While Christine Lagarde, the Director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), emphasized that “gender is a conduit of substantive improvements in many many ways”, at the Plenary Session that opened the WTO’s Public Forum this year, Arancha Gonzalez, the Executive Director of the International Trade Centre (ITC), reinforced the message throughout the Forum that “trade is good for gender and gender is good for trade”.
The discussion on gender equality in trade was among the highlights of this year’s Forum and many panels focused on this subject. It was a consensus in all panels that dealt with the subject that women play a key role in economic development, and the more involved women are, the more economies grow.
Overall, there is a common understanding that international trade has been beneficial to women over the years, especially in terms of job creation. A report released in 2015 by the McKinsey Global Institute found that US$12 trillion could be added to global GDP by 2025 by advancing women’s equality. Moreover, according to the report, “if women – who account for half the world’s working-age population – do not achieve their full economic potential, the global economy will suffer”.
Through international trade economic opportunities are created to women, and more jobs contribute to spur countries economic development. In fact, it is interesting to note that many of the jobs created through trade are concentrated in export-oriented industries. According to a WTO/World Bank Report from 2015 entitled “The Role of Trade in Ending Poverty”, exporting companies in developing countries employ more women than non-exporters.
Notwithstanding, according to the same WTO/World Bank joint report, women participation in international trade is hindered by numerous challenges related to gender biases and unfavorable working conditions for women. In other words, the report stresses that gender-biased laws and regulations in many countries prevent women from entering the work force or setting up a business.
Among many others, a relevant international initiative oriented to tackle gender disparities in the economic and trade environment is the SheTrades initiative, launched by the ITC, which seeks to connect on million women entrepreneurs to market by 2020. SheTrades initiative provides a network and platform to connect markets and enable women entrepreneurs to share information about their business, internationalize their companies and expand networks.
It is important to remind us all that gender equality is a human right, so relevant that the United Nations has established gender equality as the Sustainable Development Goal #5 and most countries are committed to it. According to the United Nations, gender inequality persists worldwide, depriving women and girls of their basic rights and opportunities.
Regarding international trade, although progresses are being noticed around the world, such as the recent addition of a chapter on trade and gender to modernize the Canada-Chile Free Trade Agreement, the discussion on whether international trade can improve the conditions for women participation to help the world achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal #5 has to remain as a top priority.
Following the worldwide movement on women’s economic empowerment, gender equality and trade, it is also worth mentioning the work of a group of WTO members on the development of a declaration to be proposed in the margins of the next WTO Ministerial Conference this December in Buenos Aires. According to the information that has been released by the International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development (ICTSD), the declaration aims at providing a framework and a platform for members to foster a more inclusive trade agenda.
In fact, the development of this declaration is aligned with the public effort of the WTO for the past months in emphasizing the importance of gender equality in trade and the nomination of a gender focal point at the Organization in Geneva. The interest of the WTO in featuring gender and including gender perspectives on its agenda was made very clear during this year’s Public Forum.
Much more could be said on the interplay between gender and trade, but the intention of this piece is simply to shed light and help publicize the efforts of international organizations in calibrating the playing field in gender terms. Economic policies, including trade policy, are powerful instruments to translate gender equality aspirations into reality, and initiatives must be coordinated and convergent. Achieving gender equality requires more vigorous efforts and the moment is now.