Beyond Barriers: The Gender Implications of Trade Liberalization in Southeast Asia

By Alexander C. Chandra, Lucky A. Lontoh, Ani Margawati on February 24, 2010


There is little doubt that trade liberalization has had a profound effect on the well-being of women in Southeast Asia. Not all of these impacts are negative, however. Indeed, the opening up of the region's economies, at both national and regional levels, has brought about opportunities in the form of new employment, which may allow them to access higher incomes and improve their status in the society. Given their increasing role in the economies of Southeast Asia, however, women are often the major victims of economic openness. Poor women, in particular, remain vulnerable to economic policy changes that occur in the region. Unfortunately, trade policies are often gender-blind and ignore women's interests and aspirations. In the view of most trade policy-makers in the region, macro-economics is all about aggregates, and both policy objectives (e.g., price stability, employment generation, growth and external balance) and traditional policy instruments of macro-economics (e.g. fiscal and exchange rate policies) are gender-neutral. As a result, it is not uncommon to find that trade policies adopted and pursued by both ASEAN and its member countries further marginalize the role of women in the society.

Key Findings:

  • The preconception among Southeast Asian trade policy-makers that trade policy is gender-neutral contributes significantly to the exclusion of gender consideration in trade policy formulation in the region. Although the introduction of trade liberalization is aimed at advancing economic reforms in the region, such initiatives have generally failed to improve women's standing in the society.

  • The state of gender relations today, which frequently results in divergent outcomes between different genders, is already observable in several economic arenas in the Southeast Asian region, such as: (1) job segregation within the paid labour market; (2) the division of labour between paid and unpaid labour; (3) the distribution of income and resources within the household; (4) access to redistribution by the state (e.g., access to education and social safety net programs); and (5) credit in the financial markets.

Key Recommendations:

  • Women, along with other marginalized economic actors, should be put at the centre of trade policy analysis and deliberations in the region. Increasingly, women play significant roles in the economies of Southeast Asia. Any trade policy changes that affect the society at large must take into account the concerns and aspirations of women's groups.

  • Trade policy changes should not be made at the expense of the quality of the lives of women in the region. Southeast Asian women not only contribute to the economic development of the region, but also to the maintenance of healthy family life, which contributes socially and potentially furthers the economic stability of the society.

  • ASEAN, as one of the key promoters of trade liberalization in the region, could also help improve the well-being of women by undertaking the necessary gender-oriented review of its trade liberalization initiatives, as is currently done by some other regional groupings in the developing world.

  • Women should be given easy access to any social safety net schemes initiated by ASEAN and its member governments should the adjustment costs generated from trade liberalization prove greater than its benefits.

  • Trade-related capacity building is crucial to promote gender equality in the region. Although women are often both the beneficiaries and victims of trade liberalization, they often lack the capacity to either reap the benefits or minimize the negative impacts of such a trade policy.

  • Equally important is capacity building to eradicate discrimination against women in the society. In many Southeast Asian communities, women are still perceived as second-class citizens. In the absence of efforts targeted at the community at large, women will still likely be the subject of harsh and persistent discrimination, which might hinder them from gaining from the positive impacts of trade liberalization or expose them to its negative impacts.

  • Finally, the implementation of various commitments adopted by ASEAN and its member countries to improve gender equality is critical to the well-being and welfare of the region's women. However, commitment alone is certainly not sufficient without the appropriate amount of resources to support their implementation.

Report details

Gender Equality
Asia and Pacific
Focus area
IISD, 2010