An opportunity for a gender equality focus in trade policy?

16 November 2018
  • Gender is being mainstreamed into several recent trade agreements and negotiations.
  • Gender-specific data and gender-sensitive impact assessments should guide negotiations.
  • The role and needs of women-led businesses need to be addressed to promote their economic empowerment.


International trade interacts with gender equality in different ways. Its impact is not neutral and in developing countries and elsewhere it is conditioned by the distinct roles of women and men in economic activity.  Today, there seems to be a momentum for mainstreaming gender issues into trade policy, which had not been observed in the 20 preceding years, even though many of the issues currently on the policy agenda had already been raised in the past.

The inequality gap between women and men is especially profound in the economic sphere and, considering recent trends, this is where the gap would take the longest to close. According to the World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Index, at the current rate, women’s economic participation and opportunities gap would close in 219 years! Gender inequality not only carries serious costs in terms of social justice and human dignity, but also reduces economic growth and competitiveness. The OECD estimates that the economic losses caused by gender discrimination could reach US$11,750 billion or 16 percent of global income in 2016. In Africa and the Middle East alone, losses amount to over US$900 billion. By including a gender perspective, trade policy could contribute to enhancing opportunities for women and help reduce these losses.

Historically, the impacts of trade and investment liberalisation have been unevenly distributed both between and within countries, and also between men and women. Lately, however, some gender-specific provisions address gender equality, and some initiatives mainstream a gender perspective into general trade rules and into support instruments for women-led businesses. Methodologies for collecting gender-specific trade data are being developed.

The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Forum and the Commonwealth Secretariat included gender issues in their agendas several years ago. In 2016, two developing countries – Chile and Uruguay – included the first stand-alone chapter on gender and trade in a bilateral trade agreement. Canada was next to include gender in its trade policy agenda, and the European Union has tabled a gender chapter for the modernisation of its agreement with Chile. A milestone at the multilateral level was the Joint Declaration on Gender and Trade, endorsed by 118 countries in the context of the 11th Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organization in December 2017.  

Table 1. Trade agreements and negotiations with gender provisions, selected countries (2016-2018)

Source: Elaborated by the author on the basis of information from Canada, Chile, the EU, and EU-Chile.

Building on these developments, is there policy space to mainstream gender into trade in Africa for example?   

Many women in Africa participate in the informal sector of the economy; in sub-Saharan Africa they amount to about 70 percent of informal traders. Support rather than eradication measures should be adopted regarding informal trade, while reducing risks. Regional institutions should evaluate how informal trade can be complementary to the new trade agreements.

In agriculture, medium and large producers have generally benefited from trade liberalisation and export promotion, while small producers – where women are largely concentrated – to a lesser extent. Women have been particularly affected by the elimination of agricultural subsidies and the reduction of fiscal revenues for social services.

In the existing regional trade agreements, such as those that created the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), specific gender concerns have been mostly absent. In the COMESA countries, trade liberalisation has helped create employment and incomes for women in the export processing zones, but have also created “new patterns of inequality and vulnerability.”

The implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), signed in March 2018 can be an opportunity to strengthen the role of women and address gender concerns. The 2003 Protocol to the African Charter on the Rights of Women in Africa (Maputo Protocol) is the framework of African legal obligations regarding women and should be a benchmark in the AfCFTA implementation process.

There are several instruments available to mainstream a gender equality focus into trade policy, developed by international organisations such as UNCTAD, UN Women, the International Trade Centre (ITC), and the European Union, among others. In 2012, UN Women developed a gender audit methodology of Africa's negotiating position in trade agreements; a review of gender and trade facilitation; and a generic template with policy recommendations to address the gender gaps, inform future trade negotiations and trade facilitation. The UNCTAD Trade and Gender Toolbox is designed to help governments ensure that trade empowers women. The African Union’s Gender Scorecard can help define priorities. Negotiations in the region need to be guided by gender-sensitive impact assessments and include stakeholders at different stages of the process. 

WTO rules and free trade agreement provisions should not restrict national policies that seek to promote gender equality in specific economic sectors. These policies can be strengthened by trade provisions through which states commit to women’s economic empowerment and gender equality, as is the purpose of the stand-alone gender chapters promoted in recent trade agreements by some Latin American countries, Canada, and the European Union.

The WTO, after initial steps of raising gender issues in a general manner, should move on to consider a gender perspective in the various disciplines and agreements – market access, subsidies, services, non-conforming measures, government procurement, among others – which often reproduce country-specific inequalities. Gender-specific provisions at the multilateral level could then be streamlined into regional and national trade systems to encourage women’s economic participation and opportunities. Gender-sensitive member states should also insist that gender issues be included in the progressive agenda for WTO modernisation.

Experiences in Latin America indicate that a gender-specific trade policy can be developed at different levels.

First, with the design and implementation of trade policy that mainstreams gender into national and regional trade agreements and negotiations. Secondly, by generating gender-specific data and engaging in gender-sensitive impact assessments. Finally, by addressing the needs of women-led businesses to promote economic empowerment.


Alicia Frohmann is a trade policy and export promotion expert with experience as a negotiator and policymaker in the Chilean government and as a consultant to developing countries.