroad, reorienting our leadership away from the pursuit of domination through endless wars and profit-seeking to mutually-beneficial, cooperative approaches to building a more peaceful and just global economy.

For decades, a militarized, bipartisan Washington foreign-policy establishment has provoked conflict, repurposing the same blueprints for every new war—from Nicaragua, Guatemala, Panama, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Yemen, and now potentially to Iran and Venezuela. In the latest chapter in this endless cycle of militarism, the White House has even resuscitated the careers of discredited voices like Elliott Abrams and John Bolton, who helped launch illegal wars in previous decades and now guide Trump’s foreign policy.

The spectacle used to gin up support for U.S. interventions—soldiers preparing to fight with fighter jets, missiles, and other awe-inspiring military hardware—conceals the grim truth of war. The primary burden of such conflicts is not borne by combatants, but civilians—women and children in particular. As UNICEF has noted, the proportion of civilians among total war-related deaths was 5 percent at the beginning of the 20th century. By the century’s end, civilians made up roughly 90 percent of fatalities during armed conflicts.

Nowhere is the impact of war on women and children clearer than in Yemen, where a brutal U.S.-Saudi military campaign—through airstrikes and a blockade on food and medicine—has pushed half of the country’s population to the brink of starvation and displaced millions, of whom three-quarters are women and children. The Progressive Caucus has been at the forefront of the effort to halt the conflict in Yemen and end the world’s worst humanitarian crisis by reasserting Congress’s constitutional authority over war. Historic votes in both chambers to end U.S. military participation have already contributed to the ongoing yet fragile ceasefire in Yemen’s vital port city. These landmark votes invoking the War Powers Act of 1973 are a structural shift, restoring the promise of Congress’s power to both end Yemen’s nightmare and spur a more democratic America that deters future war.

While progressive policymakers seek to stop the gears of the war machine, Yemeni women on-the-ground are mobilizing daily to protect their families and communities from the ravages of war. As the U.S.-backed blockade has worsened poverty and starvation, local women’s organizations have delivered humanitarian aid that reaches the most vulnerable people in their communities. Facing worsening violence, women have negotiated local ceasefires and advocated for a seat at the table at international peace talks. With their direct experience of the consequences of U.S. policy decisions, these women organizers are vital sources of information and locally-rooted solutions.

Progressive women in Congress are also using these votes to broadly challenge the hypocrisy of our multi-decade partnership with Saudi Arabia and, together, with women leaders on the ground rejecting an alliance that makes a mockery of democracy and human rights. Together, we call out the White House policies that arm and provide diplomatic cover to a brutal dictatorship that tortures, imprisons, and terrorizes Saudi activists who champion women’s rights and equality, such as Loujain Al-Hathloul, who helped lead the movement for Saudi women’s right to drive.

Together, women in the movement and women in Congress are also helping to lead efforts to change another deeply entrenched feature of Washington policymaking: the long-unquestioned and reflexive use of broad U.S. economic sanctions against civilians. For decades, U.S. officials have routinely boasted of imposing “tough” or “crippling” sanctions against countries considered adversaries, often scoring political points in the process. Yet aid workers, diplomats and academics who understand the impact of these sanctions can all attest to the brutal truth: economic war is a quieter, but no less devastating, way to kill people.

From Iraq to North Korea, Iran, Cuba, and now Venezuela, U.S. sanctions—under the guise of combating odious regimes—have deprived millions of people of food, life-saving medicines, fuel, basic income, and other essentials. Such policies often have a disproportionate impact on women and children, who face the brunt of economic devastation. For instance, when U.S.-led sanctions were imposed on Iraq in the 1990s, local hospitals, clinics and women’s organizations warned that people were in serious danger, deprived of vital medicines and care. In response, the international women’s rights organization MADRE mobilized women from the US and the Middle East to bring a convoy of trucks carrying milk and medicines to local clinics, all the while sounding the call for an end to those sanctions.

A recent letter sent by a majority-women group of progressive lawmakers voiced our opposition to the Trump administration’s unilateral sanctions on Venezuela. Unlike in Iraq, U.S. sanctions against Venezuela do not even have an oil-for-food exception, causing immense suffering for the most vulnerable in society. Instead of killing people with sanctions, progressive House Members are urging the United States to support dialogue and a negotiated settlement to bring the crisis to an end.

In such efforts to advance a new foreign-policy agenda centered on diplomacy and human rights, feminist members of Congress are working in consultation and partnership with grassroots peace leaders. Women in war zones across the world are spearheading the vital work of trust-building, convening spaces for combatants and communities to reconstitute their frayed ties. These women, with their extensive first-hand expertise, have become critical policy advisers on peace and reconstruction policies in our approach to peace, from the Korean peninsula to the Middle East and Latin America.

For these reasons, the Congressional Progressive Caucus is formalizing an effort to bring global women’s voices and solutions to progressive policy-making, in partnership with the human rights group MADRE, which partners with grassroots women’s groups facing war and disaster worldwide. We need to hear directly from women like these, whose lives, families and communities are impacted by U.S. policy. And the burgeoning progressive momentum for a new foreign policy must recognize that all issues are women’s issues – from trade to diplomacy to climate-change strategies. As we fight to reimagine and restructure U.S. policy, progressive lawmakers must be able to count on the advice and counsel of the voices who reflect the aspirations of the millions who make up a powerful global, grassroots, women-led movement.

May 9, 2019  / Building a Just Peace