Group of WTO Members: Time to Focus on Gender as Critical Inclusion Issue

30 November 2017

A coalition of developed and developing economies is expected to unveil a declaration in Buenos Aires outlining several steps they plan to take over the coming two years towards incorporating a gender lens into their approaches to trade and development policy.

The declaration from this WTO member subgroup will be issued outside of the normal negotiating process. However, this set of voluntary commitments could serve to raise the issue’s profile at the global trade body, while the agreed measures could help address long-standing knowledge deficiencies in this policy area, thus paving the way to more concrete actions aimed at facilitating women’s increased participation in trade.

Among the members expected to support the declaration are Argentina, Benin, Canada, Costa Rica, Fiji, Finland, Iceland, Kenya, Montenegro, Norway, Pakistan, Paraguay, Sierra Leone, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the European Union. Some of these members have already stated their intention to sign publicly, including through a social media campaign under the hashtag “#mc11women.”

These members have been involved with the Trade Impact Group (TIG), which is part of the International Gender Champions coalition and has been coordinating the preparations.

Applying a gender lens

The adoption of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015 included a goal dedicated to gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls, captured under SDG 5. That goal includes among its targets the “full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision-making” as well as pursuing measures that provide women “equal rights to economic resources,” among a host of other targets relating to universal health access, prevention of violence against women, and stopping discrimination.

Policy processes across the sustainable development spectrum have increasingly acknowledged that women face gender-specific barriers that have hampered their advancement in the economic, social, and political sphere – and that tackling these barriers head-on can lead to tangible benefits domestically and across the global economy.

In recent years, there has also been a growing recognition in many quarters that a gender perspective can therefore be of great benefit in the policymaking process, starting from when a policy or regulation is first being conceptualised – and that having more women involved across different decision-making levels could provide valuable insights into the varying impacts of public policies within societies, along with how to shape more equitable policy approaches.

For example, at this year’s UN climate conference in Bonn, Germany, negotiators signed off on a “gender action plan” aimed at correcting the poor representation of women in the climate talks; taking steps to make the implementation of international climate accords “gender-responsive,” and otherwise making gender a mainstream part of the policymaking process, particularly given that climate change can have gender-specific impacts.

Data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) shows that women are still vastly underrepresented in senior positions across the public policy spectrum – making up just one-third of policymaking roles, and an even smaller share in domestic legislatures.
Developing a public profile

One of the biggest hurdles this policy area has had to face is visibility: in treating gender as an issue in its own right, rather than solely as a facet of other policy areas. Some signs have emerged that this could be changing, particularly as more women advance to senior policymaking roles and give greater visibility to the importance of a gender perspective.

Trade experts have noted that extracting gender from other seemingly related issues and dedicating chapters to the subject in recent FTAs has been a positive development, both in raising awareness and in highlighting the scale of the work that remains.

Within the international trade arena, given the wider recognition that making trade sustainable also means making it inclusive, some countries have already moved to negotiate specific gender chapters in free trade agreements (FTA) with interested partners. Recent examples include the gender chapters of the Chile-Uruguay FTA, or the addition of a gender chapter to the Chile-Canada FTA. However, within the WTO context, the subject of gender is still in its infancy, despite recent moves to establish a gender focal point within the organisation’s secretariat and public support from the director-general.

Meanwhile, the growing visibility of gender in the international trade policy discourse has highlighted that the subject of gender is not well enough understood. Research by the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) has demonstrated that data is one of the most challenging areas in attempting to craft gender-responsive trade policies. For example, the analysis of trade liberalisation’s effects does not currently do enough to account for how the lowering of barriers could have gender-specific impacts, such as by benefiting sectors where men are a significantly greater percentage of the labour force due to educational opportunities or cultural norms – and thus worsening existing disparities that are caused by discriminatory gender norms in different societies.

The anticipated declaration in Buenos Aires by a group of WTO members is therefore being used as an early step to raise the profile of how trade affects women’s economic opportunities – along with serving as a potential starting point for more informed discussions in the future. It also aims to tackle the data problem: that the trade policy community does not yet have the information necessary to address the gender-differentiated impacts of trade, which vary across countries. Conceptually, the issue is also poorly understood, and runs up against cultural attitudes, or discriminatory social norms, that are sometimes captured in domestic laws, that can make implementation of gender-responsive policies – both in trade and elsewhere – difficult.

In a bid to better understand the issues behind the gender-differentiated impacts of trade on economic opportunities, the WTO member declaration includes a commitment to exchanging information on their respective experiences in incorporating “gender-responsive” approaches to policymaking; discussing data collection methods that can break down the differentiated impacts of trade; and deepening their knowledge base through dedicated seminars over the coming years.

It also refers to the role of the WTO’s Aid for Trade Initiative, and how it could be harnessed to support the effort. The Aid for Trade Initiative, now over a decade old, is aimed at supporting developing and least developed countries as they develop the necessary systems and infrastructure to become more integrated into the international trading landscape. According to the International Trade Centre (ITC), approximately 40 percent of small and medium-sized enterprises are women-owned on the global scale – a percentage that drops by nearly half when looking solely at developing countries.

The declaration, a draft version of which has been seen by Bridges, also includes a reference to a progress report on implementing these and other pledges by 2019.

Outside of the ministerial conference venue, high-level discussions on trade and gender will also be taking place during parallel events organised by the business sector, civil society, and think tanks in Buenos Aires. For example, a panel on trade and gender will be included in the Business Forum organised by the Argentine government and the International Chamber of Commerce on 12 December, which sources say could see additional engagement on the declaration. Events on trade and gender will also feature during the Trade and Sustainable Development Symposium organised by ICTSD, the publisher of Bridges, including an event on “making trade work for gender equality” which will include the participation of several ministers. At press time, members were consulting their respective capitals about embracing the declaration during the ministerial conference, with sources signalling a “good level of engagement.”

Declarations like these are common at WTO ministerials, often reflecting voluntary commitments among interested parties that could subsequently pave the way for negotiations or other initiatives. Going forward, other members may sign on to the declaration during the next two-year cycle before the WTO’s twelfth ministerial conference, slated for late 2019. During that time, the issue could be raised within the organisation’s General Council, for example.

Countering discrimination in services trade

Aside from the declaration, some countries are pushing to reach a negotiated outcome on gender at the multilateral level during the Buenos Aires ministerial.

Earlier this year, Canada put forward a proposal on gender equality for consideration at the WTO’s Working Party on Domestic Regulation, which deals with possible disciplines on qualification and licensing requirements, along with related issues in the field of services trade. The proposal was co-sponsored by 16 other WTO members, including Albania, Argentina, Australia, Chile, Colombia, the EU, Iceland, Kazakhstan, Liechtenstein, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Norway, Pakistan, Panama, and Uruguay. The proposal would require that members do not discriminate against individuals on the basis of gender in the context of licensing requirements, licensing procedures, qualification requirements, or procedures.

The proposal has highlighted conceptual differences among members, such as whether there is an existing mandate for looking at gender within the global trade body’s negotiating context, along with whether to address the issue as one of avoiding discrimination as opposed to promoting economic empowerment.

Looking to the future

While the domestic regulation negotiations are unlikely to advance far in Buenos Aires, and the joint declaration on women’s economic empowerment is non-binding, the fact that both have been raised in the WTO context is still a landmark development, indicating a growing expectation by members and the public alike that the global trade body is – and can be – responsive to this and other changes.

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