Women in International Trade, enabling world economies for gender equality

gender equality

International trade agreements have an important role to play towards achieving gender equality as part of a framework for sustainable and inclusive socio-economic growth.

The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) include gender equality, not only as one of the 17 goals but also embedded in other goals, particularly Goal 8: “Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all”.

Below, I take stock of the progress made in the WTO and in a number of free trade agreements towards achieving these aims, as well as assessing where there can be improvements.

The Evolution of Gender Provisions in International Trade

The 2020 International Women’s day theme was an equal world is an enabled world. Yet, the reality is that women are in many cases disadvantaged when it comes to access to resources and to international markets, which combined with limitations in skill development, exacerbates inequality particularly in developing countries.

The WTO has made laudable progress in the women in trade arena to enable an equal world. In June 2017, the WTO nominated for the first time a trade and gender focal point with the purpose of coordinating work among divisions, sizing up related work in the WTO, and evaluating opportunities for complementary work and new initiatives. Then, on 12 December 2017, 118 WTO members and observers agreed to support the Buenos Aires Declaration on Trade and Women’s Economic Empowerment, which seeks to promote women’s economic empowerment and remove barriers for women accessing national and international markets.

Following this progress comes a new generation of modernised Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) which include chapters dedicated to gender and trade. This is a good signal and a tangible mechanism that governments are using to ensure benefits from trade reach men and women equally.

Although, the inclusion of gender-equality related provisions in FTAs is not a recent action by governments, past provisions have been general in nature and have not specified strong commitment by governments on how to make sure women benefit from these FTAs.

Typically, gender provisions have been included in the preamble or the development and inclusive growth chapters and in most cases have not been mainstreamed through the entire FTA. These provisions have concerned cooperation on gender and gender-related issues, including labour, health and social policy, workplace discrimination, and equal pay.

The 1957 Treaty of Rome establishing the European Economic Community (EEC) also included the first gender-related article to guarantee equal pay. Then, the first RTA signed by developing countries to include a gender-related provision was the 1983 Treaty establishing the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS). Later in 1992, the Maastricht Treaty on the European Union (EU) included the first gender-related provisions referring to the general principle of equality between women and men.

How do gender and trade chapters in FTAs help to promote equality in international markets?

For the first time three recent bilateral FTAs have included a chapter dedicated to gender and trade: Canada and Chile, Chile and Argentina, Canada and Israel. These gender-modernised FTAs have already entered into force. An FTA between Chile and Uruguay signed on 4 October 2016, also includes a chapter on gender and trade, and it is still pending to enter into force.

The content of the trade and gender chapters in each of these FTAs is similar. They include general provisions that highlight the importance of incorporating a gender perspective to promote inclusive growth in light of goal 5 of the SDGs. They affirm their commitment to promoting gender equality through laws, regulations, policies and practices and acknowledge that women’s enhanced participation in the labour market and their economic independence contribute to sustainable and inclusive economic growth.

The agreements also include the reaffirmation of the commitment to effectively implement the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the commitment to undertake cooperation activities which aim to improve capacity and conditions for women to benefit from opportunities created by the FTA.

Each FTA mentioned above has established a trade and gender committee with the purpose to determine, organize, facilitate and report on the cooperation activities, and make recommendations on the implementation and operation of the trade and gender chapters, as appropriate. The Canada and Chile FTA has published its work plan for implementing activities on trade and gender.

Finally, the chapters include an article on dispute resolution and settlement, which states that the parties are meant to make every effort through dialogue, consultation and cooperation, to settle any matter arising in relation to the specifications included in the chapter. With the exception of the Canada-Israel agreement, each of the other FTA’s with gender chapters explicitly prohibit the parties to use the dispute resolution mechanism for resolving breaches in gender commitments included in the chapters.

This lack of recourse to dispute settlement is a cause for concern for women in those countries where resolution of disputes is not reached via dialogue. Thus, while the existence of a gender chapter in the Canada-Chile, Argentina-Chile and Chile-Uruguay FTAs is a sign of significant progress, the Canada-Israel agreement has gone farthest in ensuring gender equality.

Diverse response for gender and trade chapters

There are mixed feelings when it comes to including a chapter dedicated to gender and trade in FTAs. Some have said that it should be only considered in cases where the FTA is signed with a developing country or between developing countries, thus it would not be necessary to include these chapters in FTAs between developed countries. Yet, as an example, the latest agreements between Australia and Peru and the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership do not include a dedicated chapter to gender and trade.

Others have said that it would be better to include gender in broader provisions regarding diversity and inclusion, which will take into account a more extensive range of discrimination issues. The problem is that this broad-based approach is already current practice, and may leave gender without the relevance that it needs to have in order to achieve gender equality.

So what is next?  

By including gender chapters in FTAs, governments are not only reinforcing the principle of equality but also providing a powerful tool for women to feel that their needs and vulnerabilities have been evaluated and taken seriously. As we have seen, a lot of progress has been made. However, in many cases the speed with which progress is translated into tangible actions seems very slow and this is of particular concern given how fast contexts are changing.

Enabling our globalised world for gender equality takes real commitment on progressing the idea that gender and trade not only needs to be mainstreamed in trade-related policies and FTAs, but also needs to be explicitly included in future FTAs and refined accordingly to specific country needs.

Governments should make the transition from general statements to more concrete and tailored actions. Provisions must be specific to provide plausibility and accountability. Consistency, coherence and promptness is the key to enable an equal world for all. I hope that the modernisation of FTAs continues to evolve and is adopted by other developed and developing countries in their future FTAs negotiations.

by Adriana Espejo Sanchez - Ph.D. Candidate: Institute for International Trade, University of Adelaide

Tagged in gender, trade, FTA, equality, World Trade System, Publications, Featured, Opinions