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Expert Meeting on Mainstreaming Gender in Trade Policy
 
Expert Meeting on Mainstreaming Gender in Trade Policy
Geneva
10 March 2009

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Mr. Chairman,
Excellencies,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
 
Allow me to warmly welcome all of you to this Expert Meeting on Mainstreaming Gender in Trade Policy. It is a great pleasure to see so many experts participating in the discussion of this relatively new topic. In this context, I would also like to express my gratitude to CIDA (Canada) and the Commonwealth Secretariat for their financial support of the meeting, which has enabled far more experts to participate than would otherwise have been possible.
 
Ladies and Gentlemen,
 
The celebration of International Women´s Day on Sunday has highlighted again that the fundamental human right of freedom from gender discrimination continues to be denied to millions of women. Their widespread marginalization in the social, economic and political spheres puts women among the most vulnerable groups, bearing the brunt of the hardships. They continue to have less access to education and other social services, less secure employment, lower wages and insufficient political representation. This situation is not only a blemish on our common humanity, but also an obstacle to economic development.
 
The case for gender equality is unequivocal - not just as a fundamental human right, but also as a crucial factor in generating poverty reduction, economic growth and development. Indeed, the importance of gender equality is highlighted in Millennium Development Goal No. 3, on promoting gender equality and empowering women. Women play a major role in contributing to the economy, to better governance, and to their communities and households. Discrimination and marginalization reduces this contribution, making societies worse off. Just like income inequality, gender discrimination tends to reduce growth and hold back development by crippling a part of society´s human capital.
 
By contrast, there is ample evidence that enhanced opportunities for women lead to improvements in poverty reduction and accelerated economic growth. Indeed, some studies have shown that women tend to spend a greater share of their incomes on children´s education and other human development goals than men. It is therefore high time for gender equality to be incorporated more broadly into development policy-making. Trade policy cannot and should not be an exception.
 
Ladies and Gentlemen,
 
The impact of trade policy on gender equality is a relatively new research topic, and awareness of the linkages involved is only beginning to emerge. Yet it is clear that trade policy makers across the globe should pay greater attention to the potential impact of trade liberalization on gender.
 
Trade policy affects gender equality in two main ways. First, trade tends to have strong redistributive effects between sectors and social groups, favouring some while disfavouring others. And since economic and social activities differ by gender, these redistributive effects will affect genders differently. A country´s socio-cultural mores may restrict women´s mobility, which may in turn hinder entry into certain sectors Social mores and norms may also dictate what types of jobs are considered appropriate for women, along with the terms and conditions of work. Just consider the textiles industry in many developing countries, where more than 80% of the employees are women: A trade policy measure causing this industry to expand or contract will have a significant effect on women´s employment opportunities. As such, trade policy can be an engine for gender equality and women´s empowerment. However, it can also increase women´s vulnerability and marginalization.
 
There is some evidence to suggest that, on balance, trade has benefited women. This is particularly the case for some fast-growing developing economies. There, women have been active in some of the most important export sectors, such as textiles and electronics, and trade liberalization and international integration have led to an increase in employment opportunities for these women. Being able to earn cash is a tremendous advantage, empowering women both within and outside the household.
 
But there are also documented cases where women have been penalized by trade integration. Trade policies have often disrupted markets where women operate. Agricultural liberalization has often meant that small-scale farmers (most of whom are women) find it impossible to compete with international markets and are forced into subsistence activities. In other cases, women operating in import-competing sectors and small-scale enterprises have also been unable to compete with foreign goods, thus losing employment.
 
Trade policy can disadvantage women in yet another way: It involves adaptation to international competition, which requires resources and skills, which women do not always have access to. Let us not forget: The theory behind trade liberalization is that those workers displaced from import-competing sectors can be re-employed in expanding export sectors or take advantage of other new opportunities.
 
In practice, however, this adaptation to international trade is not so easy, and those who are not able to adapt can end up worse off than before. Unfortunately, adaptation often poses particular problems for women because of their relative disadvantages in terms of education, command over resources, and access to credit, new technologies, training, and marketing networks. This problem is often more relevant in developing countries, where the differences between the genders may be greater and where the lack of efficient government institutions, safety nets and compensatory policies make adjustments more difficult.
 
Given the complicated linkages between trade policy and gender equality, we need more research on this subject and greater gender sensitivity among trade policy makers. In particular, policy makers may wish to consider including gender assessments when designing trade policies, so as to better understand the implications for women and gender equality. Gender assessments will help governments to design better complementary policies for reducing the negative effect of trade policies on women, and to identify measures needed to help women benefit from trade.
 
Such gender assessments may also be needed in the context of the current global financial crisis and the stimulus packages being designed to address it. Already, women are being negatively affected by the global downturn. Female labour fuelled a large share of the increases in trade that preceded the crisis. For this reason, they will be among the first to suffer from declining trade, lay-offs, and the repatriation of migrant workers. The effects of the crisis on international trade have just started to appear, and are expected to be severe. UNCTAD estimates that merchandise exports from developing countries could potentially decline by 15.5% this year. At the regional level, we are projecting a 16.8% deceleration of export growth in Asia. Exports from Africa could shrink by 12.5%, and from Latin America, 10%. This will certainly have a significant impact on employment.
 
The ILO is predicting a global rise in unemployment this year of up to 51 million people, 22 million of whom are likely to be women. The sectors that were initially hit the hardest by the crisis were by and large dominated by male workers, such as finance, insurance, real estate, construction and manufacturing. However, the crisis is now spreading to service-oriented sectors, which in many countries are dominated by females.
 
Considering that women´s jobs are generally vulnerable, that women are under-employed and lack social protection, not only do they risk losing their jobs altogether, but even if they manage to keep them, the precarious nature of those jobs will deteriorate further, reducing their ability to negotiate wages and working conditions. Moreover, the deterioration of women´s conditions and their further impoverishment will have an immediate and dramatic effect on other members of the household, for instance, in terms of health, nutrition and children´s education.
 
However, this does not mean that there are no answers. We can factor gender considerations into the crafting of national stimulus packages and social protection measures. Micro-credit, which is affecting the functioning of SMEs that in most developing countries are run by women, should be expanded. We must also build a better enabling environment for trade, including through better trade financing. The possible use of government procurement for national development priorities, such as support for women-owned businesses, could also be considered.
 
Ladies and Gentlemen,
 
These are only some of the issues you may wish to consider in your deliberations over the next two days. Clearly, further research and policy advocacy is needed on the links between trade policy and gender. I am confident that this meeting will be instrumental in agreeing on an agenda for research that could be conducted through collaborative efforts. In particular, the United Nations Inter-agency Task Force on Gender and Trade, in which UNCTAD serves as task manager, may benefit from your insights and suggestions for further work. I wish you fruitful discussions.
 
Thank you very much.
 

 
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