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Should Women Have Their Own Provisions in Free Trade Agreements?

The topic of women’s participation in international trade has been lightly touched in trade agreements. It shows up in aspirational language in a preamble, through a mention in a chapter on cross-cutting issues like labor, or in a non-binding side agreement accompanying the main text of an agreement. Canada introduced a standalone trade and gender chapter in its updated trade agreement with Chile, and is on a mission to spark a global conversation about whether and how trade and gender issues should be addressed in trade agreements.

As rallying calls of “Trade for All” and economic inclusion reverberate throughout national trade agendas, international forums, and across trade negotiation tables, here’s a closer look at trade and gender issues, how trade agreements of the past have addressed them, and how a new generation of trade and gender chapters aim to change the narrative.

In Developing Countries, Just One In Five Exporting Firms Led by Women

Despite comprising half of the global population, women generate just 37 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) and run only one-third of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Women participation in the economies of developing countries is typically lower than average, with female business ownership dipping as low as three to six percent in some countries.

Women in developing countries are often concentrated in small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and in export-oriented sectors like apparel, textiles and electronics manufacturing. Women-owned businesses in developing countries are less likely to export than their male counterparts, however. In a 2015 survey of 20 developing countries, the International Trade Centre found that just one in five exporting firms was led by women entrepreneurs.

Exporting is a powerful tool for women to grow their businesses by expanding into new markets. The United States is an example of how exporting can support the success of women-owned businesses. According to the International Trade Centre report, women-owned businesses in the United States that export tend to pay more, are more productive, hire more employees, and record higher than average sales than those who do not export.

U.S. women-owned businesses that export

It’s Not Just a Paperwork Issue

Trading across borders can be challenging for women, especially those who run small-scale firms in developing countries. A recent World Bank article highlights some of the key challenges women traders face – from corruption to harassment, cultural and legal barriers, and even just the amount of time they’re able to dedicate to their businesses while also expected to take care of their families. A female trader in Vietnam said it best, “In Vietnam, women have to do double the work. We manage our business and we take care of our families. We have to arrange time to do cross-border trade.”

Support for empowering women through trade is growing in international forums as of late. In December 2017, 118 members of the World Trade Organization (WTO) endorsed the Buenos Aires Declaration on Trade and Women’s Economic Empowerment. The goal is to increase women’s participation in trade and remove barriers to women’s economic empowerment. Members agreed to investigate ways to better tackle barriers and lack of access to trade financing, as well as collecting better gender-disaggregated economic data.

Member economies of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum have also created an agenda on greater inclusion of women in the regional economy through its Policy Partnership on Women and the Economy, an initiative promoted by the United States during its host year in 2011. The forum is working to address access to capital, access to markets, support for skills development, advance women into leadership roles in business, government, community and political levels, and to ensure that women don’t get left behind in scientific, innovation, and technology sectors. Without addressing these barriers, women would be less apt to take advantage of economic opportunities created by trade agreements.

How Have Trade Agreements Addressed Trade and Gender in the Past?

While the addition of specific chapters on trade and gender in trade agreements is a relatively new approach, the inclusion of gender-related provisions in regional trade agreements is not a recent phenomenon.

According to a 2018 WTO study, the number of gender-related provisions in RTAs has steadily increased since 1957. As of 2018, 74 regional trade agreements contained at least one gender-related provision. These provisions have evolved and changed significantly over the years. The study found that most gender-related provisions were couched in “best endeavor” language and focus on cooperation on gender and gender-related issues, like labor, health and social policy.

RTAs with gender provisions

What Do New “Gender Chapters” in Trade Agreements Include?

Chile and Uruguay were the first two countries to introduce a standalone chapter on trade and gender in a bilateral agreement in 2016. This was followed by the trade and gender chapter in the updated Canada-Chile Free Trade Agreement (CCFTA) signed in 2017.

