Women can be catalysts for trade and development – if obstacles are removed

29 September 2015

​With more empowerment and a change in socio-cultural attitudes, women can be catalysts for trade and development. But, according to participants in a round table discussion during the sixty-second session of the Trade and Development Board, trade liberalization does not automatically benefit women and gender equality.

Three themes dominated a round table discussion on the role of women as catalysts for trade and development during the sixty-second session of the Trade and Development Board: the impact of trade liberalization on women, women as engines of rural development and women's economic empowerment in the post-2015 development agenda.

Four panelists discussed the issues with input by representatives from more than 20 countries, as well as from UNCTAD Secretary-General Mukhisa Kituyi. The Secretary-General underlined the importance of this topic for UNCTAD and said that the organization had "pleaded for the Sustainable Development Goals to put emphasis on the preconditions necessary for women to become economically empowered".

The general view of the panel was that the economic empowerment of women benefits societies, and can stimulate trade and development. More and better education was underscored, especially higher education for women. According to one delegate, the education of women has accounted for half of economic growth in Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries in the past 50 years.

The role of women in micro, small and medium-sized enterprises was also highlighted by panelists who noted that many gender-specific obstacles hinder employment among women, including through regulatory means. For example, in 100 out of 173 economies reviewed by the World Bank, women face gender-based job restrictions. Only 18 of these economies covered had no legal restrictions on women's employment, according to the World Bank report.

Many delegates from developing countries underlined the need for mentalities and socio-cultural attitudes to change. Other structural issues, including the double burden of care and productive work, also hamper the economic potential of women. In poor rural areas women's productivity is curbed by obstacles such as limited access to land, credit, farm inputs, extension services, labour and markets.

Is trade liberalization always good for women´s economic empowerment? Not necessarily, according to the panelists and country representatives. Trade liberalization can be double-edged, and can cause gain and lose simultaneously. For instance, women might benefit as consumers when tariffs on agricultural goods are reduced, but may lose as producers when the prices of those commodities fall. Trade liberalization can also create opportunities for formal employment, while segregating women in part-time, seasonal and low-paid jobs.

The shift to commercial agriculture has also in some cases converted women from own-account farmers to contributing family workers, dependent on a male relative's income and spending decisions. In Germany, trade liberalization has been accompanied by a progressive "defeminization" of the farming sector. As for the Arab world, trade liberalization has largely benefited male-intensive industries, notably energy and telecommunications.

Nevertheless, all participants agreed that trade and economic growth in general could reduce gender-related inequalities. But this is not an automatic process. Gender considerations should be mainstreamed in trade policy and trade policy must be accompanied by flanking policies to empower women.

Dr. Kituyi said: "This year our Least Developed Countries report will include a full chapter devoted to gender issues in rural economies with concrete suggestions for policy interventions in the areas of land, credit, access to market, inputs and extension services, as well as policies to make women's work more productive and rural areas more dynamic."