The gender chapters in trade agreements: A true revolution?

14 November 2017

While the nexus between trade policy, gender equality, and sustainable development is increasingly clear, a new generation of free trade agreements is incorporating trade and gender chapters, signalling a noticeable shift from past practice. Can this be regarded as a true revolution in the way the trade community addresses gender equality?


Gender issues are being addressed in free trade agreements (FTAs) by a number of countries in new ways. Some nations and regional groups are committing to make trade and gender chapters a regular feature of future FTAs. All of this activity on trade, gender equality, and the economic empowerment of women may have implications for the World Trade Organization’s Eleventh Ministerial Conference (MC11) in December 2017 and beyond.

How to make trade policy more gender-sensitive

There are at least two ways to make trade policy more gender-responsive: ex ante gender assessments of trade measures; and the inclusion of gender-related considerations in trade instruments. These should be combined to yield the best results.

First, assessments of the risks and benefits of trade for a country as a whole should be complemented by an analysis of potential impacts on specific segments of the population, in particular those at risk of being left behind, including women and girls.

Indeed, the distributional outcomes of trade vary between women and men, since they play different roles in society and in the economy, and they enjoy different opportunities.

The prevailing thought for decades has been that free trade would bring equal opportunity to all. But with women still accounting for 70 percent of those living in extreme poverty, that stance is under increased scrutiny.  A gender assessment of trade reforms may lead to the rethinking of planned measures or may indicate the necessity of accompanying policies or of scaling up trade measures due to expected positive impacts.

The best approach is to conduct such assessments prior to introducing new trade measures. The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), through its Trade and Gender Toolbox, has developed a methodological approach for carrying out ex ante gender-related assessments of trade reforms.

Second, gender-related considerations should be included in the text of trade instruments such as trade agreements. There has been a shift in the way gender equality issues are addressed within trade agreements. In the past, reference to such issues was mainly included in the preambles of agreements or addressed as cross-cutting issues.

For example, the ACP-EU Partnership Agreement, in its preamble states the respect of the parties for international conventions on women’s rights, and recommends that “systematic account shall be taken of the situation of women and gender issues in all political, economic and social areas.”

In its chapter on thematic and cross-cutting issues, it mandates that technical cooperation should create the appropriate framework to “integrate a gender-sensitive approach and concerns at every level of development cooperation including macroeconomic policies, strategies and operation; and encourage the adoption of specific positive measures in favour of women.”

The inclusion of gender-related capacity-building mechanisms features in earlier FTAs. For example, in the EU-Mexico global agreement, gender equality is regarded as a cross-cutting issue to be mainstreamed in development cooperation between the parties. The EU-EAC economic partnership agreement calls for the promotion of gender equity in fisheries and for developing capacity of women traders involved and intending to engage in fisheries.

In more recent trade agreements, gender equality issues are addressed in specific chapters, significantly shifting the visibility of such issues within trade instruments.

The trade and gender chapters of the Chile-Uruguay FTA and the Canada-Chile FTA recognise the importance of gender mainstreaming for achieving inclusive economic growth, as well as the key role that gender equality policies can play in fostering socio-economic development.

Both FTAs include almost identical provisions for cooperation activities from which women can benefit in areas such as skills enhancement, financial inclusion, agency and leadership, entrepreneurship and access to science, and technology and innovation. They also call for the establishment of trade and gender committees to operationalise the relevant chapters of the agreements.

Why are the new FTAs including gender considerations in a more assertive manner?

New free trade agreements may include gender considerations for a number of reasons.

  • More women than before are involved in trade policymaking, including at senior levels.
  • An increasing number of women are trading in international markets and own or manage firms worldwide.
  • Advocacy campaigns have contributed to raising the relevance of gender equality issues in the development debate.
  • There is increased awareness about the gender dimension of trade policy, including as a result of research work conducted by international organisations and academia.
  • There is widespread belief that trade can be instrumental to long-lasting development only if it is more inclusive and its benefits more equally shared.

These reasons may also be behind the initiative of some developed and developing members of the WTO to issue, on the margins of MC11, a joint ministerial declaration on trade and women’s economic empowerment.

While such a declaration would be non-binding and signed by interested WTO members only, it would nevertheless represent an innovative development: for the first time issues related to gender equality and the economic empowerment of women would be addressed at a WTO ministerial gathering.

A real contribution to gender equality?

A number of features related to the gender chapters of the Chile-Uruguay and Canada-Chile FTAs should be noted.

  • Specific gender-related standards – for example on equal pay for equal work – that could affect trade under the agreements are not included and, instead, reference is made to the implementation of gender equality commitments included in global conventions.
  • Milestones or specific goals are not included.
  • Dispute-settlement mechanisms do not apply to the trade and gender chapters.
  • Harmonisation of gender-related legislation between the parties is not mandated. Consequently, the party that tackles gender equality issues in its legal framework in a less comprehensive manner than the other party is not mandated to upgrade its legislation.
  • Potential impacts of trade liberalisation pursued under the agreements on women’s well-being and economic empowerment are not addressed.

The inclusion of trade and gender chapters in new FTAs is a welcome step, yet such chapters remain a light component.

However, these developments should not be overlooked, as they encompass a number of positive features. First, they raise the profile of gender equality issues in the trade discourse, Second, they encourage broader participation by civil society and the private sector in the implementation of agreements. Third, they enhance cooperation between parties to the agreements on issues of immediate relevance to women. Finally, they strengthen capacity-building, especially when one party is a developing country.

A joint declaration at MC11 on trade and women’s economic empowerment would help disband the perception of the "gender neutrality" of trade policy and overcome its "gender blindness."


This post is an adaptation of an UNCTAD Policy Brief.

Simonetta Zarrilli is Chief of the Trade, Gender and Development Programme, United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).