The trade and gender chapter in the CCFTA contains four key components:

Acknowledgement of the importance of incorporating a gender perspective into economic and trade issues to ensure that economic growth is inclusive.

Reaffirmation of commitments to implement UN conventions against gender discrimination.

Cooperative activities and capacity building such as the promotion of access to financing and female entrepreneurship, the development of women’s networks, and greater participation by women in decision-making positions in the public and private sectors.

Establishment of a committee to oversee cooperation activities, review operations of the trade and gender chapter, report on the implementation of activities, and monitor other chapters for their effects on gender.

What Impact Might These Provisions Have?

The modernized CCFTA only recently went into force in February 2019, so it’s too soon to assess what impact the new trade and gender chapter will have for women in both countries. In a policy paper, UNCTAD called the CCFTA trade and gender chapter a “welcome step” but also said it remained a “light component” considering milestones and specific goals were not included, dispute-settlement mechanisms did not apply to the chapter, and harmonization of gender-related legislation between parties was not mandated.

Despite these perceived shortcomings, UNCTAD suggested the trend to include trade and gender chapters in trade agreements was positive: Raising the profile of trade and gender issues in the trade arena would encourage both civil society and the private sector to participate more broadly in the implementation of agreements, enhance cooperation on gender issues between parties to the agreements, and strengthen capacity-building between nations on barriers to women participating in the economy through trade.

Canada’s “Progressive” Push in CPTPP

Canada succeeded in adding trade and gender chapters to some of its recent bilateral agreements, but has faced resistance at the regional level. Although the actual words “comprehensive” and “progressive” were added in front of the TPP title, the CPTPP does not contain a trade and gender chapter. Instead, it contains non-binding language in the preamble reaffirming the importance of gender equality for all CPTPP members. It also includes provisions in the development chapter related to women and economic growth (Article 23.4). While not directly referencing women, chapters related to SMEs and cross-border digital trade should also benefit women by expanding trade in these areas.

Adding a new trade and gender chapter was included among Canada’s core negotiating objectives at the onset of NAFTA renegotiations with the United States and Mexico. This new chapter ultimately did not make the cut in the new United States-Mexico-Canada agreement (USMCA). The new USMCA agreement does contain provisions related to gender, however, including in the labor chapter and the SMEs chapter. This is an improvement over the original NAFTA agreement, which addressed gender and trade in a side accord rather than in the main text of the agreement.

Part of the argument against gender-specific provisions is that any benefits of a trade agreement should be theoretically gender-neutral. For example, provisions that help facilitate trade by small- and medium-sized enterprises should help female business owners the same. But just as there are few gender disaggregated trade data, there’s still much to be learned about how trade reforms benefit women.

More Pieces of the Puzzle

While there’s been considerable buzz around the inclusion of new trade and gender chapters in FTAs, UNCTAD experts say they are really just one piece of the puzzle. In order to yield the best results, trade and gender chapters need to be partnered with gender-related assessments of trade measures prior to the agreement to be most effective later on.

UNCTAD developed a Trade and Gender Toolbox as a framework to help countries evaluate the impact of trade reforms on women and gender inequalities before implementing them. These assessments can help countries rethink planned trade reforms or identify the need for accompanying measures to offset negative impacts on at-risk groups, like women. APEC has taken a pragmatic approach, training women to advance in traditionally male-dominated industries like energy and mining, studying successful women entrepreneurs in the ICT sector, sharing information on investing in women entrepreneurs, and even taking on specific individual goals for increasing women in private and public leadership roles. APEC is also working in critical areas such as education, sexual harassment, health, and social expectations for women as caregivers – areas a trade agreement would not be expected to address.

As more countries take up the mantle of “Trade for All”– not just Canada, but also the European Union, Chile, New Zealand and others — we will continue to see trade and gender chapters in new RTAs evolve and more initiatives to share and implement best policy practices. Yet, it remains to be seen if this “next generation language” in FTAs will make a tangible difference for the hard-working women trading around the world.