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What is the role of women in world trade?

Compared to 50 years ago, women represent an increasingly higher number of the world’s labour force, with many studies placing the number at over 50 percent. However, this doesn’t include women who work in the informal sector or the unpaid activities of women at the household level. On a broader level, women’s access to health care and education, for example, are profoundly influenced by national economic policy – meaning that if international economic best practice doesn’t take into account gender issues, then women are disadvantaged.

How does trade have an impact on women’s rights?

Trade liberalisation, which refers to the untaxed flow of goods and services between countries, has had positive and negative influences. Increasingly, the negative impacts of trade liberalisation, has made trade a central feature of advocacy work by gender activists. Women have gained jobs in the manufacturing sectors, but these jobs may not lead to positive social outcomes as women often work longer hours and are paid low wages. The opening of markets and the influx of cheaper goods have in some cases destroyed livelihoods, and it is women who have borne the brunt of these changes.

Have women’s rights been considered in international trade bodies?

The World Trade Organisation, an international rules-based and member driven organization which oversees a large number of agreements defining the "rules of trade" between its member states, has long been criticized for not including the voices of women, preferring to view trade as gender neutral. Moreover, its main decision making bodies are male-dominated. To this extent, nothing has been done to take into account or lessen the negative impact of trade liberalization on women’s rights. Despite increasingly loud voices, the WTO refuses to reform itself, has unclear rules about its decision making and operates in manner that is non-transparent.

What is the core of the problem? – Trade or the global economic system in which we conduct trade.

There is nothing wrong with trade per se; in fact the cornerstone of human society is based on trade. To human beings, trade is a tool for survival. However, a problem arises when one group of people uses trade to exploit and oppress another group of people. From a feminist standpoint, this normally happens in a patriarchal society. A patriarchal society is a society based on the belief that women are inferior to men. The global economic system is shaped and influenced by patriarchal logic. Indirectly and directly, the global economic system cultivates and encourages misogynists attitudes in traders, which nine out of ten times tend to be men.

What is the Alternative? Or, as patriarchal society puts the question: What do women want?

Women want to be treated with dignity and respect. Lots of feminists have said this before, but women want an end to sex discrimination by job definition and sex-role stereotyping in the media. Like any “normally” functioning group of people on the planet, women want equity and self-management . Women want a good economy that accomplishes central economic functions without exploitation of women, people of colour and the environment; but most importantly, women want an economy that meet people’s needs and develop their potential, to paraphrase Michael Albert.

What’s the solution to these problems?

Most governments are already signatories to a host of international agreements committing them to gender equality. These include the UN’s Beijing Platform for Action, which requires that governments correct imbalances that any policy, including economic policy, might create.

Economic policies are often fostered on countries by International Financial Institutions and donors. Officially, consultation in the implementation of these policies does take place, but in reality economic policy should be formulated through a democratic process that takes into account the voices of local people and considers the existing power relations within society.

Fact and Figures: Women’s rights and trade

- "Thirteen countries - of which Burundi, Liberia, Nigeria, Somalia and Tanzania are a few - are in the same shape or worse off today than they were in 1990. For almost 40 countries the data is insufficient to say anything, which probably reflects an even worse situation for women." - Social Watch, an NGO watchdog system (Source:

- ."...there is growing evidence that trade liberalization tends to disadvantage women, who constitute the majority of small-scale farmers in rural areas. According to the FAO, women make up about 44% of the formally documented agricultural work force in developing countries..." (Source:

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