National stimulus packages urged to take gender into account; support recommended for women-owned businesses, micro-credit programmes
Geneva, 10 March 2009- Declining trade resulting from the global economic downturn may cost many women in developing countries their jobs, experts warned today at the start of a two-day meeting on "mainstreaming gender in trade policy."
Noting that International Women´s Day had been celebrated on Sunday, UNCTAD Secretary-General Supachai Panitchpakdi opened the 10-11 March expert meeting by recommending that governments crafting economic stimulus measures and social-protection programmes in reaction to the crisis should consider including measures to bolster women´s employment and support small businesses run by women.
The morning´s keynote speaker, Rosalyn Hazelle, Permanent Secretary for International Trade, Industry, Commerce and Consumer Affairs of St. Kitts and Nevis, said women are heavily employed "at the lower, if not the lowest level" of export-focused manufacturing in many developing nations. These women "are extremely vulnerable to turmoil in the global trading environment," she said.
UNCTAD estimates that merchandise exports from developing countries could drop in 2009 by 15.5% -- an estimate Mr. Supachai said may turn out to be "optimistic." Women have been active in some of the most important export sectors of developing countries, including textile and electronics manufacture. They make up as many as 80% of employees in the textile sectors of developing nations. Levels of women´s employment in many of these countries climbed because of rapid export growth during the early years of the Millennium, the Secretary-General noted.
But he added that "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, can find it impossible to compete in international markets and be 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."
The International Labour Office (ILO) is predicting a global rise in unemployment this year of up to 51 million. Some 22 million of those laid off, it estimates, will be women. Although the crisis had its initial impact largely on male-dominated sectors such as finance, insurance, and construction, it is now spreading into fields where women are widely employed, Mr. Supachai said. Those most recently hired and holding low-level jobs -- and that is the situation of many women in developing countries -- are apt to be the first let go during the economic downturn, he said.
The Secretary-General recommended that governments devising responses to the crisis add special measures to protect women´s interests and to underpin women´s employment. Support for micro-credit programmes could be expanded, for example: the small loans administered under these programmes overwhelmingly go to small businesses founded and run by women. Government-procurement measures to support domestic firms during the downturn might also include support for women-owned businesses, he said. And crafting of overall trade policy should keep in mind the goal of advancing gender equality, which tends to spur progress because a much greater share of a country´s talent is enabled to contribute to economic growth.
Ms. Hazelle expressed concern that job losses among women in developing nations have an immediate negative effect on households and on such vital matters as children´s health, nutrition, and education. Many women employees in export-heavy industries are the prime wage-earners for their families, she said.
UNCTAD is task manager of the Inter-agency Task Force on Gender and Trade, and the expert meeting is expected to provide an opportunity to give new impetus to the task force´s work. Participants called at the meeting for greater research into the links between trade policy and gender, and said the task force is well-placed to carry out such work.
Financial support for the meeting has been provided by the Canadian International Development Agency and the Commonwealth Secretariat.
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