Beyond Barriers: The Gender Implications of Trade Liberalization in Southern Africa

By Sheila Kiratu, Suryapratim Roy on February 24, 2010


Although trade can be a catalyst for gender equality, the effects of trade liberalization and economic globalization on women, in particular, so far have been mixed. For example, while in a large number of cases, trade in general has improved women's empowerment and livelihood, in some other cases, the benefits accrued by women from trade liberalization have been marginal, relatively lower than those accrued by men. Worse, in some other cases, trade liberalization has also exacerbated gender inequalities and women's economic and social status.(1)

The primary criticism levelled against international trade agreements from a gender perspective is that the measurement of international trade in terms of a net economic benefit and market-based criteria has largely ignored societal imbalances, which in turn results in long-term trade inefficiencies. This criticism is supported by the fact that Article XX of the General Agreement on Tariff and Trade (GATT), which allows for the reconciliation of trade and non-trade related norms in the trade context, is silent on the issue of women's rights. Trade agreements have also been criticized for reducing the policy space afforded to national initiatives in general, and the same may well apply to the empowerment of women and their participation in formal economic activities. But these very agreements can be used to streamline and reduce inequalities at all stages of the economic process, such as in identification of and participation in activities, access to resources, possession of the necessary skills, simple formal trading channels and control over income earned. We proffer suggestions on the necessity and means of doing so.

Key findings:

  • Gender relations are not outside the economy in some realm of "preferences," "aptitudes" and "traditions," but rather permeate all economic activities.

  • The characteristic that identifies the engagement of women above all others in economic activities in Africa is the informal economy; for example, around 70 per cent of the informal traders in sub-Saharan Africa are women.

  • Social perpetuation of gender gaps is not, it appears, the most compelling obstacle to women being involved in trade. In fact, national, institutional and legal hurdles have a more adverse effect on women attempting to develop their earning capacity.

  • The percentage of women who would be affected by trade facilitation aimed at the formal economy would be much smaller than changes brought about bearing in mind the existence of and impact upon the informal economy.

  • However, national or local measures are not always effective and external requirements may well bring about actual differences. Thus, there is a crucial role to be played by trade agreements to fill in all these gaps.

  • It is possible that trade agreements may not be mindful of, or may be indifferent to, national and local policies while incorporating gender-sensitivity. Here, international instruments on gender not directly related to trade can play an important role in creating a rights-based framework where women seek economic rights by way of entitlement. They can also ensure that national governments have the appropriate protective enabling instruments in place to avoid any deterrence or distortions to trade policies.

  • However, regional trading arrangements are likely to offer opportunities that are best suited to women because they do not necessarily need large export markets and may find neighbouring markets more familiar and easier to deal with.

Key recommendations:

  • The most common phrase that one comes across is the requirement to adopt a "gender perspective" on trade relations. What is evident, therefore, is a methodological intervention whereby the analysis of the desirability of trade choices requires addressing gender concerns.

  • It appears that the regional trade agreements (RTAs) in the region should address the reality of informal cross-border trade so as to minimize the negative effects of free trade agreements (FTAs) on vulnerable groups such as women.

  • There should be supportive institutional measures adopted rather than a move towards eradicating informal cross-border trade altogether; at the same time, the hazards inherent in such trade should be removed. This calls for an enhanced role for regional governance bodies in assessing the positive role of informal trade and how they may inform regional trading arrangements.

  • It would be useful to have a yardstick against which RTAs can be measured for their gender sensitivity, which would reduce considerably negotiator hesitancy and the administrative costs of incorporating gender concerns into individual RTAs.

Report details

Gender Equality
Focus area
IISD, 2010