Four ways to make trade work for gender equality

Marion Sharples Gender, Inequality, Women's Economic Empowerment

How can trade work for, not against, gender equality? Marion Sharples shares the key messages from a recent webinar hosted by Oxfam and the Gender and Development Network.

Women’s economic empowerment is flavour of the month in policy circles, and international trade is seen as a key lever to getting there. However, the conversation often centres on including women in trade or ensuring they access the benefits of liberalised trade, while we often fail to acknowledge the negative, gendered impacts of trade on women.

Last month, the Gender & Development Network and Oxfam hosted a webinar to discuss the ways in which trade policy needs to change to start making gender equality a reality. Together with contributions from UNCTAD and International Women’s Rights Watch Asia Pacific, the webinar threw up four key ways to make sure trade promotes, instead of threatens, gender equality.

  1. Make human rights and gender equality commitments central to trade agreements

Legally, states’ commitments to human rights, such as those in the UN Charter and the Vienna Convention, take priority over any trade agreements governments enter into. As such, in signing trade agreements, states must ensure they protect and promote women’s rights. They could do this by including binding commitments in trade agreements to outlaw discrimination at work, support women’s unpaid care through paid parental leave, and tackle violence against women in the workplace, among others.

  1. Investigate impacts on gender equality before signing trade agreements

Before any trade agreements are signed, their predicted impacts on gender equality need to be assessed, so that governments can adjust the agreements accordingly. Resources such as the UNCTAD trade and gender toolbox are available to help with these ‘gender impact assessments’. This toolbox helps governments to identify the gendered impacts of the proposed trade agreement on different sectors, and suggests potential measures to reduce negative impacts, and strengthen positive impacts, on gender equality.

  1. Guarantee governments’ ability to spend and legislate

Trade agreements should help, and not hinder, states’ capacity to introduce gender equality measures.
In making trade agreements, governments must be careful not to sign away their ability to pursue their commitments to fulfilling human rights and furthering gender equality.

Concerning processes such as investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) mechanisms, which are now often included in trade agreements, allow companies to sue states if they fear their profits will be threatened by government policy. This process threatens states’ ability to promote social justice and equality as they fear legal challenges.

Examples of ISDS claims which have already been brought by companies against government policy include a challenge against Egypt’s proposed increase in the minimum wage, and another against El Salvador’s refusal of a mining permit on the grounds that it would undermine the right to water (more info in this briefing). Similarly, if governments wanted to promote gender equality through encouraging public procurement from women-owned enterprises, for example, this could be challenged by companies through ISDS for ‘unfair’ privileging of some enterprises.

Trade agreements should help, and not hinder, states’ capacity to introduce gender equality measures.

  1. Ensure trade negotiations are transparent, accountable, and consultative

When gender is considered in discussions around trade, ‘women’ tend to be lumped in together as a single group with identical interests, despite making up half the population and experiencing widely varied degrees of privilege. Meaningful consultation with marginalised women, and women’s rights organisations, is essential if trade negotiators are to understand the distinct and varied impacts of trade policy on different groups of women. Further, trade negotiation processes should be open and transparent, subject to parliamentary scrutiny, and drafts available to the public for consultation and comment.

Trade agreements, far from being technical exercises, have far-reaching and fundamental impacts on people’s lives. These gendered impacts include the reduction of government revenue through tariffs, changes in public service provision, reliance on women’s low wages and poor working conditions, and challenges to women’s positions as agricultural producers. It is not a question of inclusion: women are already very much included and impacted by international trade laws, but their experiences are too often overwhelmingly negative. States have a duty to ensure that any trade agreements they sign strengthen, not threaten, women’s rights and gender equality. Following the four steps outlined in this post will begin to make that a reality.

See also: the webinar recording and key messages paper, and follow the twitter discussion with  #Trade4GenderEquality, @GAD_Network and @MarionSharples

Further reading


Imogen Davies