Borderline: Rural women in trade agreements - a Q&A with activists

07 March 2018

A discussion on "making trade agreements work for rural women" with the non-governmental organization Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development.

This year's annual session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, taking place in New York from 12 to 23 March, will focus on "the challenges and opportunities in achieving gender equality and the empowerment of rural women and girls".

UNCTAD has partnered with Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development (APWLD), a network of feminist organizations accredited to the UN trade body's most recent ministerial conference, to organize a side event on 13 March on the theme "Making trade agreements work for rural women".

To better understand the issues at hand, we sat down with APWLD programme officers Sanam Amin and Diyana Yahaya.

Q:   "Women's empowerment" has become a catch phrase in development work. But what does it mean when we say we want to empower women?

A:   This really depends on who uses this term. Within the context of international policy-setting forums, many states substitute the phrase "women's empowerment" in documents where we really want to see "women's rights".

This is because international human rights have a legal obligation from states. When it comes to outcome documents in avenues such as the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), we often see "empowerment" taking the place of "rights" as a way of softening the obligation.

When "women's empowerment" is used by donors in the development sector, it seems to suggest that they want to see results for women based on their support for a specific project or programme. For example, they may want to see women "empowered" to become entrepreneurs.

For women's rights movements and the organizations that support them, such as APWLD, when we talk about "women's empowerment" we mean shifting power relations and patriarchal practices towards realizing intersectional gender equity and women's fundamental human rights.

By intersectional gender equity, we mean equality that takes into account the multiple forms of discrimination and disadvantage that women face based on factors beyond gender, such as Indigeneity, class, religion and ethnicity.

Q: Why is it important to focus on rural women in particular?

A:   Global poverty is concentrated in rural areas, where almost half the world's population lives. Yet rural populations have very little say when it comes to public policy. There is almost no consultation of rural women when planning national policies or international trade agreements.

Assumptions are made that a free market will somehow help rural women, but like trickle-down economics, this is an imaginary justification for supporting an economic system that entrenches inequality.

We're talking about a demographic that is deeply affected by decisions made by central governments and in international arenas, and yet have very little ability to shape policy.

Q: In what way are trade agreements not empowering rural women?

A:   APWLD's website has a few publications that elaborate specifically on the risks and impacts of multilateral agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. The short answer to this question is that rural women's needs are not at all considered when it comes to the negotiation of trade agreements.

For example, trade agreements can interfere with traditional agrarian practices around seeds which often are safeguarded and managed by rural women. What might be traditional medicinal practices for rural or Indigenous communities could be patented by a company and lost to the community.

Trade and investment agreements also come with clauses, such as the investor-state dispute settlement mechanism, which expose states to the risk of being sued even when they are implementing environmental protection policies - as seen with the North American Free Trade Agreement - or trying to establish a minimum wage.

As a result, the initiatives for policies that will improve labour rights and protect the environment are dropped while governments get embroiled in closed arbitration that, if they do lose, will cost millions in public funds.

The loss of public revenue has real consequences for rural women. The money governments must pay out after losing arbitration is taken from budgets for public infrastructure and services in rural areas. Women and girls rely on public goods and services more than men.

Q: So what needs to be done to get free trade agreements to work better for rural women?

A:   If trade agreements were transparently and openly negotiated, the public would know what was at stake and governments in turn would be accountable to their citizens. Trade agreements have the potential to be empowering if they are structured in a way that complements rather than contradicts human and labour rights.

Several human rights experts have said that trade agreements need to recognize the primacy of human rights and should include post and ex ante assessments. Such assessments can include gender impact assessments.

Gender impact assessments that include rural and Indigenous women, and hear their voices and needs, can help structure what a state's position should actually be when negotiating trade agreements.

States such as India and Thailand, for instance, that have pharmaceutical industries producing generic and lifesaving medicines at a low cost, should really think about what it means for their citizens to not have access to those medicines because of intellectual property chapters in trade agreements. Focusing on just the risks to the industry is not enough - we need to think about what dangers are posed if any essential drug is allowed to be priced out of the market.

Q: Last December, there was a big declaration on women and trade at the World Trade Organization's Eleventh Ministerial Conference in Buenos Aires. Does this show that things are moving in the right direction?

A:   We know that many groups see it as a breakthrough of sorts that gender is being taken up in a space that has insisted that trade is gender-blind. We also know that some see it as a validation of the peoples' and feminist movements that have for years called for recognition of the gendered impacts of trade.

But for us, and many feminist groups, we need to see a lot more in terms of policy commitments, public consultation of affected groups, openness of negotiations - including publishing draft agreements - and a real analysis of trade policies before we can say that the international community is moving in the right direction.

In our experience, these declarations are a nice moment for all the global leaders to shake hands, take a photo and pretend to commit to doing something - and then go back home and continue their regressive policies. The declaration itself isn't enough: all of its signatories need to go do the necessary groundwork at home, and that means consulting with the affected communities.

Q: Why partner with UNCTAD to address the issue of how trade agreements affect rural women?

A:   We engage with many United Nations agencies because the UN is the space that is grounded in human rights. With regard to trade issues, we look to UNCTAD because of its own objective: "To maximize the trade, investment and development opportunities of developing countries and assist them in their efforts to integrate into the world economy on an equitable basis."

We see UNCTAD as the legitimate convener on trade, investment and development issues, and we would emphasize the integration into the world economy "on an equitable basis." The current structures of trade agreements are not supporting an equitable global economy for rural women - and for many other segments of the population.

UNCTAD has the expertise and understanding around these issues and, of course, as part of the UN system is also committed to the 2030 Agenda. It may be an old-fashioned view at this point, but an intergovernmental agency focused on equitable economy is the right space to bring together states, civil society and other actors.