Who are these “women in diplomacy” we think about on June 24?
Thanks to a resolution adopted by the United Nations General Assembly last Monday, on June 24 each year we will have the opportunity to commemorate the International Day of Women in Diplomacy. The resolution was co-sponsored by 191 member states, and was introduced by Her Excellency Ms. Thilmeeza Hussain, Permanent Representative of the Maldives to the United Nations. She referred to this new commemoration as “as an annual opportunity to reflect on the challenges faced by women diplomats and actions that can be undertaken to achieve the goal of women’s full, equal, effective and meaningful participation in diplomacy.”
Many speeches and editorials we’ve read about women in diplomacy focus on the advantages of including female diplomats in negotiations for peace, development and human rights. Once again, the presence of women in a professional setting -this time, in Diplomacy- seems to need a sound justification. We believe we don’t need to justify or prove anything beyond recalling that women constitute more than half of the world’s population and gave birth to -and remain the main caregivers to – everyone on earth. Women belong in any profession, activity and lifestyle they choose. It’s called autonomy, and women have been fighting for theirs since the 19th century, preparing the way for a broader spectrum of battles towards equality and human dignity for other groups as well.
Many examples of distinguished female diplomats can and will be brought up on June 24. But turning this day into a self-congratulatory commemoration of the “Top” women in diplomacy would miss the resolution’s objective for two reasons: Firstly, the preamble to the resolution acknowledges both the contributions of women to diplomacy, and also their underrepresentation. Commemorating the 24th of June by either justifying the presence of women in diplomacy (an exercise that we have never seen in the case of men), or only mentioning women who already form part of diplomatic leadership, is redundant. Secondly, the resolution is calling for change. We need to promote the full participation of women at every level of the profession, including the role of non-traditional diplomats who come from other sectors such as NGOs, foundations, local governments and private companies, whose activities influence decisions related to international policy and international development.
As on the 8th of March, the first pertinent question is why are women excluded and/or underrepresented in certain settings of public life? The second is what do we have to modify to achieve equal representation and participation of women - in this case in diplomacy. This International Day is an invitation to reflect on those questions, not to patronize us by celebrating exceptional individuals we already know about (no mansplaining on June 24, please!).
Female diplomats are more privileged than many other women. But they are also vulnerable due to the exceptionally nomadic exigencies of their profession. Female diplomats can be subject to all kinds of violence and hardships in their work and in their homes, very often without being able to count on any social – or institutional - network to support them through those challenges. Moreover, their country’s laws sometimes cannot protect them effectively due to their exceptional lifestyle. Some foreign services have developed mechanisms for their protection, but the norm remains that (female) diplomats are an exception for any rule. This becomes dreadfully complicated when female diplomats have children – particularly if the relationship with the father comes to an end, which is not uncommon. In such cases, serious problems remain unaddressed, such as custody, responsibility for childcare, or the effects on the mental health of women and the children under their care.
We should also remember that ‘women in diplomacy’ must include those who accompany their diplomat partners on their missions. These women assume the responsibility for the household and create often invaluable local social networks, granting their partners the freedom to focus on their work and shine in the various fora or diplomatic receptions on which their career development often depends. Not all female diplomats get a partner that is willing to do the same.
As their partner’s dependents in a foreign country – holding a diplomatic visa that limits the scope of their economic activities, and often having to deal with unfamiliar local cultures and languages – these women’s autonomy is curtailed, making them even more vulnerable to economic violence. Their vulnerabilities are difficult to address even through legal means. Their realities have never been told and their stories and contributions to diplomatic history are essential, but rarely recognized.
June 24, then, is not only for the few women diplomats who, somehow, made it to the top. Although inspiring, their stories do not always reflect the experiences of most women in diplomacy.
June 24 is for women who want to become diplomats but whose families or romantic partners discourage them to try, because moving will affect their partner’s professional career or will tamper with their ability to care for their children. It is for the female aspirants that get questions like: “Are you married?” “Do you have children?” “How are you going to make your personal life compatible with your career?” during their interviews in selection processes. June 24 is for the female diplomats that found love during their careers, sometimes in a colleague, and end up sacrificing their own career for the relationship. June 24 is for those women who are passed over for promotion while a male colleague with less experience and demonstrably fewer achievements is elevated twice as fast. June 24 is for those women that bring their children with them - even without any support from partners, family, or social networks - and endure the hardships of that double responsibility; or those that do so after surviving domestic violence. June 24 is for the women that deliver for their governments and their fellow citizens in embassies and consulates around the world, without being seen or considered by the same society they serve. June 24 is also for the female partners of male diplomats, those women that enable men to get ahead in their careers, by suppressing their own possibilities for personal, economic, or professional autonomy.
To all of them: Let’s remain hopeful. June 24 is about you.
Dalya Salinas Pérez, Carolina Sheinfeld, Rocío Cañas and Trinidad Saona, members of the Gender Alliance (Taskforce in Care & Diplomacy)
Internacionalista y diplomática. Cursó la licenciatura en Relaciones Internacionales y tiene una maestría en Gestión de la Comunicación Internacional. Desde hace 15 años, se desempeña como servidora pública en el Servicio Exterior Mexicano e integrante de la Gender Alliance.