Peace Science Digest

Framing an Afro-Feminist Foreign Policy

By Oluwatoyin Christiana Olajide
This essay was selected for publication as part of the War Prevention Initiative’s Feminist Foreign Policy Essay “Un-Contest”.

What does feminist foreign policy mean in an African context? I would like to call it an Afro-feminist foreign policy. An Afro-feminist foreign policy is one that recognizes the peculiarity of women’s lives in Africa and adopts strategies responsive to this situation, thereby amplifying women’s voices. An Afro-feminist foreign policy recognizes that feminist activism and voice within the formal state apparatus is limited, therefore creating the need to pursue an Afro-feminist foreign policy through a two-pronged strategy of non-state feminist activism on the global stage and male ally-ship within state foreign policy institutions.  

African feminism—that is, what constitutes feminist ideals and actions that are peculiar to the indigenous African context—might evade a uniform meaning. This is clearly because an essentialist notion of Africa is inaccurate and unrealistic. Nevertheless, the variants of womanism, stiwanism, motherism, and nego-feminism[1] have attempted to make sense of what feminism should look like and do for African women and in African societies. While it is imperative to acknowledge these contributions, I also emphasize the anti-essentialist notion of African feminism. African feminism is not one thing at the expense of something else; it is indeed, broadly speaking, resistance to the subjugation, exclusion, and silencing of women in whatever forms those may take.

African feminism has evolved through history, in terms of pre-colonial and colonial pasts, nationalist struggles, war, and the adaptation of nation-states to democracy. In contemporary times, it can operationalize a decolonial ideology to challenge white feminists to be proactive in dismantling systems of discrimination and oppression in multicultural workspaces that continue to expand due to industrialization and migration. It has also remained grounded in reiterating how the current state of women’s representation in political and national leadership is a reflection of the erasure and exclusion of women following their tangible contributions to nationalist movements and peacebuilding. Rightfully so because, to a large extent, women are still being used as a gateway to political power and, worse still, as auxiliaries to men’s positions. This has made the advocacy for women’s political representation a consistent and never-ending fight.  

Contemporary African feminism is also adaptive to current realities of the digital age. The digitization of activism and use of technology to amplify feminist causes and the voices of women has been one of the discoveries of the dynamic nature of African feminism. This singular factor has enormously increased transnational and sub-regional solidarity within the feminist movement in Africa. Through digital media, injustices in Kenya, South Africa, and Nigeria were widely publicized through hash tags like #justiceforsharon, #menaretrash, and #femaleinnigeria.

Much like the strands of African feminism, the foreign policy of African states has been influenced by key realities. Post-colonialism, the birth pangs of independence which exposed divisions propagated by colonial governments, and the establishment of substantive sovereignty during and after the Cold War are a few. Though these circumstances are common to many African states, the foreign policy strategies that have been pursued are not indicative of a singular or fixed prototype of foreign policy. The conduct of states is however reflective of their continued emergence as agentic entities committed to solidifying their presence in global relations. A crucial part of transforming African states into polities with the agency to engage with other players in the international system is building strong institutions and domestic mechanisms that prioritize the representation and voices of women.        

Though women’s representation and voices have been systemically constrained, feminist activism on the African continent has consistently responded to national, regional, and sub-regional challenges: Scholar-activists have emerged in northern Africa, protests and uprisings in western Africa, and resistance to apartheid in South Africa. The feminist movement has consistently contributed to political, economic, and social development on the continent, even if women end up becoming sidelined within the structures of the nation-state, including in foreign policy organs.

In light of this conspicuous exclusion from institutions of the state directly or indirectly responsible for foreign policy formulation and practice, what avenues exist for an Afro-feminist foreign policy?

I submit that an Afro-feminist foreign policy can be pursued without boundaries or without the use of state organs and apparatus in the strict sense. This manner of foreign policy practice is fostered by digital technology and enabled by transnational solidarity. A recent example can be seen in the activities of the Feminist Coalition in Nigeria.

The Feminist Coalition (FEMCO) is an example of this Afro-feminist foreign policy in practice. It used digitization to garner support during the protest against police brutality in Nigeria by swinging swiftly into action through providing emergency services to injured protesters and facilitating the release of detained protesters through legal services. The coalition navigated financial institutions’ bottlenecks by accepting donations in digital currency. The intensity of the digital presence of FEMCO attracted global attention and elicited widespread displeasure towards the happenings in the country. By supporting numerous peaceful demonstrations, which were publicized through social media, it amplified the voice of the common women, men, and youth, especially their demand for the security of their lives and better living conditions. FEMCO did not use force or violent material or immaterial weapons but instead built solidarity, perhaps the strongest weapon against an oppressive authority. Even though FEMCO was able to interact with the global community to project an image of a society that values human and women’s rights, this image was nevertheless negated by the actions of the government itself, which used political power to subvert the influence and intervention of the collective.

