Canada’s New Feminist International Assistance Policy: Bold, Fresh and Powerful

Lawrence Haddad, GAIN’s Executive Director, shares his views on Canada’s newly adopted international assistance policy, explaining why it is good for nutrition and the broader international development sector.

What a welcome blast of freshness. The Canadian Government’s just published International Assistance Policy is bold, principled and powerful. It puts the gender equity and the empowerment of women and girls at its heart.

In food and nutrition security, as in many other domains of human wellbeing, the evidence base is really clear for this vision. When women and girls have a greater say in decision making, agricultural output and household income increase, and food security and nutrition outcomes improve too. The great thing about the evidence is that it shows that everyone benefits from this—not just women and girls.

So protecting, respecting and promoting women’s rights and facilitating their empowerment is not a zero sum game. But it does involve a changing balance of power within households, communities, organisations, businesses, governments and norms. Empowerment without power shifts is not empowerment, merely window dressing. That is why it is so important to involve men and boys in this initiative: they can be feminists too. Without shifts in their attitudes, change will be very difficult and painful.

Key to the success of the policy will be to resist the temptation to confine the women’s empowerment efforts to the first initiative, letting business as usual go on in the other programmes. The graphics below describing the policy suggest that this is well understood by the government.

Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy to advance gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls. Credit: Government of Canada


But it is still easy to ghettoise women’s empowerment. This is the wrong thing to do because we know:

– Women’s status has been shown to have a large and significant effect on the nutrition of infants and women – and on the food security of the entire household (Human Dignity programme);

– Women’s status is vital for inclusive economic growth (Growth that Works for Everyone programme) — their assets, education and entrepreneurial energy are important drivers of such growth;

– Women are often the managers of the environment, by default or design, and their management of firewood, water, land is crucial to sustainability and greenhouse gas emissions (Environment and Climate Action programme). Their increased ability to make decisions in this domain is likely to make policy and interventions more environment aware;

–  Women’s participation in decision-making bodies has been shown to improve the quality of overall decision-making (no surprise) and to change the allocation of resources towards more human centered outcomes (Inclusive Governance programme) – on a personal note, I was very glad to see that GAIN did well in a recent gender audit of similar organisations;

– Peace and security processes that involve empowered women are more able to stand up for not only women’s rights but the rights of all people, working harder to find peaceful solutions to seemingly intractable problems (Peace and Security programme).

In short, empowering girls and women will empower the society, polity and economy.

The challenge for this new international assistance policy will be to design policies and approaches to actually promote the empowerment process. Their design must of course involve women and girls as agents of change. For example, efforts to improve the nutrition status of adolescent girls tend to focus on the 15-19 age range and treat girls as recipients of programmes. This approach must be supplemented by new approaches that work with girls and boys, age 10-19, to understand their nutrition seeking behaviours (or lack of them), and to co-create solutions based on the platforms they engage with, the sources they listen to, and the triggers that prompt their choices.

The key to the success of the policy will be to recognise that empowerment is a journey, not a destination. Women’s and girl’s empowerment defies easy initiation, easy sustaining and easy measurement. Creativity and patience will be the watchwords. But we know our Canadian colleagues are in it for the long haul.

In its communication this is a policy centered on women’s empowerment, but it is about the empowerment of all of us. It supports the power to imagine, to overcome obstacles, the power to act and the power to achieve.

Brava, and bravo, Canada!

Read more about our work to improve adolescent nutrition

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Published 13 June 2017