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Gender Equality & Trade Policy

Gender Equality and Trade Policy
Women and Trade Conference, Tehran July 2010, © UNCTAD

II. Gender Equality in the Context of Globalization, Trade Liberalization and the UN Development Agenda

Over the last two decades, trade policy in most countries has been geared towards trade liberalization and market opening. Under the precepts of the Washington Consensus prevailing in the 1990s, the assumption was that free trade, combined with liberalization of investments, a deregulation of the private sector and financial systems along with the privatization of public-owned enterprises and services would facilitate the process of sustained economic growth and the development of productive capacities (see note 1). In turn, higher levels of growth and productivity would expand employment opportunities and sustain livelihoods for all, men and women, giving them the same chances of benefiting from macro-economic policies. Trade policy, along with other macro-economic policies, was however perceived as being "gender neutral".

With the adoption of the Millennium Declaration in 2000, the discourse in international development has shifted emphasis (see note 2) to the set of multilaterally agreed international development goals - the United Nations Development Agenda (see note 3) - as an over-arching framework for development, of which the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are a core part. With regards to trade, in 2001, the Doha Round of multilateral trade negotiations was launched with a strong emphasis on development, which contributed to put under scrutiny the view that trade liberalization automatically led to economic growth and development for all.

Subsequently, at the International Conference on Financing for Development (Monterrey, 2002) and the Review Conference in Doha (2009), landmark global agreements were reached between developed and developing countries on actions to be taken in domestic resource mobilization, private resource flows, Official Development Assistance (ODA), trade, debt and governance of the global economic system. They contributed to a common understanding that the benefits of trade for growth, employment and sustainable development depend to a large extent on the capacity of a country to upgrade and diversify its domestic productive capacities and the productivity of its labor force. UNCTAD defines productive capacity as "the productive resources, entrepreneurial capabilities and production linkages which together determine the capacity of a country to produce goods and services and enable it to grow and develop". (see note 4 and note 5)

Gender Equality and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)

Within the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), MDG 1 - "Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger" - includes a gender-specific target, namely "Achieve, full and productive employment and decent work for all, including women and young people" (Target 1.B). Target 1.B was included in 2005 in recognition that employment and decent work are legitimate goals in their own right and may not be achieved automatically as a result of economic growth. Decent work comprises four interrelated and mutually supportive pillars: employment, rights at work, social protection and social dialogue.

MDG 3 - "Promote gender equality and empower women" - does not make an explicit reference to trade but includes a specific reference to women's economic empowerment. Under MDG3, the indicator on the share of women in wage employment in non-agricultural sectors assesses the extent to which women are integrated in the economy through remunerated employment in the formal sector. Wage employment is linked to trade since women's integration into formal labour markets is often the result of job creation due to trade expansion. The other indicator within MDG 3 that refers to eliminating gender disparity at all levels of education is also indirectly linked to trade. Women who are more educated are in a better position to benefit from globalization and trade liberalization by having the skills sought by integrated markets. They are also in a better position to contribute to the economic growth of their countries.

MDG 8 - "Develop a global partnership for development" – promotes cooperation on development assistance and debt sustainability and the further development of trade and financial systems. Under MDG 8, the indicators that refer to ensuring market access for developing and least developed countries, especially for agricultural products, textiles and clothing, have an indirect gender component since women represent a high share of the workforce in those sectors.(see note 6) Another indicator of MDG 8 “Access to essential drugs” affects women’s access to health and greatly depends on trade arrangements and issues of intellectual property rights. Similarly, the MDG 8 indicator related to universal access to new information and communication technologies contains both gender-related and trade-related dimensions.


1 In 1990, John Williamson used the term "Washington Consensus" to describe a 10-item economic policy checklist for governments to follow. The Consensus advocated fiscal and monetary soundness, openness to trade and investment, financial liberalization and regulation, privatization, deregulation and secure property rights.

2 Maxwell, S (2005). The Washington Consensus is dead! Long live the meta-narrative! Working Paper 243, Overseas Development Institute, London, UK, http://www.odi.org.uk/resources/download/1809.pdf.

3 United Nations Millennium Declaration, available at: www.un.org/millennium/declaration/ares552e.htm; UN Development Agenda; Development for All, http://www.un.org/en/development/devagenda/devagenda.shtml

4 UNCTAD (2006). The Least Developed Countries Report 2006, http://www.unctad.org/Templates/webflyer.asp?docid=7011&intItemID=1397&lang=1&mode=highlights

5 An interagency mechanism - the CEB Inter-Agency Cluster on Trade and Productive Capacity - has been established with the aim of coordinating trade and development operations at the national and regional levels within the UN system. The Cluster includes UNCTAD, UNIDO, FAO, WTO, ITC, UNDP, UNEP, ILO, UN-ECLAC, UN-ECE, UN-ESCAP, UN-ECA, UN-ESCWA, UNOPS, UNCITRAL

6 According to The Millennium Development Goals Report, the proportion of imports (excluding arms and oil) by developed countries from all developing countries admitted duty-free reached almost 80 percent in 2008 - up from 54 percent in 1998. For the LDCs, this proportion increased only marginally from 78 percent in 1998 to almost 81 percent in 2008. Despite trade preferences, developed countries' tariffs on imports of agricultural products, textiles and clothing from developing countries remained between 5 and 8 percent in 2008 and were only 2 to 3 percentage points lower than in 1998. However, LDCs continue to benefit from larger tariff reductions, especially for their agricultural products. Preferential tariffs on agricultural imports from LDCs are 1.6 percent (versus 8 percent for other developing countries), though tariffs on clothing and textiles from LDCs are only 2 to 3 percentage points lower than those for developing countries as a group. The Millennium Development Goals Report, 2010, pp. 69-70.

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