A Closer Look at the FIAP’s Approach to Feminism


Executive Summary

This article discusses how Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy (FIAP) integrates both instrumental and transformative approaches to feminism.

Instrumental approaches to feminism focus on increasing individual female participation in politics and economics, while transformative approaches grapple with understanding the power relations that perpetuate gender inequalities to overcome underlying inequalities for all marginalized groups. This article will consider how these two approaches shape Canada’s commitment, under the FIAP, to gender empowerment and gender equality.

For more information on the FIAP, read Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy.


In 2017, Canada adopted a foreign policy guided by feminist principles. It launched its Feminist International Assistance Policy (FIAP). This policy advocates for the economic, political, and social empowerment of women and girls. There are particular endeavours to eradicate poverty and to build a more peaceful, inclusive, and prosperous world for the benefit of all people.[1] The FIAP argues that the best way to eradicate poverty and inequality is by empowering women and girls to become agents of change and progress, which will challenge gender-based discrimination and intersectional inequalities.[2] Therefore, by focusing on intersectionality, inclusivity and power, the FIAP is a progressive feminist document representing a positive shift towards both instrumental and transformative change.[3]

This article will discuss how the FIAP embodies both instrumental and transformative feminist approaches and how that shapes Canada’s efforts in gender empowerment. For more general information on the development and fundamental goals of the FIAP, please refer to an earlier article, Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy .

How does the FIAP Define Feminism?

While the FIAP forms a part of Canada’s historical commitment to gender empowerment and gender equality, its ingenuity is seen as the conduit for transforming Canada’s leadership and expertise in gender equality. The FIAP brings attention to previously neglected policy areas, including: adolescent sexual health, sexual and gender-based violence, and LGBTQ2IA+ rights.[4] However, one of the main concerns raised about the FIAP is that the policy fails to define what “feminist” or “feminism” means. In fact, academic Sheila Rao noted that the document rarely refers to the term feminism, and it is primarily mentioned in the “title of the document.”[5] Without clearly defining the term “feminism,” academic Emma Swan believes that it may lead to “conceptual ambiguity” and ignore the diversity amongst various kinds of feminism.[6]

However, it is important to remember that feminist efforts and goals can be achieved even in the absence of the explicit use of feminist language.[7] “Discursive ambiguity” can be a deliberate practice to allow for broader interpretations of terms such as “feminist” or “gender equality” by diverse stakeholders.[8]

There are two statements in the FIAP that are used to discern the policy’s understanding of feminism:[9]

  1. “A feminist approach is much more than focusing on women and girls; rather, it is the most effective way to address the root causes of poverty”; and
  2. “Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy recognizes that supporting gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls is the best way to build a more peaceful, more inclusive, and more prosperous world.”

While these two statements do not explicitly define what feminism means for the FIAP, they provide a general blueprint for FIAP’s approach towards implementing feminist principles and values in the policy. The policy’s language positions gender empowerment at the center of poverty reduction and peacebuilding efforts to challenge gender-based discrimination and intersectional inequalities. In doing so, the FIAP reflects aspects of both instrumental and transformative approaches to feminism, which will be discussed further below.

Instrumental Approach to Feminism

An instrumental approach to feminism is generally concerned with ensuring increased individual female participation in economics and politics by locating opportunities for women in existing structures, such as access to health and education systems and loan and employment access.[10] The approach of linking economics or economic growth with women’s empowerment is often referred to as “smart economics.” This is because it proposes the belief that investing in women and girls promotes efficiency and will yield “higher returns on development funds.”[11] This approach had gained momentum since the early 1990s when there was increased recognition of “women’s apparent ability to withstand economic crisis and carry on providing.”[12] The smart economics approach enables women to contribute their skills to the “project of world economic development.”[13]

The instrumental approach is pragmatic and vital in development projects and is also reflected in the FIAP’s six action areas:[14]

  1. Gender equality and empowerment of women and girls
  2. Human dignity (health and nutrition, education, and gender-responsive humanitarian action)
  3. Growth that works for everyone
  4. Environment and climate action
  5. Inclusive governance
  6. Peace and security

These action areas convey that economic growth and political participation are good for women, so they form the core values of the FIAP in promoting gender equality. Within each action area, the FIAP aims to prioritize women’s participation and leadership and increase their access to quality health and education facilities. The argument is that reducing gender inequality positively benefits the economy, businesses, and overall societal wellbeing.[15] Hence, this approach is also inherent to the various financial initiatives undertaken to achieve the FIAP’s goals, such as the “International Assistance Innovation Program” and “Sovereign Loan Program” (for more information, see the earlier article, Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy).

