SheTrades Commonwealth is no doubt well intended. In the words of British Prime Minister Theresa May, the initiative will “offer Commonwealth-wide support to help countries break down gender barriers in international trade.”
The strategy, supported by the U.K. government and announced at last month’s Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, will deliver interventions such as “providing training for women entrepreneurs, connecting them to market and investment opportunities, and helping firms overcome barriers to engaging with women-owned businesses.” It is positive to see government engaging on gender and trade, and the measures proposed are no doubt valuable. But they are wide of the mark — SheTrades Commonwealth assumes that what women need is greater access to trade.
Women are already involved in trade in myriads of ways — the problem is the terms of their engagement. For the majority of women, international trade often negatively affects their quality of life.
Women tend to make up the majority of the workforce in export sectors, such as garments, textiles, and agriculture — jobs characterized by low wages, poor working conditions, and weak labor protections. Segregating women into unskilled, low-paid positions in low value-added sectors means that despite heavy involvement in the trading system, opportunities for progression for women workers are limited, as is their capacity to challenge exploitation or demand better conditions. The reliance of the global trading system on the exploitation of women in the global value chain needs to be fully acknowledged.
Trade liberalization also reduces the taxes that governments receive, meaning they have less money available for social spending, which is key to promoting gender equality — for example, by funding education and training schemes, domestic violence shelters, and child and elder care. Particularly in lower income countries, trade taxes make up a significant proportion of total government revenue — on average, 25 percent in sub-Saharan Africa. Moreover, if this revenue is lost due to free trade deals, governments may seek to make up this lost revenue through excise taxes, such as value-added tax, which disproportionately affect women, as they spend more than men on staple goods.
And trade agreements now go well beyond the realm of goods, with rules reaching into areas such as the privatization of public services and the protection of intellectual property, which have particular impacts on women.
Women use public services more than men, so if public services are privatized following trade agreements, usage cost tends to increase, and coverage can be patchy, resulting in reduced access to public services, particularly for rural and poor women — see this example of water privatization in Indonesia. Plus, when service provision is reduced, women tend to step in and fill the gap, increasing their already disproportionate unpaid care burden.
And intellectual property rights provisions within trade agreements protect the interests of large pharmaceutical companies and restrict the production of cheap generic medicines. This affects women because of their particular health requirements, especially in relation to reproduction, and also because of women’s disproportionate experiences of poverty, gender-based violence, and some harmful traditional practices, which make them especially vulnerable to ill health and less able to afford expensive medicines.
The reality is that trade, and the agreements that govern it, often undermine gender equality. High-level commitment to applying a gender lens to global trade is extremely welcome, but efforts must be directed to the heart of the matter. The Outcome Statement of the Commonwealth Women's Forum highlighted the need to “focus our efforts on those facing multiple disadvantage where progress is slowest” — and this is precisely what needs to happen.
Getting serious about creating a gender-equitable trading system requires acknowledgment of the all-too-frequent negative impacts of trade on women. If trade is truly to promote gender equality, governments will have to:
1. Make human rights and gender equality commitments central to trade agreements.
2. Investigate impacts on gender equality before signing trade agreements, and mitigate adverse impacts.
3. Guarantee that governments’ ability to spend and legislate toward the promotion of gender equality is not compromised by trade agreements.
4. Ensure trade negotiations are transparent, accountable, and consultative.