Critics have not been kind to Canada’s efforts to link trade relations to action on gender equality, workers’ rights and environmental sustainability, which have been dismissed as naïve, arrogant or simply a bargaining chip. But recent research on growth and economic opportunities for women  suggests that gender equality gains from trade, as proposed in Canada’s progressive trade agenda, are indeed possible, but not guaranteed.

If women are to benefit more from trade, a range of tailored policy supports are needed — at global and national levels.

Mixed results on gender equality

Globally, many more women than men remain outside the labour force, as London School of Economics professor Naila Kabeer has underlined in Policy Options. But in several emerging economies, the growth of export opportunities in textile and garments has created jobs for millions of poor women. In Indonesia, for example,  Krisztina Kis-Katos, Janneke Pieters, and  Robert Sparrow  found that trade liberalization actually reduced gender gaps and helped to enhance women’s work participation and hours of work. In Brazil, however, Pieters and Isis Gaddis showed that trade liberalization reduced opportunities, particularly among low-skilled groups, and more so for men than for women. Wages of both men and women came under pressure.

Stephanie Seguino and Elissa Braunstein  have concluded that gender wage gaps have not narrowed substantially in countries known for export-led growth. In exporting powerhouses like China and Vietnam, gender wage gaps have widened. Many of the jobs are precarious and hazardous, and women’s household responsibilities continue unabated alongside their increased labour force participation.

Given the mixed results that trade has produced for women, what policy measures can make trade work for them and other disadvantaged groups?

Promoting gender equality in trade agreements

Countries can begin by making gender equality an explicit aim within their trade agreements. The gender chapter in Canada’s trade and investment agreement with Chile is an excellent example. It acknowledges that “improving women’s access to opportunities and removing barriers in their countries enhances their participation in national and international economies.” It anchors its aim in mutually agreed international commitments, and lays out an agenda of shared learning and cooperation in advancing women’s economic empowerment, leadership, financial inclusion and entrepreneurship, socially responsive care policies and the collection of data that are broken down by gender.

The need for collaboration and improved monitoring of the gender effects of trade policies was also highlighted in the Joint Declaration on Trade and Women’s Economic Empowerment signed at the WTO conference in Buenos Aires in December 2017.  Like the Canada-Chile agreement, it notes the need for gender-disaggregated data and for training by trade officials to strengthen our understanding of trade impacts on women.

As  a recent analysis by the UN Conference on Trade and Development concludes, the inclusion of gender chapters in recent trade agreements is a step forward, but as yet they contain few nationally specific goals and measures and aren’t covered by dispute settlement mechanisms. They are, however, enhancing cooperation, increasing participation and building capacity among trading partners to work on gender issues.

Tailoring strategies to the national context

But trade agreements alone cannot ensure gender equality. Accompanying measures, particularly in education, are needed to create level playing fields. Such policies need be country-specific and, because women’s roles vary considerably across economic activities, sector-specific.

Interventions to support women’s entrepreneurship are needed for women to benefit from trade. An analysis of women’s access to work in 38 African countries found that national infrastructure played a determining role in gendered labour market outcomes.  And, as an analysis by Stephen Klasen from the University of Göttingen shows, job markets in low-income countries remain highly segregated, so labour market policies have a key role to play in addressing trade’s tendency to reinforce this segregation.

The WTO-led Aid for Trade initiative mobilizes resources to address trade-related constraints of developing countries. Its 2017 global review highlights that building in measures to address the gaps women face, such as barriers to connecting them to markets, is critical. Building on the initiative of multinational companies — as described in a recent report by Oxford’s Linda Scott — also has important potential. Scott reminds us that the economic empowerment of women cannot be achieved without engaging the private sector.

Toward a progressive trade agenda

Making trade more progressive is both possible and essential. To ensure it benefits women, governments need to take a multi-pronged approach and work with private sector partners. Strategies must be tailored to specific national contexts, strengthening the capacity of local actors to assess gender impacts and relevant measures. The international community has a key role to play in supporting these efforts and the global networks and institutions working to address inequalities in the global economy.

Photo: Shutterstock, by astudio.

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Arjan de Haan
Arjan de Haan is the director of the Inclusive Economies program of the International Development Research Centre. He leads a multidisciplinary team that strengthens policy research capacity in developing countries on issues of economic policy, governance, and health systems.

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