However, while women’s increased economic and political participation is essential, Professor Rebecca Tiessen from the University of Ottawa states that women cannot be merely instrumentalized for broader policy goals. Instead, “they must also be the beneficiaries of the planned outcomes” otherwise, there is a risk of recreating the same structural issues, such as systemic and institutional discrimination, that cause gender inequalities.[16]

Transformative Approach to Feminism

A transformative feminist approach understands that power relations and inequalities perpetuate gender inequalities,  both on an individual and institutional level, and address the underlying causes of gender inequalities that marginalize groups.[17]  A transformative feminist approach goes beyond accommodating women in existing economic structures and seeks to challenge the structural barriers and discriminatory laws and practices that continue to dominate the mainstream discourse and exclude other groups.[18] Programs following this approach focus on empowering the primary beneficiaries (women) and also engage all other actors in society  (male leaders) to ensure that the entire community is included and invested in bringing positive social change.

While at first glance it may seem that the FIAP’s sole focus is on women and girls’ economic and political empowerment, a closer read reveals that the FIAP also embodies transformative values and goals. As Tiessen notes, framing the policy and its language in terms of feminist values offers new avenues of assistance and change that were not present in previous approaches.[19] Also, the FIAP identifies the need to overcome unequal power relations and social norms and practices that hinder gender empowerment and thus pledges to engage with men and boys in its efforts and campaigns. Moreover, the FIAP intends to address all marginalized groups and acknowledge intersectional inequalities because it states that all people must enjoy the same fundamental rights regardless of sex, race, nationality, colour, religion, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, ability, or any other aspect of identity.[20]

There are significant examples of efforts made by Canada to achieve transformative change under the FIAP. For instance, under the “Afghanistan Women’s Empowerment Program” (2016-2021), community awareness about gender equality and empowerment was increased by providing tools for women to develop self-confidence in society and the marketplace. The program focused on engaging with local government, traditional and religious leaders, and the male family members of the women through training sessions and dialogues to prepare them to be more accepting of women becoming more active in the public sphere.[21]This programme is benefitting “234,094 Afghans, including 213,058 women and adolescent girls, and 21,036 men and women in official roles.”[22]

Similarly, the “When She Leads, Everyone Succeeds Project” in Senegal (presently ongoing) aims to increase respect and promotion of women and girls’ rights through the Community Empowerment Program (CEP), which offers training and classes on peace and security, gender equality, and human rights to the participating women and their families. Local officials are trained in their roles and responsibilities concerning human rights and gender-sensitive budgeting. The program also provides religious and local leaders training seminars on raising awareness of gender-based violence and harmful practices such as female genital cutting, child marriages, and forced marriages.[23] The CEP classes directly assist 6,300 women and girls, while the peace and security classes benefit 2,700 men and boys.[24]

These initiatives signal that the FIAP has elements of the transformative approach to feminism to ensure that the policy is inclusive and focused on dismantling the underlying causes of intersectional inequalities and discrimination for long-lasting change.


While Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy (FIAP) is innovative and holds great promise, academics have noted that the policy requires a clearer feminist vision for the future. If the goal of the FIAP is to improve the lives of all people substantially, academics argue that future aid efforts need to equally prioritize and reflect the instrumental and transformative approaches to secure the empowerment of all marginalized groups and address the systemic inequalities and “complexity of gender inequality.”[25]


[1] Global Affairs Canada, “Canada Launches New Feminist International Assistance Policy,” News release June 9, 2017, https://www.canada.ca/en/global-affairs/news/2017/06/canada_launches_newfeministinternationalassistancepolicy.html ;Global Affairs Canada, Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy (Ottawa: Global Affairs Canada, 2017).

