Gender provisions in trade agreements: opportunities for the few or protection for the many?

by | Jun 1, 2021 | Gender Equality

The relationship between trade and gender is complex. But its essential element is simply expressed: trade often impacts women differently from men. 

Trade policy is increasingly acknowledging this: new trade agreements now routinely include gender-related provisions. These provisions are becoming more detailed and specific, sometimes taking the form of a dedicated treaty article or chapter. The agreements between Canada and Chile, Argentina and Chile and Canada and Israel are among the handful of “new generation” agreements that include a trade and gender chapter.

A range of approaches to gender equality in trade agreements

Gender-related provisions differ in terms of language, scope and location within the agreement. Some reaffirm parties’ existing commitments to gender equality, some specify the State’s right to regulate in favour of women’s rights, some set out measures for the promotion of gender equality and women’s economic empowerment. The most common type of provision establishes mechanisms for States parties to cooperate in favour of gender equality. These include cooperation on building capacity on gender issues amongst trade officials, sharing best practices, conducting gender-based analysis or on measuring the impact of gender-responsive policies, strategies and actions supported by the agreement’s cooperative activities.

Other trade treaty language may have positive effects on gender equality, even when it doesn’t specifically refer to women or gender equality. Provisions in favour of micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) for instance, tend to benefit women as women have a strong presence in these sized businesses. Stipulations whereby parties agree to avoid weakening the levels of labour or environmental protection with a view to encouraging trade and investment may also benefit women, even if they are not specifically mentioned.

Another approach is that under the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), the text of which makes almost no mention of women or gender. Nonetheless, gender equality measures are being actively integrated into State parties’ trade policies through their national strategies for AfCFTA implementation

The inclusion of all these types of articles, and the attention to gender equality that they signal is to be welcomed. As this process evolves and negotiators, civil society, and others consider how best to craft future trade agreements so that they contribute to achieving gender equality, it is useful to consider how to measure whether they contribute to those objectives.

Gender equality

In this process we must remember that gender equality is a fundamental human right. It is protected in international law, and most authoritatively set out in the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) which all but six countries in the world have signed or ratified.

CEDAW defines gender-based discrimination as any distinction, exclusion or restriction on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise of human rights and fundamental freedoms by women on an equal basis with men. Discrimination can occur through a States’ failure to take necessary legislative measures to ensure realization of women’s rights, failure to adopt national policies aimed at achieving equality between women and men, or the failure to enforce relevant laws. Discrimination can occur even in scenarios where discrimination was not intended.

Do provisions address both sides of the trade and gender relationship and women in all their roles?

There are two sides to the trade and gender relationship: gender disparities can impact trade performance, and trade and trade rules impact men and women differently, whatever their roles in society. In addition, it is generally agreed that when considering the impact of a policy on women, one should women in all their different roles. A woman may be a worker, a producer, a trader, a carer, a consumer or a rights-holder, and will likely occupy two or more of these roles concurrently.

A recent survey of gender-related provisions in trade agreements finds that the provisions focus almost exclusively on women’s trade performance as producers, traders or workers. They hardly engage with the (sometimes indirect) ways that trade and trade-related rules have gender-discriminatory impacts.

A common measure for differing gender-related provisions

The International Trade Centre (ITC) has put forward one set of measures against which to gage gender-responsiveness of trade agreements. This explicitly states that its aim is to boost the participation of women in trade. In other words, it addresses but one part of one side of the trade and gender relationship – the part that focuses on the fact that women businesses tend to find it harder to achieve scale and trade internationally. A recent OECD publication has suggested measuring gender-responsiveness by reference to the seven drivers of transformation that the UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment put forward to address systemic barriers to women’s economic empowerment. These include tackling adverse norms, ensuring legal protections and reforming discriminatory laws, and strengthening women’s visibility, collective voice and representation.

A multilaterally-agreed, legally-binding metric

We suggest that the multilaterally-agreed and legally-binding framework set out in CEDAW is the applicable framework. In addition to having already been agreed to by the vast majority of the international community, its strength lies in that it addresses both sides of the trade-gender relationship and is applicable to women in all their roles. The framework has been amply developed and applied by an international body of gender experts including as relates to trade. In addition, an approach based on women’s rights helps address the reality – often overlooked in trade circles – that gender inequalities are often intersectional. In other words, they are exacerbated by factors such as inequalities of race, economic status or geographical location.

It also reminds us, when we consider how to design gender-responsive trade policies, that we should start from women’s realities, and ensure these policies address the main gender equality issues at stake for the countries engaged in that trade arrangement. To situate the importance of establishing the correct starting point, we can refer to research on the impacts of labour provisions in trade agreements. This research shows that these labour provisions have lacked effectiveness in part because they do not address the most pressing labour-related concerns for the countries involved.

Starting from women’s realities and ensuring a framework focused on women’s rights limits the risk that trade-related measures to advance gender equality focus only on those women who have jobs and business opportunities, leaving aside the women who have the least voice or political visibility such as subsistence farmers in remote areas or informal sector workers. 

Indeed, a fundamental aspect of ensuring that trade is inclusive and sustainable is making sure that it creates equal opportunities for women. Another is safeguarding women from being disproportionately affected by adverse effects of trade-related structural changes.

The questions in this blog will be discussed in a trade and gender webinar that IISD is hosting jointly with the Faculty of Law of the University of Geneva on 8 June.

This is a version of an article published on the International Institute for Sustainable Development’s blog.


1 Comment

  1. Mia Mikic

    Excellent post, thx Caroline for clearly pointing to these two aspects of the women and trade linkages which are intertwined and reinforce each other.


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