Sonia Bahri

At the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy, we seek to highlight those around the world who are working to promote gender equality and challenge the status quo. The people we interview occupy many different roles within NGOs, foreign policy, and charities, among many. Aside from their impressive careers, our interviewees are feminist actors with a wealth of advice (and book recommendations!).

Jennifer Brough: Hi Sonia! Tell me about your current role.
Sonia Bahri: After a long career at UNESCO, I have been consulting for the past two years. I provided advice on women and climate change to the then French Minister of the Environment, Ségolène Royal, during the UN Climate Change Conference (COP 21) and its follow-up. I also sit on scientific and advisory boards including the Peace Studies programme of the University of Paris Dauphine and Green Cross France et territories, an NGO working on environmental issues. I am also the Advisor to the President of the French National Commission for UNESCO for scientific affairs, sustainable development and international cooperation.

JB: What drew to you to working in policy?
SB: I have always been interested in public policy. If we want to have an impact on people's lives—to make them better, to fight against poverty and inequalities between men and women, to help build a new economic model based on sustainable development—we need to build sound policies. To make policy effective, we must put in place appropriate mechanisms and legal devices that will facilitate access to education, information and jobs to ensure respect of their dignity and rights.

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That's why I studied political science and history before pursuing a PhD in Economics at La Sorbonne University. This multidisciplinary training allowed me to see things with a broader spectrum and to better understand the complexity of the economic, social and cultural connections in our world. As I am Tunisian and French, I have both cultures in my way of thinking and this helps me work across cultures and multinational environments. Also, working in an international organisation was, for me, a way to contribute to education and other key development issues at the global level. This cannot be done without a close interaction with policy makers in different parts of the world.

JB: What are some challenges you've faced during your career?
SB: Faced with rise of HIV/AIDS in the early 90s, I had to fight internally to convince UNESCO to reorient its educational programmes. HIV/AIDS was seriously impacting sub-Saharan Africa; many were dying of AIDS at a time when treatment did not yet exist.

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It was necessary for UNESCO, which has a mandate within the UN for global education, to react quickly by mobilising political leaders to implement preventive educational programmes. This was a real challenge at the beginning because some were reluctant to see UNESCO involved in sensitive issues related to sexuality, preferring that the World Health Organisation alone take care of it.

Along with these programmatic challenges, it is well known that women must fight twice as hard to achieve the same results as men when it comes to career. In the UN system, as elsewhere, career development for women is slower than that of men. I had to face this reality and work hard to occupy positions of responsibility. Yet, gender equality is considered a high priority in all UN organisations.

JB: What keeps you motivated?
SB: I still believe strongly in the power of education, which Nelson Mandela used to call "the most powerful weapon we can use to change the world," and the power of culture and science to advance humanity and create the conditions for a sustainable world.

I also continue to believe that access to education, culture and science cannot be achieved without good governance and strong public policies. This is why we must tirelessly continue to mobilise decision-makers to make the right, evidence-based decisions, also based on the exchange of good practices. However, the participation of international organisations and that of governments are not enough, we need multi-stakeholder approaches with an added importance placed on civil society.

JB: Do you consider yourself a feminist?
SB: I consider myself, by my professional and personal commitment, a feminist and I am proud of it! I come from Tunisia, a country that implemented early reforms for the equality between men and women. The adoption of the Personal Status Code in 1956 gave women an unprecedented place in Tunisian society and the Arab world in general, abolishing polygamy, creating a judicial procedure for divorce and authorising marriage only with the mutual consent of both husband and wife.

Fortunately, the Personal Status Code has not been called into question despite pressure from Islamists. We must recognise the work of women in civil society in Tunisia who fought for the recognition of this equality that has been implemented in the Constitution. This does not mean that we should stop fighting for effective equality in terms of access to employment, particularly in a country where unemployment primarily affects women, especially women graduates. Similarly, wage inequality and the low representation of women in politics and high decision-making positions are still realities.

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JB: What do you think a feminist foreign policy would look like?
SB: Sweden has already implemented a feminist foreign policy and Canada has incorporated this approach for its development assistance. This issue is also discussed in some circles in the UK. British think tank Chatham House proposes putting women's rights at the heart of UK foreign policy. France is concerned about human rights in its external relations but has not yet made the choice to adopt a foreign policy that fully integrates women's rights, empowerment and gender equality.

A feminist foreign policy must not remain at the level of words and declarations of intent, but must be translated into real, tangible and concrete policy. All bilateral and multilateral development aid policies should include projects that specifically target women. It is important to ensure that the aid benefits women as an often-marginalised group, especially women in rural areas who are among the poorest on the planet.

It is clear that we cannot achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) without gender equality, women's empowerment and access to resources. Women play a key role in the transmission of knowledge and the development of societies. Building capacity and empowering them can accelerate access to education for children and adults, health, development, democracy and peace.

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In addition, women are particularly affected by climate change. With desertification and drought in many parts of the world, they have to travel greater distances to fetch water or wood to cook food. Specific programmes must allow their empowerment and respect the environment, for example access to solar ovens and wells.

In disaster situations such as floods, or in situations of armed conflict or post-conflict, women and girls find themselves in greater vulnerability or suffer from sexual violence. Their specific needs must be taken into account in humanitarian aid policies in emergency situations in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 1325.

A feminist foreign policy must also ensure the participation of women in negotiations and in the implementation of cooperation or peace agreements and aid plans. Women should not only be perceived as beneficiaries, but as actors and decision-makers on the same level as men.

JB: Tell me more about your current projects and what you are working towards.
SB: With regard to gender equality and the role of women in development, I make sure that a gender perspective is always taken into account when drafting resolutions or other texts relating to scientific research, the ethics of science or sustainable development, and each time the French National Commission for UNESCO is actively involved in their preparation. The French Commission is actively involved in their preparation. For example, the UNESCO Recommendation of 1974 on the status of scientific researchers did not give special attention to the low participation of women in scientific research. The Commission has asked that this issue is fully integrated into the revised version of this recommendation. The revised text was adopted by the General Conference of UNESCO in November 2017 and translated into the six UN official languages for global dissemination.

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The L'Oréal-UNESCO Programme for Women and Science, which I led for 5 years at UNESCO and whose responsibility I now hold within the French National Commission for UNESCO, highlights the excellence of women in science and encourages women scientists to continue to advance knowledge to find solutions to major challenges such as health, food security, biodiversity and climate change. Each year, 30 fellowships for doctoral or postdoctoral studies are awarded to talented young women scientists, sometimes coming from different parts of the world, and conducting their research in France. Through these scholarships, we encourage these young women to pursue their scientific careers.

Additionally, I am co-founder of We4Dev, a network of Tunisian women who help other women access employment. Women in Tunisia are the first affected by unemployment; 23% of women, compared to 12% of men, face unemployment, with a greater gap for women graduates of higher education. In this context, and because the Tunisian economy needs developers to ensure its digital transition, we have recently launched a first training initiative in coding and digital jobs for a dozen young, unemployed women graduates.

JB: What is your favourite book, fiction/non-fiction, by a woman author?
SB: L’élégance du hérisson (The Elegance of the Hedgehog) by Muriel Barbery.


Interview by Jennifer Brough, Interview Coordinator. Twitter: @Jennifer_Brough


Marissa Conway