[2] See Kimberle Crenshaw, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,” University of Chicago Legal Forum 1989, no. 1 (1989): pp. 139-167, https://chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/uclf/vol1989/iss1/8/

[3] Canadian Council for International Co-operation (CCIC), Canada’s International Assistance Policy is a Bold New Vision for Advancing Gender Equality, June 9, 2017, Available at https://cooperation.ca/canadas-international-assistance-policy-is-a-bold-new-vision-for-advancing-gender-equality/.;Stephen Brown and Liam Swiss, Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy: Game-Changer or Fig Leaf?, 2018, http://www.ucs.mun.ca/~lswiss/research.html

[4] Marianne Davidson, “Canada’s Global Feminist Leadership Matters,” CARE Canada, February 22, 2019, https://care.ca/2019/02/canadas-global-feminist-leadership-matters/Erin Aylward and Stephen Brown, “Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity in Canada’s ‘Feminist’ International Assistance,” International Journal: Canada’s Journal of Global Policy Analysis 75, no. 3 (2020): pp. 316-317, https://doi.org/10.1177/0020702020953425

[5] Sheila Rao and Rebecca Tiessen, “Whose Feminism(s)? Overseas Partner Organizations’ Perceptions of Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy,” International Journal:  Canada’s Journal of Global Policy Analysis 75, no. 3 (2020): 352, https://doi.org/10.1177/0020702020960120 

[6] Rebecca Tiessen, “What’s New About Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy: The Problem and Possibilities of ‘More of the Same,” Canadian Global Affairs Institute, The School of Public Policy Publications University of Calgary 12, No. 44 (2019): 7, https://d3n8a8pro7vhmx.cloudfront.net/cdfai/pages/4335/attachments/original/1576705518/Whats_New_about_Canadas_Feminist_International_Assistance_Policy_The_Problem_and_Possibilities_of_More_of_the_Same.pdf?1576705518 ;Emma Swan, ‘The Personal is Political!’: Exploring the limits of Canada’s feminist international assistance policy under occupation and blockade, 2020, https://doi.org/10.1080/11926422.2020.1805340

[7] Ines Smyth, “Talking of Gender: Words and Meanings in Development Organisations,” Development in Practice 17 (August 2007):  582-588, https://doi.org/10.3362/9781780440095.013

[8] Rosalind Eyben, “Subversively Accommodating: Feminist Bureaucrats and Gender Mainstreaming,” IDS Bulletin 41, no. 2 (2010): pp. 54-61, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1759-5436.2010.00123.x

[9] Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy, vi.

[10] Rao and Tiessen, “Whose Feminism(s)?,” 22.; Tiessen, “What’s New,” 18.

[11] Sam E. Morton, Judyannet Muchiri, and Liam Swiss, Which feminism (s)? For Whom? Intersectionality in Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy, 2020, Available at https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0020702020953420

[12] Sylvia Chant and Caroline Sweetman, “Fixing Women or Fixing the World? ‘Smart Economics,’ Efficiency Approaches, and Gender Equality in Development,” Gender & Development 20, no. 3 (2012): 517-29, https://doi.org/10.1080/13552074.2012.731812

[13] Chant and Sweetman, 517-29.

[14] Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy, 14.

[15] Günseli Berik, “Efficiency Arguments for Gender Equality: An Introduction,” Canadian Journal of Development Studies / Revue Canadienne D’études Du Développement 38, no. 4 (February 2017): pp. 542-546, https://doi.org/10.1080/02255189.2017.1377063

[16] Tiessen, “What’s New,” 8.

[17] Tiessen, “What’s New,” 7.

[18] Tiessen, What’s New, 7.

[19] Tiessen, “What’s New,” 8-9.

[20] Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy, 11.

[21] Global Affairs Canada, “Project Profile – Afghanistan Women’s Empowerment Program,” Project profile – Afghanistan Women’s Empowerment Program – Canada.ca, March 1, 2019, https://w05.international.gc.ca/projectbrowser-banqueprojets/project-projet/details/D001906001 “The Afghanistan Women’s Empowerment Program: Aga Khan Development Network,” AKDN, n.d., https://www.akdn.org/project/afghanistan-womens-empowerment-program-0

[22] The Afghanistan Women’s Empowerment Program.

[23] Global Affairs Canada, “Project Profile – When She Leads, Everyone Succeeds – Senegal,” Project profile – When She Leads, Everyone Succeeds – Senegal – Canada.ca, March 1, 2019, https://w05.international.gc.ca/projectbrowser-banqueprojets/project-projet/details/P006851001

[24] Global Affairs Canada, “When She Leads, Everyone Succeeds – Senegal”

[25] Rebecca Tiessen and David Black, “Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy: To Whom Is Canada Back?,” in Canada, Nation Branding and Domestic Politics, ed. David Carment and Richard Nimijean (Oxfordshire, UK: Routledge, 2019).