WTO Member Coalition Begins Work to Support Implementation of Gender Declaration

15 March 2018

Countries that have signed onto a high-level declaration on trade and gender are preparing to put their programme of work into action, having set the WTO’s Twelfth Ministerial Conference (MC12) in late 2019 as their target date for delivery. 

In late December, a coalition of 121 WTO members and observers endorsed the “Buenos Aires Declaration on Trade and Women’s Economic Empowerment” during the global trade body’s Eleventh Ministerial Conference (MC11) in the Argentine capital city. (See Bridges Daily Update, 13 December 2017

The declaration, while non-binding, sets out a series of areas where this group intends to work together over the coming two years. 

This includes steps towards sharing information and best practices; voluntary inclusion of gender-related information in WTO Trade Policy Reviews; taking steps in the WTO context to lower barriers for women in trade; and using the Aid for Trade initiative to help develop the tools and expertise for crafting “gender-responsive” trade policies, among others. 

The gender declaration is a notable first in the WTO context, and supporters say it is a promising sign towards the development of a reinvigorated approach to trade policymaking that could ensure more inclusive, sustainable economic growth across the board.

Workshops, TPRs, agenda items

One of the first steps in implementing the Buenos Aires declaration involves a workshop on gender-based analysis and trade, which is set for Friday 16 March at WTO headquarters. The meeting is being hosted by the WTO and the government of Canada, and is open to policymakers and influencers, experts, and other stakeholders.

The workshop is the first of six seminars that has been announced by the International Gender Champions (IGC) Trade Impact Group (TIG), the partnership which worked to galvanise support for the Buenos Aires declaration. The TIG is led by the governments of Iceland and Sierra Leone, as well as the International Trade Centre (ITC), a joint UN-WTO agency.

Along with the Friday workshop, seminars are also planned for June, September, and November of this year. These will address the relationship between women entrepreneurs and public procurement; the relationship between women entrepreneurs and international value chains; and the improvement of women’s financial inclusion, respectively.

Two more seminars have already been announced for March and July 2019, addressing the relationship between women and trade agreements, as well as the role of women in digital trade, respectively.

According to Ambassador Harald Aspelund of Iceland, who spoke at the WTO on 8 March for an International Women’s Day event on the Buenos Aires declaration, the results of these seminars are meant to foster discussions, support the development of more inclusive trade policy agenda, and feed into a related publication that would be released in time for the WTO’s next ministerial conference.

Aside from the seminars, some other agenda items from the Buenos Aires declaration are already in the process of implementation. According to the WTO, a few members have already begun addressing specific policies that are geared towards addressing gender equality, examining these within the context of their Trade Policy Reviews (TPRs). 

These reviews are required exercises under the WTO’s trade monitoring function, involving reports by the member involved and the secretariat regarding macroeconomic and trade policy developments during the time period under scrutiny. The TPR mechanism also provides a platform for other members to ask questions. The frequency of these reviews depends on the size of the trader involved.

Those which have voluntarily addressed gender issues in their recent TPRs include the European Union, Iceland, and the Gambia, according to the Geneva-based organisation.

Economic imperative

High-level trade officials were on hand during various events in Geneva organised around International Women’s Day, discussing the various facets of trade policy in relation to gender equality and women’s empowerment. This includes at the above-mentioned WTO meeting on 8 March regarding the Buenos Aires declaration.

At the WTO event, Director-General Roberto Azevêdo cited World Bank and McKinsey data which looked at how tackling gender disparities and discrimination could yield massive increases in global GDP and per capita productivity.

He also noted that women face a host of challenges, such as legal and regulatory hurdles, adverse or harmful working conditions, limitations in terms of educational access, and in some cases difficulties in being “taken seriously” by men in their respective professional fields.

“Trade certainly has a role to play. It can help to create job opportunities and provide better salaries, encourage education and skills development, and increase financial independence. But the benefits of trade in tackling these issues are not automatic,” he said, calling for a multi-pronged approach going forward.

Various ambassadors whose countries have signed on to the declaration also described why the subject of women’s economic empowerment is a crucial one for the growth of their respective economies, while also noting the myriad challenges that remain in this field.

Women are an essential resource for the Japanese workforce, said Ambassador Junichi Ihara of Japan, noting that his country is facing urgent demographic challenges, such as a declining population, that will hit its productivity.

“The empowerment of women is a type of survival subject for Japan,” he said at the WTO event last week. 

Ambassador Syed Tauqir Shah of Pakistan similarly referred to the economic empowerment of women as “a fundamental issue,” noting that women often face additional challenges relative to their male counterparts both inside and outside the workplace. Regarding the former, he noted the challenges many women face of harassment in the workplace; in the case of the latter, these burdens often involve having to manage the additional and uneven demands of the care economy and household labour. 

A few countries have, however, questioned whether gender should be considered a “new issue” in the WTO context, and thus be looked at only in an exploratory manner given the lack of consensus across the full WTO membership. Some countries which are not signatories to the Buenos Aires declaration, for example India, have also questioned whether the subject of gender should be addressed at the global trade club at all.

The push to implement the Buenos Aires declaration also comes as various other initiatives across the international trade community are also looking more actively at how to mainstream gender considerations into their work. 

This includes a growing effort by some countries to use a gender lens when negotiating trade deals, including but not limited to the inclusion of specific gender chapters. There are also a series of efforts underway by intergovernmental and non-governmental organisations to support women entrepreneurs and consumers through research, outreach, technical assistance, and other steps.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have been credited for providing part of the political momentum behind the growing interest and sense of urgency in the international trade community on addressing gender equality. While there is a specific SDG devoted to gender equality and empowering women and girls, known as SDG 5, various other SDGs relating to subjects such as poverty reduction and education also address gender disparities.

Those SDGs fall within the wider umbrella of the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, endorsed by world governments in late 2015. That agenda has both an overall delivery date of 2030 as well as intermediate target dates for certain objectives.

ICTSD reporting.

Gender, WTO
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