Trade deals can be a tool for women's empowerment

29 March 2019

International trade agreements can be harnessed to boost gender equality, policymakers and analysts say, provided negotiators get things right.

Trade agreements have the power to level the playing field between women and men in signatory countries, as long as gender issues are etched into them, according to senior international officials, diplomats and policy experts.

Trade policies are not gender neutral and can affect men and women differently, due to differing gender roles and status in economies and societies.

Mindful of this, World Trade Organization (WTO) member economies adopted the Buenos Aires Declaration on Women and Trade at their December 2017 ministerial conference in the Argentine capital. With its partners, UNCTAD has convened a series of events to turn its aims into reality.

Trade and Gender

Part of that effort includes taking stock of how gender considerations have so far been included in trade agreements, the impacts of such an inclusion and how best to move forward.

"We are still on the learning curve and we can learn from each other,”  WTO Director-General Roberto Azevêdo told a 28 March meeting on trade and gender convened by UNCTAD and the governments of Iceland and Botswana.

Arancha González, who heads the Geneva-based International Trade Centre, also pointed to the challenges of the process: “Beginning is easy. Continuing is hard." 

While delivering on the aims of an international declaration is challenging, the very fact that one exists is important. UNCTAD Deputy Secretary-General Isabelle Durant noted that high-level gatherings to discuss trade and gender would have been quite unthinkable even just a few years ago.

The human and financial resources that governments, international organizations, academia and civil society are devoting to understand more deeply how trade and gender are linked and how to use trade policy as a tool for gender equality and women's empowerment is also unprecedented.

Gender loud and clear

For Nazhat Shameem Khan, Fiji’s ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, being a signatory of the  Buenos Aires Declaration on Trade and Gender is proving instrumental not only to make policies in different fields converge, but also to reflect on how to make trade policy more inclusive and fairer.

She and other speakers underlined that attempts at gender neutrality in policymaking do not work, meaning that gender considerations must always have a clear place.

"It is a mistake to treat unequal people equally,” she said.

Explicit gender-related provisions in trade agreements are not a recent phenomenon, said José Monteiro, an expert from the WTO’s research and statistics division, with the first example going back to the 1957 Treaty of Rome that established the European Economic Communities, and required member states to guarantee equal pay for women and men.

However, the scope of gender provisions has expanded significantly in the last three years. As of 2018, out of 573 regional trade agreements, 74 include at least one provision referring to gender-related issues, while many more, 243, include provisions referring indirectly to gender issues. Gender provisions are highly heterogenous, Mr. Monteiro added, in terms of location in the agreement, scope and commitments.

Gender considerations may be included in the treaties establishing a regional economic bloc from the outset, as it was the case for the East African Community, set up in 2000, said Simonetta Zarrilli, who runs UNCTAD’s trade, gender and development programme. But they can also become part of the institutional and policy machinery later, she added, citing the South American Mercosur trade community, where civil society engagement played a key role.

The major new trade deal among developing countries currently is the African Continental Free Trade Agreement, signed in March 2018 and poised to enter into force. David Luke, who coordinates the African Trade Policy Centre at the UN Economic Commission for Africa, noted that only some of the language in the treaty refers to gender equality, although there are several indirect provisions. He also said that while aggregate benefits are expected from the agreement, this masks the distributional impacts that will create different risks and opportunities for different segments of the population, including women and men.

"If trade is not good for development, it will not be good for women," said Mariama Williams, a policy expert from the South Centre.

Speakers said that trade and gender chapters should be accompanied by overall gender mainstreaming in trade agreements, especially now that trade agreements go far beyond trade in goods and touch upon issues until recently left to the discretion of national policies. Moreover, agreements that include gender chapters do not operate in a vacuum, they can play a positive role for women if there is convergence of national policies in several fields.