Making trade work for gender equality

7 August 2017
Author: Marion Sharples

As Brexit unfolds in the UK, trade negotiations and agreements are making the headlines. Who will the British government forge new trade deals with? How would President Trump’s “very big and exciting” trade deal between the US and UK look? 

What’s often neglected at trade talks is the reality that governments’ policies on trade are central to achieving human rights obligations, both at home and abroad - and this includes their obligation to pursue gender equality and women’s rights.

Future trade negotiations must put achieving gender equality on the agenda and include gender-transformative provisions, as we lay out in our new briefing Making trade work for gender equality [PDF].  

Trade has the potential to advance gender equality and realise women’s rights by expanding decent work opportunities for women and contributing to sustainable and equitable economic development. However, in many cases this potential has not been fulfilled; trade, and the agreements that establish its rules, have impacted negatively on the lives of many women.

Often, the rules established by trade agreements shrink tax revenues, meaning that funding is slashed from crucial public services and programmes that support women’s empowerment, especially in developing countries. At the same time, women workers, farmers and entrepreneurs face particular risks as liberal trade agreements expose them to worsening working conditions and pay, international competition, privatised and for-profit public services, and rising costs of essential items like medications. 

With trade agreements topping national and international agendas, it is time for governments and international institutions alike to take this opportunity to ensure a more progressive approach to international trade. Governments must ensure that new trade deals not only mitigate the harms caused by liberalised trade, but also create decent work opportunities and resources for pursuing gender equality.

Four recommendations for lobbying governments 

We encourage civil society actors to take forward these recommendations in their lobbying and advocacy around trade justice:

  1. Build capacity on gender equality and trade within governments. Both officials working on trade, and those working on gender, need to fully understand, and take into account, the intersection of trade and gender.
  2. Ensure trade agreements promote international human rights agreements and obligations. Governments must protect policy space for protecting and promoting women’s rights - and refuse to subordinate those rights to any other concerns in trade agreements.
  3. Conduct gender and human rights impact assessments and take the findings of those assessments into account. Impact assessments should be used to evaluate how a proposed trade agreement will affect human rights and gender equality, both at home and abroad.
  4. Make trade negotiations transparent and participatory. Draft trade agreements are rarely made public to enable proper consultation. Governments should work to reduce the barriers that civil society participation in trade negotiations and facilitate full transparency.

Check out the full briefing here [PDF] to learn more about the critical nexus of gender and trade—and join us in working for gender-responsive international trade in policy and practice.

About the author

Marion Sharples
Gender & Development Network

Marion Sharples is the Gender & Development Network coordinator. Specialising in women's economic justice, she also sits on the WIDE+ Gender & Trade working group and is a trustee of Women Working Worldwide.