Officials Discuss Ways to Tackle Gender Trade Gap at Brussels Forum

22 June 2017

Officials from governments, international agencies, the private sector, and civil society discussed policy plans and ideas for how to address the gender trade gap during the International Forum on Women and Trade in Brussels, Belgium, on Tuesday 20 June.

“Each woman who can benefit from trade is a woman who can open new markets and new opportunities, can sell and spread her ideas, and support her community and sometimes her whole village,” said EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström in opening the conference.

The day-long event in the Belgian capital focused on using trade policy tools to facilitate women’s economic empowerment, especially in light of commitments made by governments under the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Sustainable Development Goal 5 is devoted specifically to gender equality and women’s empowerment, with the associated targets calling for the elimination of discrimination and violence directed at women and girls; taking steps in the areas of property rights, financial services, and a host of other resources that could support women’s economic empowerment; and acting to give women everywhere access to reproductive rights and health, among others.

The Brussels meeting programme included a combination of plenary sessions and expert panels. Among the topics under discussion was how to make the most of existing data in this field and address data gaps; how to improve access to finance and participation in global value chains; how to bring more women into the digital economy; and how to incorporate gender-related issues into trade policy – including under free trade deals and in discussions under the WTO framework.

Malmström: looking at gender in trade deals

Malmström, who served as one of the co-hosts of the event, affirmed that the bloc’s executive arm plans to pursue the inclusion of gender-focused chapters in future trade deals, including in the planned upgrade to the EU-Chile trade accord.

“We will be launching our trade negotiations with Chile soon, and I would like to include a gender chapter there, and see what we could learn from the Chilean experiences. And see if this could be a pilot project for us in the European Union to take forward in other trade negotiations,” she said.

Chile and Canada recently confirmed that they have concluded negotiations on a new gender chapter for their 20-year-old trade agreement. Chile and Uruguay also have a chapter on gender and trade in their bilateral trade accord. (See Bridges Weekly, 8 June 2017)

Chilean President Michelle Bachelet also addressed the conference through video message, while Canadian Trade Minister François-Philippe Champagne participated in the panel discussions in Brussels.

Malmström also pledged that the 28-nation bloc will back efforts underway at the WTO by some members, such as Canada, to address gender in the context of trade in services.

“Trade in services is often connected to the movement of people, with rules on qualifications and licenses. These measures must not discriminate against women. We fully support the proposal of Canada to include and address this at the next World Trade Organization ministerial conference. We will co-sponsor it, and push for change, as we prepare for upcoming WTO talks,” she said.

Canada, together with Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Iceland, and Uruguay have recently circulated a communication under the WTO’s Working Party on Domestic Regulation calling for an article addressing “gender equality” to be negotiated in that context.

This article “covers elements of domestic regulation within the scope of GATS Article VI.4.” This refers to the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) provision on domestic regulation, which empowers the Council for Trade in Services to develop disciplines aimed at “ensuring that measures relating to qualification requirements and procedures, technical standards, and licensing requirements do not constitute unnecessary barriers to trade in services.”

The communication then goes on to include the following provision under the heading of gender equality: “where a member adopts or maintains licensing requirements, licensing procedures, qualification requirements, or qualification procedures, the member shall ensure that such measures do not discriminate against individuals on the basis of gender.”

González: Domestic, trade policies essential

Making sure that women can both access and benefit from economic opportunities will require efforts at multiple levels, including through domestic policy, Aid for Trade support, and trade policy, according to International Trade Centre (ITC) Executive Director Arancha González, who co-hosted the event with Malmström.

“Women and international trade is no longer the proverbial elephant in the room. We can’t afford that. If we are going to help push global growth, eradicate extreme poverty, and create sustainable jobs we have to not only move this topic centre stage – we need to make it actionable,” she said.

González similarly welcomed the efforts by the Canadian, Chilean, and Uruguayan governments to add in gender chapters to their existing trade deals, while noting that women still face barriers in a host of areas.

For example, she noted the low percentages when it comes to women’s involvement in e-commerce, due to factors such as not owning a mobile phone, not having internet access, or not having the necessary digital literacy.

She also described the strikingly low numbers of US companies owned by women that participate in “high economic impact” sectors, while noting that countries in both the developed and developing world face similar problems.

“Women in trade and [small and medium-sized enterprises] are two sides of the same coin. Competitiveness and trade are two sides of the same coin. Women’s economic empowerment and inclusive growth are two sides of the same coin,” she said.

González also outlined her organisation’s work in this area under the SheTrades initiative to facilitate greater participation by women in global markets.

Azevêdo calls for greater engagement

The heads of the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) were also on hand during the Brussels meet, with each official outlining some of the barriers women face in this field, and ways to begin moving forward.

“The gender gap is great and a lot more needs to be done to close it,” said WTO Director-General Roberto Azevêdo, outlining challenges ranging from access to capital to cultural norms, and noting the link between SMEs and women’s economic opportunity.

He also reiterated concerns over getting the necessary data in understanding the gender-trade nexus, which he warned are hindering action in this area, along with calling for greater work in this area.

In a separate WTO brochure released the same day, Azevêdo reiterated that case, stating that “investing in women – and empowering women to invest in themselves - is a risk free venture.”

The WTO publication outlines specific benefits that can derive from making this topic a priority, citing cases where creating employment opportunities for women lead to more girls being enrolled in schools, among others.

However, it also notes that women often face high hurdles for engaging in trade, including gender-biased legal systems, limited access to finance, and poor working conditions. At the WTO institutional level, the brochure outlines areas where the organisation may help – such as through trade facilitation rules and the negotiation of “trade-related development decisions.”

ICTSD reporting.

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