Without a gender perspective, trade policy may undermine women's empowerment

13 March 2017

Trade policies that are "gender-blind" can inadvertently undermine women's economic empowerment, UNCTAD Secretary-General Mukhisa Kituyi said ahead of the opening in New York of the 61st United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, taking place from 13 to 24 March 2017.

UNCTAD research has shown that, for example, trade liberalization affects men and women differently, and that women more than men stand to win or lose depending on which economic sectors are targeted.

This is because gender norms continue to segregate women into specific jobs and economic sectors, often denying them access to the education and training needed to upgrade their skills. And gender norms still require women to shoulder the brunt of unpaid household work and caregiving, allowing them less time to invest in productive activities outside the home. Women therefore find it more challenging than men to change jobs or sectors.

"When it comes to women's empowerment, it matters which products are promoted for export, and which are left on their own to face stronger competition from abroad," Dr. Kituyi said.

"Because women tend to work in fewer sectors than men, they may be disproportionately affected when a policy makes sectors like small-scale farming, or the clothing or hospitality industries, less competitive," he added.

While lowering tariffs for certain crops may lower prices for consumers, including for women-headed households, it may also lower incomes for small-scale farmers, who in most countries are women, meaning they would win as consumers yet lose as producers.

And when policies lead to more and better jobs, UNCTAD studies have shown that the opportunities for women tend to be limited to low-skill, low paying jobs.

For example, while a shift in production from low-value staple crops like cassava to higher-value commodities like fruits and vegetables may help a country upgrade agriculture production and develop non-farm activities, the gender ramifications are not straightforward.

Agro-industries may bring new and better job opportunities, with higher wages and better working conditions than traditional farming, but UNCTAD research has shown that women workers in agro-processing are typically segregated into labour-intensive tasks like packaging with limited opportunities for skills development. And the new cash crops may also crowd out small farmers involved in subsistence agriculture, who are mostly women.

The same is true for the clothing industry. A focus on increasing exports tends to lead to more jobs, but it also tends to create new patterns of inequality and vulnerability, with men being assigned to the new managerial, higher-skill jobs.

This means that in the event of a sudden or drastic drop in production, which may result from a shift in trade policy, women will be the first to lose their jobs and will have the most difficulty finding work in another sector or starting a new activity, because of limited skills and savings.

"The only way to avoid these unintended negative gender ramifications is to assess a policy's potential effects beforehand," Dr. Kituyi said.

"Such analysis is difficult but necessary, and UNCTAD is developing a toolbox to help policymakers use data to predict the consequences of trade reforms on women," he said, adding that the methodology may be applied to assess trade impacts on other vulnerable segments of the population, such as the rural population and the elderly.

The toolbox is being developed as part of UNCTAD's program on trade, gender, and development, which was set up to help policymakers look at trade policy from a gender perspective, encourage researchers and professors to include gender issues in their research and teaching, and equip civil society advocates with sound data and analysis.

To examine further how trade policies, export policies in particular, have affected women's work opportunities, UNCTAD is holding a panel discussion on 17 March, during the 61st UN Commission on the Status of Women.

The event, organized with Finland and Sweden, and titled "The Impact of the Trade Environment on Women's Employment", will draw on UNCTAD's extensive work and research in countries such as Lesotho, Bhutan, Uruguay and several members of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa.