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Deep Dive

Five Key Elements for a Gender Lens in Trade

In June, trade ministers from a large group of WTO members will adopt a declaration on trade, gender equality, and women’s economic empowerment. This move confirms that gendered aspects of trade are firmly on the international trade policy agenda. For this to have tangible benefits for women, though, it will be necessary to get the “gender lens” right. Here are five elements that should be considered when defining a gender lens for trade.

By Caroline Dommen on March 14, 2022

The gendered impacts of trade policy

Around the world, policy-makers, academics, and others are paying more and more attention to whether trade rules take sufficient account of the differentiated impacts of trade on different groups, whether and how social issues need to be incorporated in trade policy-making, and what information would be needed to do so.

Parties to regional trade agreements are increasingly considering these questions and articulating dedicated measures in favour of gender equality in their trade policies. Some countries, such as Canada, Chile, and New Zealand, are leading the way through such measures as stand-alone trade and gender chapters in their trade agreements, the recently-adopted trade and gender arrangement, or gender reviews of their trade policies.

Trade and gender at the World Trade Organization

Many World Trade Organization (WTO) members remain reluctant to discuss social issues—including gender—within the organization. Some are concerned that doing so could pave the way for new reasons for discriminating against their imports. Others are disinclined to tackle new topics at the WTO before agreement has been reached on items that are already part of the multilateral negotiating agenda, such as agriculture, and which have yet to reach agreed outcomes since the Doha Ministerial Conference in 2001.

Still, over the past year, some 130 WTO members have been sharing experiences and exchanging views on trade and gender equality in an Informal Working Group on Trade and Gender (IWG). The IWG was established following the 2017 adoption of the Joint Declaration on Trade and Women’s Economic Empowerment (Buenos Aires Declaration) by a group of 118 WTO members and observers on the sidelines of the WTO’s 11th Ministerial Conference (MC11) in Buenos Aires.

As the International Institute for Sustainable Development reported in July, the IWG’s work is articulated around four pillars:  

  1. Sharing best practices on removing trade-related barriers and increasing women’s participation in trade.
  2. Reviewing gender-related research by the WTO Secretariat and others on women’s economic empowerment. 
  3. Clarifying what a “gender lens” is and how it could be applied to the work of the WTO.
  4. Contributing to the WTO’s Aid-for-Trade Work Programme. 

Notwithstanding its essentially descriptive and technical nature, work under these four pillars has laid the ground for deeper analysis and action, as well as for greater acceptance of trade and gender within the organization. The November 2021 report of the IWG co-conveners noted that IWG discussions have enabled a “better understanding of the trade and women’s economic empowerment nexus and how it is integrated into Members’ trade and trade policies.” This article will focus on the third pillar and how to get the “gender lens” right.  

The Ministerial Declaration

The imminent adoption of a Ministerial Declaration on trade, gender equality, and women’s economic empowerment sends a clear signal that work in trade and gender is here to stay at the WTO, even if it is not yet on the formal WTO agenda. Participating members had been due to adopt the Declaration in late 2021 during the WTO’s 12th Ministerial Conference (MC12), which has now been postponed until June 2022. In the meantime, support for the Declaration has grown. Over half a dozen members have already joined the 115 that had signed on in November. New supporters include Bahrain, China, Jordan, Macao, Panama, and the United States. As of March 1, 123 WTO members had joined, and more are expected to express their support for the Declaration in the weeks leading up to MC12.

The Declaration recommends that the IWG continues its efforts based on the IWG’s four work pillars. It also calls for developing a 2-year work plan that includes concrete action points towards the 13th WTO Ministerial Conference (MC13).

This opens up a new space to look in more detail at how to design trade and trade rules so as to enable tangible benefits for women worldwide. 

Getting the gender lens right is essential to ensuring that work on trade and gender contributes to the Sustainable Development Goals.

Framing the gender lens

IWG participants have arguably focused the least on the gender lens pillar of its work plan in the course of their technical work on trade and gender during 2021. Looking at reports of the IWG’s work over the past year, the references that participating members have made to this issue suggest disparate understandings of what applying a gender lens to trade means and what it should cover.

Over the last few months, analytical work on this aspect is being led by the International Trade Centre’s (ITC) SheTrades Initiative. The ITC is a joint agency of the WTO and the United Nations. The analytical work in this area aims to develop “a gender lens framework for the work of the WTO and maximize opportunities for trade agreements to promote women’s economic empowerment and participation in trade-related activities and ensure that trade agreements do not inadvertently undermine national gender-equality commitments.”

As the IWG prepares to chart out its work for the next 2 years, policy-makers should step back and reflect carefully on how the gender lens—or “gender perspective,” to use the words of the Ministerial Declaration—should be framed. Getting the gender lens right is essential to ensuring that work on trade and gender contributes to the Sustainable Development Goals and is consistent with members’ gender equality and women’s rights commitments, such as the International Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

Young man and woman consult in a warehouse filled with cardboard boxes
Getting the gender lens right is essential to ensuring that work on trade and gender contributes to the Sustainable Development Goals and is consistent with members’ gender equality and women’s rights commitments. (Photo: kate_sept2004/iStock)

To get the gender lens right, it will be necessary to pay heed to the following five essential elements.

Five essential elements for clarifying the gender lens

1. Distinguish between women’s economic empowerment and gender equality

First, we need to clarify the meaning of—and distinction between—commonly used terms. The 2017 Buenos Aires Declaration expresses the concepts of gender equality and women’s economic empowerment. They are closely related yet distinct. 

Gender equality refers to the equal rights, responsibilities, and opportunities of women, men, girls, and boys. It implies that the interests, needs, and priorities of both women and men are taken into consideration, recognizing the diversity of different groups of women and men.

Empowerment refers to whether women have the ability to exercise control and have options and choices over the practical and strategic decisions that shape their lives and their futures. Women’s economic empowerment is one means of achieving gender equality.

The Buenos Aires Declaration also speaks to the need to remove barriers to women’s participation in international trade and increase the number of women in such trade. Removing these barriers is a step toward economic empowerment and gender equality. 

In sum, increasing the number of women in international trade is a narrower objective than women’s economic empowerment, which in turn is narrower than achieving gender equality. 

The concept of gender equality should guide members as they clarify how a gender lens can apply in their work at the WTO. There are several reasons for this. One is that all WTO members except one have committed to achieving gender equality, specifically by signing or ratifying CEDAW and other international, legally binding human rights instruments. Second, significant conceptual work has already been undertaken on how to achieve and measure gender equality. Third, there are situations where women’s engagement in economic activities can increase their dependence on men

The assumption that women’s economic empowerment will foster both gender equality and economic development is not always borne out in practice, which is another reason why it is important to maintain a focus on gender equality and women’s rights when considering women’s economic empowerment. 

Increasing the number of women in international trade is a narrower objective than women’s economic empowerment, which in turn is narrower than achieving gender equality.

2. Identify women’s multiple economic roles

To understand how economic factors—including new trade rules—affect women differently than men, it is necessary to acknowledge women’s multiple roles in the economy. Like men, women are workers, entrepreneurs, producers, traders, consumers, carers, decision makers, rights-holders, users of public services, and taxpayers. These roles overlap (a producer may also be a trader), and women usually occupy multiple roles at the same time (a woman who works will be a rights-holder and a user of public services). A woman may be exposed to different sources and forms of gender inequality in each of her multiple roles. Trade and trade-related rules may bring opportunities or challenges in each of these roles.

Trade affects economies through different channels. When it leads to changes in the structure of production, it influences employment opportunities, wages, and the quality and security of work, thus affecting women in their role as workers or producers. Trade and trade rules may induce changes in the price of goods and services, which impacts the cost of living and women in their role as consumers. Trade agreements often result in a reduction of tariffs and corporate taxes. This diminishes—or changes the source of—government revenues, which may have gendered implications and affect women in their role as taxpayers. Lower public revenues may curtail a government’s ability to provide public services, which can affect women who rely on some public services to a greater degree than men. 

Trade-related rules, such as on investment and on trade in services, may also affect women’s rights in different ways. For instance, governments may face new rules on applying certain types of performance requirements, including gender equality programs that favour women producers over men. 

3. Consider both sides of the trade–gender relationship

To ensure a fully-rounded, 360° analysis of interactions between trade and gender equality, both sides of the trade and gender relationship must be borne in mind. On one side of this relationship is the fact that the distributional outcomes of trade and trade-related rules vary by gender. Within a country, men and women may be affected differently by changes in trade patterns, volumes, and regulations.

On the other side of the relationship is the effect of gender inequalities on trade strategies and outcomes. These effects manifest in two main ways: (1) the relatively cheaper cost of women’s labour creates a situation where women may be sources of competitive advantage in international trade; (2) gender inequalities constitute barriers to women entrepreneurs or traders from benefitting equally from the new opportunities that trade offers.

4. Recognize domains in which gender (in)equality plays out

When applying a gender lens to economic analysis, it helps to identify the domains in which gender inequalities are expressed to formulate appropriate policy responses. We can categorize the domains of gender inequality under the headings of capabilities, access to resources and opportunities, and security. Inequality in available time, also known as women’s time poverty, as well as prevailing social norms about gendered roles, must also be taken into account, as they underlie all three domains to varying degrees.

The capabilities domain refers to basic human abilities, such as knowledge and health. These generate the preconditions for engaging in production and economic decision making. The access to resources and opportunities domain refers to conditions that enable individuals to earn adequate livelihoods for themselves and their families by accessing economic assets and resources and exercising political decision making. The security domain refers to vulnerability to violence or conflict. The physical and psychological harm that these can cause undermines the ability of individuals and communities to fulfill their potential.

5. Ensure the gender lens analytical framework is applied at all trade policy stages 

When considering the impacts of a trade-related policy or rule through a gender lens, policy-makers should apply the analytical framework to the four stages of a trade agreement: (i) the negotiation process, for instance, through ex ante gender impact assessments of the planned agreement; (ii) the outcome or text of the agreement; (iii) implementation, enforcement, and review mechanisms; and (iv) complementary laws, policies, and programs. 

An opportunity for future trade and gender work

With the WTO poised to more formally turn its attention to questions at the intersection of trade and gender, it is time for participating members to make sure they have a clear understanding of the scope of the gender lens. This will be crucial for them as they define the content and scope of their future trade and gender work for the next 2 years in the lead-up to MC13 and well beyond. 

A range of groups, including feminists, human rights advocates, and development professionals, has criticized the WTO’s work on trade and gender as framed so far. Common criticisms are that the approach that the IWG currently uses focuses too narrowly on women’s economic empowerment rather than the broader goal of gender equality or women’s rights objectives; that it commodifies women; or that it entrenches reliance on trade, which can perpetuate existing inequalities if parallel steps are not taken to remedy those inequalities. Similar critiques have been voiced regarding trade and gender work in other international forums.

Women working at industrial sewing machines making pink garments
With the WTO poised to more formally turn its attention to questions at the intersection of trade and gender, it is time for participating members to make sure they have a clear understanding of the scope of the gender lens. (Photo: andresr/iStock)

WTO members participating in the IWG have an invaluable opportunity to take a 36o° approach to understanding the role international trade and trade rules can play in enhancing—or undermining—gender equality, women’s rights, and economic empowerment. A clear and comprehensive definition of the gender lens in trade is crucial for realizing this opportunity.

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Gender Equality
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