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Holding on to the assumptions and apprehensions tightly may deny us, many a times, the opportunity to assess the concerns and constructive possibilities that lie ahead. This specially holds relevance in many domains of economic policy making in a development paradigm which require us to construct multidimensional, holistic approaches that not only go beyond the obvious but takes into account what is not apparent and hence ‘not-so-obvious’.

One such domain is that of trade policy making, which has, arguably, going by the conventional wisdom been assumed to be gender neutral in its impact, like other macroeconomic policies to increase growth and reduce inequality, thus treating the people as a homogeneous group. However, it is vital to understand that the gains from trade are not only differentially distributed among different countries and industries, but also for both the gender groups since in a socio-economic construct, both the gender groups are positioned differently, concentrated in different sectors, face differential access to opportunities. Women increasingly face wide ranging gender specific hurdles when it comes to participating in and earning the benefits from trade given the absence of ownership over assets. The relationship between trade and gender is found to be increasingly complex to be dealt with given the lack of gender-segregated data to study the various aspects of the relationship. Nevertheless, the emergence of ‘gender’ dimension to discourse is accompanied by formidable academic and policy evidence to which governments and trade agreement parties cannot turn a blind eye to.

For seeking solutions to this complexity, It is imperative to recognize the barriers to mobility, advancement and participation of women in trade which lead to skewed distribution of gains in favour of men. As has been convincingly put forth in the current discourse on inequality being driven by trade and globalization, the greatest beneficiary of the trade openness has been capital since competition has sought to shift towards forms of production that are more capital intensive, skill based and requiring higher mobility thus restricting the opportunities for women given their limited access to cutting edge education, limited mobility, limited trade financing opportunities and existence of societal stereotypes. Also, in developing countries, there is a higher concentration of women in agricultural sector and in Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises which are highly vulnerable to economic shocks and competition. Also, what comes under threat are the traditional knowledge systems which have had high concentration of women. The share of rural female employment in agriculture in India is more than 70%., a factor coupled with restricted mobility of women to other sectors has been a limiting factor for them to garner gains from the highly capital intensive trade, despite the fact there has been a shift in economic activity towards services, but the occupational mobility has been very slow specially for women.

In a report released by UNCTAD this month, ‘East African Community Regional Integration: Trade and Gender Implications’ lays out a strong case and recommendations to improvise the trade policies to the benefit of women in East African Bloc, with the underlying thought stated by Mukhisa Kituyi, Secretary General- UNCTAD that gender equality is not a natural outcome of development process and it needs to be consciously embedded in the policy making.

Buenos Aires, in December 2017, witnessed a collective initiative by 119 members out of 164 WTO members to bring up a declaration to increase the participation of women in trade. India, however was not in majority but was on the other side stating that WTO being a trade related body is not the most appropriate platform for gender related issues and the same can set a precedent to bring in the non trade related negotiations of WTO. Denying WTO as an appropriate platform highlights the dichotomous approach to dealing with trade related issues and the concerns of the stakeholders.

Increasing participation of women in trade related economic sectors can be a tool of empowerment as well as an opportunity to enhance into tap into efficiencies and potential of global supply chain. Cognizance needs to be taken of the fact that concerns like gender inequity are addressed as well by seamlessly embedding them into public and economic policies as much as by direct socio-economic intervention. What merits closer examination is that where women are positioned in the economy, identify the sectors that can be impacted and are critical to welfare of women in particular, thus paving the way for shared global prosperity and inclusivity.

Mridul Mehndiratta is a Doctoral Student in Department of Economics, Panjab University, working in the area of monetary economics. Her other research interests include Development Economics and International Trade. Email: mehndirattamridul@gmail.com

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