Was it too much to expect the WTO to deliver for women?

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 | News and analysis
Argentina, host for the 2017 World Trade Organisation, welcomed hundreds of government representatives to Buenos Aires to negotiate the rules of the global trade in goods, services and ecommerce.

Lagging far behind other international fora, the WTO made attempts to draw attention to the impact of trade on gender equality, and correspondingly the impact women’s economic productivity can have on trade.

For the first time in WTO history, a small group of leaders tabled a new declaration focusing on ‘Trade and Women’s Economic Empowerment’. This comes after a concerted effort by womens’ rights organisations to hold the WTO, and institutions like it, to account for the damaging impact their policies have on women’s lives. However, many womens’ rights activists view the WTO’s declaration as a cynical attempt to mask its failings and avoid responsibility for the ways in which their rules have actually deepened inequality and exploitation.

The declaration aimed to identify ways to make trade policies more ‘gender-responsive’. As can be expected from a global body blind for too long to the impact their decisions have on women, they focused on ‘sharing experiences’ and ‘best practices’, on the basis that ‘trade is good for gender and gender is good for trade’.  

However, the simple equation that women's economic contribution can improve trade, and vice versa, negates the complex ways in which trade policies impact on women, in part because it takes no account of the deep-rooted and structural discrimination that women face in all aspects of their lives. Discrimination that starts at birth; bars access to education; results in laws, polices and practices that aim to restrict and control women; that deny them their rights, and that manifest in horrifying levels of violence and abuse in the home, the community and the workplace. In every aspect of life women face commodification of their bodies and of their labour, treated as objects and possessions. Put simply, there is and never has been a level-playing field for women. The obsession with corporate free trade by powerful institutions like the WTO has done nothing to change any of this, and their new declaration on trade and gender doesn’t even try.

The extent to which women are exploited is evident across every industrial sector, no more so than in garment factories, where women garment workers are facing an uphill struggle to fight for their basic rights to decent jobs with decent pay, and dignity in the workplace. Across the manufacturing sector, women continue to be treated as nothing more than a cheap form of labour working up to 16 hours a day, seven days a week, while not even earning a living wage. The so-called benefits of a free trade agenda have not only evaded women garment workers, they have entrenched the exploitative practices they are struggling to fight.

Beyond manufacturing, in the global South free trade policies have consistently undermined small scale farmers, many of whom are women, focussed on growing crops not only to sustain their own livelihoods, but also for their families and communities. In many countries women are the backbone of their local economies, including in agricultural labour, yet they do not have control of land, resources and decision-making. Added to this, free trade policies have forced open markets in the global South to large-scale agribusiness, enabling land grabs by global corporations whose practices are threatening the livelihoods of small-scale farmers and driving them into poverty.

Powerful, global corporations involved in the mining and extractive industries, have leached natural resources and wealth from local communities across the global South. Many women that stand on the frontline to protect their homes, their livelihoods and their communities pay a heavy price, facing threats and violence meted out as a means of punishment and to silence them. Free trade policies have empowered corporations to act with impunity and the highly lucrative global extractive industry is a symbol of the extent to which that corporate power and greed has grown. Yet free trade deals are seeking to strengthen corporate power by including investor-state dispute settlement mechanisms that enable companies to sue governments whose decisions, made to safeguard the interests of their people, might harm their future profits.  In the chain of consequences, it is women, the poor and the marginalised that bear the brunt of policies such as these.

Continual attempts to include privatisation of public services and intellectual property in free trade deals also hit women the hardest. When the costs of medicines and health care increase, it is women that forego health care, and fill the gap in providing care for their families and others in their communities.  This is seen most starkly in the cost of and barriers to essential health services for women such as family planning, reproductive and maternal healthcare.

Anybody with experience of working on gender equality, whether at local, regional or global level will attest that it is a long hard slog to make sustained progress, because what is really needed to transform women’s lives is a radical shift in power relations between women and men, together with a complete overhaul of the very systems and structures that are effectively helping to maintain and deepen inequality. Institutions like the WTO, the World Bank and the IMF, will only ever tinker at the margins of a failed neoliberal agenda. To end the extent to which women are disadvantaged in the current global economic system, what is really needed is a radical transformation of that economic system, to move away from viewing the global South as providers of raw materials, minerals and cheap labour in ways that hit women the hardest. The question is, is this far too much to expect of a neoliberal institution like the WTO?