FEMCO operated in the manner that is suggested for feminist foreign policy strategy by implementing responses and interventionist activities through women as well as men. FEMCO’s efficiency was propelled by the strategic positioning of professionals in the health services sector; legal practitioners; food vendors; media professionals and journalists; technology and innovation industry experts; and even blood donors. The efforts of FEMCO reveal that the practice of feminist foreign policy exists outside the confines of state institutions and apparatus, enabling it tocommunicate the position of the people and the desired areas of partnership needed to sustain transformative change.[2]

If an Afro-feminist foreign policy can therefore be practiced to an extent without state institutions, should we discard the traditional forms of foreign policy practice? Absolutely not, because state institutions still have legitimacy even if women are largely excluded and underrepresented. What needs to be done in order to respect the legitimate authority of state-controlled organs, however, is for Africa to focus on the progressive realization of an Afro-feminist foreign policy. This shall be achieved by working towards the increased representation of women as well as the amplification of their voices across every sector of the polity but especially in decision-making capacities in key organs of states’ foreign relations. This ensures actively pursuing a feminist agenda even as the inclusion of women is progressively realized. Representation in politics, economics, trade, export, manufacturing, agriculture, information and communication technology, health, research and development, construction, core diplomacy, and many more sectors and subsectors is critical for the initiation and sustenance of an Afro-feminist foreign policy.

The visibility of women and the amplification of women’s inclusion and voice from the grassroots to the more complex spaces of governance lay the foundation for a strong Afro-feminist foreign policy; but so does the presence of a vibrant and effective Afro-feminist ally-ship with men working in foreign ministries. Ally-ship is important for the progressive realization of an Afro-feminist foreign policy because it is in itself a feminist agenda. In reality, women are still not adequately represented in conventional foreign policy practice or in state subsectors in African nation-states, and this situation is not conducive to the development of an Afro-feminist foreign policy agenda. Ally-ship therefore calls on men to leverage their position, access, and voice to intensify the advocacy for women’s representation and ensure that the prioritization of women’s issues is consistently reiterated. Ally-ship can entail hiring women as technical specialists in foreign policy formulation or ensuring that every committee set up within the organs of the state has an equal representation of women including in leadership. It can also mean appointing women as ambassadors and accelerating women’s progression to leadership positions in state organs of foreign policy practice. Deploying conscientization, male allies will propagate the participation of women as equal players in foreign relations and nation-building as well as governance and, by so doing, support the pursuit of an Afro-feminist foreign policy agenda.[3]

By all means, the institution of an Afro-feminist foreign policy practiced without the state apparatus can co-exist with that of an ally-supported traditional practice. The most important component of the two strategies is the voice of African women and the transformative power that this voice holds for them and for Africa.  

Oluwatoyin Olajide Oluwatoyin Christiana Olajide is a gender and development scholar and practitioner. She is currently pursuing a PhD in Gender Studies. She can be reached at toyolajide(@)


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[1] Womanism developed to address the inequality black women suffered based on the peculiarity of race and the social structure of black communities. Debates around womanism are varied, both within Africa and in the Diaspora. Stiwanism stands for Social Transformation Including Women in Africa, and it was propounded by Molara Ogundipe-Leslie. Ogundipe-Leslie emphasizes the importance of partnership between the sexes and not an exclusionary approach to gender equality. Motherism, a feminism coined by Catherine Acholonu, centers the motherly role of African women and is less enthusiastic about African women detaching themselves from this divine assignment. Indeed, Acholonu views Africa’s position in the international system from this lens—as the Mother Continent of Humanity. Understood as the feminism of negotiation and no-ego feminism, nego-feminism, as proposed by Obioma Nnaemeka, provides an end to the gender war between men and women and finding a middle ground where everyone wins. This middle ground is, however, based on existing social realities, even if characterized by inequality.

[2] I am inclined to use the word “partnership” instead of “diplomatic relations” because entities such as these are non-state actors, and therefore they cannot engage in diplomatic relations.

[3] Other strategies for increased representation of women are still valid and can be combined with conscientization.

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