How can WTO talks on e-commerce benefit women? If only we knew

by | Sep 14, 2021 | Gender Equality, Human Rights Impact Assessment

E-commerce is touted as offering new and advantageous opportunities for women. But what do WTO negotiations on the topic really hold for women’s rights?

E-commerce and gender equality are both in the spotlight in the World Trade Organization (WTO). The Ministerial Conference, which will take place late this year, is set to confirm that work on trade and gender will continue within the organization. WTO Members may also approve agreed text on e-commerce during the Ministerial.

Gender and e-commerce: two separate tracks

Over seventy WTO Members participate in both the e-commerce and trade and gender processes within the organization.

So this means that they are taking gender equality, women’s economic empowerment and women’s rights into account in the WTO negotiating process on e-commerce, right?

Wrong. “It’s nobody’s focus” one close observer says. “The gender issue does not have a champion amongst the WTO Members participating in the e-commerce talks.”

In fact WTO e-commerce and gender discussions are proceeding on two, very separate, tracks.

Benefits of e-commerce for women

We commonly hear how e-commerce offers opportunities for inclusivity of al trade, e-commerce offers micro-, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) and women in international trade.

And it does. E-commerce gives women the possibility to work from their own homes and at times convenient for them, which is particularly valuable for women who have care burdens or for whom discriminatory socio-cultural norms might limit their ability to work outside their home.

In reducing the costs of entry to international trade, e-commerce offers MSMEs (in which women are particularly present) advantages in terms of access to markets that previously had been mainly enjoyed by larger counterparts. Online availability of trade-related information can make it more easily accessible to women, who tend to have less professional networks than men. Moreover, completing certain trade formalities online has been shown to reduce discrimination that women traders face disproportionately at borders, as exemplified in a survey in India which found that women wait almost 40 percent longer than men to see the same customs official.

Some countries participating in WTO e-commerce negotiations with women in mind. Indonesia is an example. Many women there are active in e-commerce and MSMEs and “therefore the ministry of women’s empowerment has been involved,” says Jeremia Pratama of the Indonesian mission in Geneva.

The WTO talks are broader than e-commerce

So can we safely assume that a new WTO treaty that facilitates e-commerce will automatically facilitate inclusive development and women’s economic empowerment?

Unfortunately, no.

One reason is that the issues on which 86 WTO Members are negotiating under the so-called e-commerce Joint Statement Initiative (JSI) are far broader than online trade. Their span is vast, covering e-signatures, location of computing facilities, source code, open government data, personal data protection, domestic regulation, telecommunications, consumer protection, and cybersecurity, amongst many other areas. All of these affect daily life in areas as diverse as Internet access, delivery of meals, personal health records, taxation, labour conditions or spam, most of which have implications for gender equality, women’s economic empowerment and women’s rights.

Digital divides are real

Another reason why the e-commerce talks’ potential for inclusivity and gender equality is limited is that the negotiations are not sufficiently addressing existing digital divides – between the global North and the global South, between men and women, between large and small enterprises.

Almost half of the world’s inhabitants have no access to reliable and affordable internet, and the majority of these are women and girls. In Least Developed Countries only 15 per cent of women use the Internet, compared to 86 per cent in developed world. Over the last decade the gender gap has grown in many countries (notably in Arab States, Asia, the Pacific and Africa) as most new Internet users are men. Access to Internet is especially patchy in rural areas and in least-developed countries.

In spite of this, the JSI negotiations are largely based on the assumption that the necessary Internet access, e-commerce infrastructure, regulatory framework, and even a certain level of e-commerce consumer culture are already in place in the countries participating in the negotiations. This is far from being the case. Even many countries with good broadband access face important challenges related to the establishment of their e-commerce ecosystems. This is why many developing countries have chosen not to engage in the JSI negotiations, preferring to first build their infrastructural, institutional and regulatory capacities.

If e-commerce and the e-commerce JSI are to promote gender equality or women’s economic empowerment for more than a privileged few, governments will need to address the underlying structural factors that hold women back in business, the workplace and society.

Neither the proposals under the JSI nor e-commerce itself resolve the underlying challenges that women face in business and the workplace such as more limited access to finance, to the internet, to technical skills and a higher care burden than men. Fewer women than men can afford electronic devices and fewer women than men know how to read. So in many countries the first step towards closing the gender digital gap passes through alphabetisation of women. Without these basic accompanying measures, new e-commerce rules could further entrench existing inequalities, contrary to most participating countries’ women’s rights obligations.

Gender equality is broader than empowerment for women online

Even there is if no mention of women in the different sections of the proposed e-commerce text, the impacts will not be gender-neutral because of the fact that women and men occupy different roles in society and the economy and thus have different access to resources and opportunities and other determinants of empowerment and equality. The key point to bear in mind is that all aspects of the e-commerce JSI negotiations can have differential impacts on women.

And even women who are not digitally engaged at all may inadvertently be affected by new e-commerce trade rules.

For instance if WTO Members agree to a new moratorium on customs duties on electronic transmissions, countries will have to resort to other sources for generating revenue. Past experience shows that these often take the form of consumption taxes, which have discriminatory effects against women. Experience also shows that reduced governmental revenue usually translates into lower provision of public services, on which women depend more than men.

Just as e-commerce provisions in trade agreements go beyond digital trade of goods and services, gender equality is broader than women’s economic empowerment, which in turn is broader than getting more women into international trade.

And just as voices in and around the JSI process often conflate the potential of e-commerce for women with the potential of the new JSI rules, these voices often do not distinguish between the benefits of these for woman entrepreneurs, for women’s economic empowerment, for gender equality or for women’s rights.

What needs to happen

It will be necessary to be clear about what is being sought when talking about women in e-commerce and women in the JSI process. This matters because as long as the objectives of the e-commerce JSI talks for women are not clear, the benefits for gender equality may be limited.

Do we want to increase the number of women in international trade? Do we want to encourage more women to use the Internet as a tool of empowerment? Do we want to reduce gender gaps in the economy? Or do we want to protect women’s rights in the digital space?

Drafting a few provisions mentioning women or gender equality will not serve to make the text more favourable to women, gender equality or women’s rights. Rather a deeper analysis will be required, through a gender lens, of the broader and deeper gendered implications of the proposed instrument on e-commerce. This is something that the 130 WTO Members participating in the Organization’s Informal Working Group on trade and gender have tasked themselves with doing. But this gender lens needs to be properly framed – if its starting point is “getting more women into trade” it might remedy gender imbalances amongst women entrepreneurs but will not rectify broader societal gender imbalances.

We need to ask which women are likely to benefit from rules developed under the JSI, which women might lose out and which risk being forgotten. We also need to ask how women are likely to benefit and what possible flip-sides to e-commerce rules might be for them, and then analyze the proposed text with these aspects in mind.

This will be a challenging task. But it is a necessary one if WTO Members want to negotiate e-commerce rules consistently with their human rights obligations. Asking the right questions is essential if we want the JSI talks to enhance gender equality and enjoyment of women’s rights.

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