SABC News - Women on the front line of foreign affairs:Friday 9 March 2012

Women on the front line of foreign affairs

Friday 9 March 2012 11:02

COMMENT: Lesley Masters

International Women’s Day is being celebrated on the 08-09 March this year (2012). Yet unlike South Africa’s own national Women’s Day, where we all get the day off, it will probably pass with little more than a mention in the news (if that). When it comes to the front line of our international relations, there are those who have broken through into what remains a male-dominated field. Angela Merkel, current Chancellor of Germany, (surrounded by her male counterparts) has been at the centre of EU meetings aimed at resolving the Euro Zone’s increasing financial woes.

Other leading ladies include Hilary Clinton, current US Secretary of State, Catherine Ashton, EU High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy, Hina Rabbani Khar, Minister of Foreign Affairs in Pakistan and our own Minister of Foreign Affairs, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane. Yet these women often cut a lonely figure in negotiation fora. 

Perceptions and stereotypes that ‘women can’t run the world’ continue to hamper the role of those in pursuit of senior roles in international relations. Arguments from leading scholars in International Relations posit that women just don’t have the necessary mettle to deal with aggressive regimes. Yet it is Fatou Bensouda, appointed as the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) new chief prosecutor, who will be confronting perpetrators of some of the worst crimes against humanity.  Issues on the international agenda, whether it is the crisis in Syria or Iran’s nuclear weapons programme, are typically seen as ‘hard’ issues, issues that need more than the ‘soft touch’ or emotional engagement stereotyping women.

The world has moved on. International relations includes more than just issues of security narrowly defined. Increasingly questions such as climate change, socio-economic development, regional integration and migration, to name a few, are occupying prominent positions on the international agenda. It is these issues that, in the main, affect women the most. As the UN points out – women comprise 70 per cent of the world’s poor, with nearly 80 per cent of the world’s refugees comprised of women and children. The inclusion of women at the world’s negotiation tables is therefore an imperative.


Post-apartheid South Africa has a positive track record of focusing on gender inclusivity. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma served as South Africa’s first female foreign minister for ten years (1999-2009). During this period she navigated a complex sea change, both within her own department and within the international milieu. Having already served as President of the UN World Conference Against Racism (WCAR) and Chair of the African Union (AU) Ministers’ Council she is now up (again) for head of the African Union.

In her bid for the position she has emphasized the implications that occupying such a position could have in serving as a role model for the continent’s women. While this is true, playing the ‘gender card’, in a field still dominated by men, obscures her more than adequate experience in foreign affairs.

Nkoana-Mashabane played a pivotal role in bringing about an international agreement (Durban Platform) on one of the world’s most divisive issues areas

South Africa’s current foreign minister, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, has also been at the forefront of South Africa’s international affairs. During her incumbency the country has been re-elected as a non-permanent seat in the UN Security Council for a second period, been included among the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) nations in developing South-South relations, and hosted the large-scale United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change 17th Conference of the Parties (COP17).

Indeed, her role as President of the UNFCCC, Nkoana-Mashabane played a pivotal role in bringing about an international agreement (Durban Platform) on one of the world’s most divisive issues areas. While these examples indicate that women are becoming more conspicuous on the front line of international affairs, the problem is that the same names appear time and again in justifying arguments that women are indeed actively engaged. What it does highlight is just how limited the field really is in terms of depth and scope of participation.

Nevertheless, it is encouraging that there are more women pursuing a career in international relations. In the words of Margaret Thatcher “If you want something said, ask a man. If you want something done, ask a woman”. As we celebrate International Women’s Day we should celebrate those women who are at the forefront of ‘doing’ in international relations.

Lesley Masters is a Senior Researcher at the Institute for Global Dialogue

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