Tackling trade and gender issues in Lesotho

11 December 2012

Trade policy can play a catalytic role in job creation for women, and yet it can also drive new patterns of vulnerability and social exclusion.

The trade-led expansion of Lesotho's apparel industry has created opportunities for women's empowerment and well-being through job creation in export-led sectors, but it has also contributed to new patterns of segregation and vulnerability.

This was one of the conclusions reached at the workshop run by UNCTAD on 4 December 2012, in Maseru, Lesotho, to launch the study Who is Benefiting from Trade Liberalization in Lesotho? A Gender Perspective.

The workshop, which brought together about 50 participants from various government departments, United Nations agencies and the private sector, was opened by Mr. Moahloli Mphaka, Principal Secretary, Ministry of Trade and Industries, Cooperatives and Marketing, by Ms. Karla Hershey, United Nations Resident Coordinator, and by the Chief of UNCTAD's Technical Cooperation Service, Ms. Manuela Tortora.

The Lesotho case study confirms that trade policy (in this case, preferential access to United States markets) can play a catalytic role in job creation for women. Most significantly, in Lesotho, trade-led developments have created a large number of new jobs for underprivileged, relatively unskilled women who would otherwise have little chance of being formally employed. However, these observations need to be qualified. Some of the major areas of concern discussed at the workshop included the quality of the employment created in Lesotho's export-oriented clothing industry, limited spillover effects and linkages with the rest of the economy, and increased vulnerability to external shocks.

For example, it was acknowledged that apparel workers in Lesotho were confronted with the "triple threat" of trade preference "expiration", "erosion" and "dilution". Vulnerability to these external trade policy developments was exacerbated by female apparel workers' limited ability to adjust and reallocate to expanding sectors in Lesotho. Women who worked in low-wage, low-skilled jobs in the apparel sector were not able to amass the substantial savings or develop the necessary skills for self-employment or job reallocation.

Participants at the workshop discussed these challenges, and explored options for a more sustainable development strategy geared to women's empowerment and well-being, such as exploiting new market opportunities in green industries and services. Discussions built on and contributed towards the strategic objectives and actions set forth in Lesotho's national development plans, which emphasize the link between economic growth and social inclusiveness, including in terms of gender equality.

The country case study of Lesotho is part of a series of country case studies that are being conducted by UNCTAD within its work programme on Trade, Gender and Development.