In the past, most trade experts assumed trade was gender neutral and that gender-based human rights and complex technical international trading systems should never mix. As a result, the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the international human rights system proceeded to develop on completely separate tracks — until now.
In December 2017, at the eleventh WTO Ministerial Conference in Buenos Aires, 118 WTO members and observers signed the Declaration on Trade and Women’s Economic Empowerment. Many trade ministers have realized they can no longer afford to treat trade in isolation from its gender-related human rights impacts.
Women’s economic participation is an important part of the growth and stability equation. The International Monetary Fund points out that closing the gender gap benefits countries as a whole, not just women and girls. Recent research by McKinsey also points out that advancing women’s equality could add $28 trillion to global GDP by 2025 and instigate better development outcomes for families and communities worldwide.
In this video, Oonagh Fitzgerald, director of CIGI’s International Law Research Program, explores the WTO’s efforts to achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) — notably, SDG 5: achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls by 2030 — and how bilateral trade deals are working to include progressive trade chapters.
Suddenly, everyone is talking about the importance of economic empowerment of women through international trade.
In the past, most trade experts assumed trade was gender neutral, so that if trade rules didn’t single out women for discrimination, there was no issue of concern. Some may even wonder if the gender and trade agenda may be piling on “soft, feel-good” issues into the already complex and technical international trading system, and that human rights and trade should never mix.
But gender-based analysis has helped to show that trade may affect men and women somewhat differently, and these differences have important economic effects. Some have pointed out that trade liberalization can cause a race to the bottom in wages and labour rights, as countries compete to host manufacturing industries. With women workers around the world concentrated in the lowest-paid and most precarious jobs, they bear the brunt of such an impact.
The world is thus reawakening to an idea that was widely endorsed by the members of the United Nations in its founding document — the UN Charter of 1945. That idea was that there is a deep connection between human rights (including the equality of women), stable economic and social progress, and global peace and security.
With urgent work to be done to achieve the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, including gender equality by 2030 — many trade ministers realize they can no longer afford to treat trade in isolation from its gender-related human rights impacts.
In December 2017, in Buenos Aires, 118 World Trade Organization members and observers signed on to the Joint Declaration on Trade and Women’s Economic Empowerment.
This initiative reflects the centrality of women’s economic empowerment to many of our members. And it reflects, also, their desire to ensure that we use trade to help realize this goal.
The remarkable thing is gender equality does not just benefit women. The International Monetary Fund points out that closing the gender gap benefits countries as a whole, not just women and girls. Women's economic participation is an important part of the growth and stability equation. For example, in rapidly aging economies, higher labour force participation of women can boost growth by mitigating the impact of a shrinking workforce. In developing economies, better opportunities for women can enhance economic productivity, improve development outcomes for the next generation, and make institutions and policies more representative.
Many countries in the world have realized this is an issue and they are putting in their trade agreements clauses that relate to the empowerment of women.
Individual nations, including Canada, are responding to these issues by insisting on inclusive or progressive trade, using trade negotiations to nudge forward progress on women’s economic empowerment.
And I am especially proud that, for the first time in Canadian history, we’ve included a brand new chapter in this FTA on gender.
But also calls on both countries to promote the economic empowerment of women through training, access to financing, and to leadership posts and their participation, among other actions.
The Canada-Chile Free Trade Agreement includes a gender chapter, and Canada is working to include similar language in the renegotiated North American Free Trade Agreement, as well as a chapter on Indigenous peoples’ rights, which will help prevent intersectional impacts as well.
I am hoping to see that the Joint Declaration on Trade and Women’s Economic Empowerment helps to reconnect trade and human rights to achieve the original goals of the UN Charter of human rights (including the equality of women), stable economic and social progress, and global peace and security.
This will not necessarily mean new international laws or institutions are needed. I am hoping it will mean simply that WTO members will be open to an integrated approach to thinking about social and economic policy, so that the benefits of trade are more broadly and equitably shared within nations and between nations.