By Ananya Singh
India has chosen to refrain from endorsing a World Trade Organisation declaration supporting gender equality in trade. The 11th WTO Ministerial Conference was held in Buenos Aires, Argentina on Tuesday, 12 December. The declaration amassed support of majority WTO members, with 119 of the total 164 nations voting for the initiative to abolish gender-based barriers in trade.
The declaration seeks to economically empower women by formulating a framework that will allow member nations to adopt trade policies which are “gender-responsive“. Members are expected to work toward increasing women’s participation in the trading sector by making existing policies more inclusive.
The WTO Declaration was initiated by Iceland and Sierra Leone, along with the International Trade Center (ITC). Arancha Gonzalez, Executive Director of ITC announced, “The declaration is about raising awareness about the link between trade and gender and a desire to exchange best practices on how to ensure more women participate in international trade.” A report is scheduled in 2019, allowing for a gap of two years for progress to be effectively charted.
According to WTO, the adoption of the Declaration will result in better-paid jobs for women and boost overall economic activity. Further, these actions tie in with the UN Global Development Goals and Sustainable Development Goal (SDG 5) of empowering women and achieving gender equality.
Why did India refuse to support the declaration?
India’s refusal to be party to the agreement stems from a lack of conviction in gender being a trade-related issue, despite the country’s full-fledged support for gender equality. According to Indian officials, agreeing to the declaration would allow developed countries to use the advantage of more forward gender policies to obstruct exports from underdeveloped nations. This may also serve to prevent less-developed countries from addressing gender-based challenges and encouraging development through incentives for women.
Further, Indian officials stated gender did not relate to trade and hence, WTO should refrain from bringing in non-trade issues. It will allow other unrelated subjects such as labour and environment to slip into international trade discussions. Stating gender should be discussed at appropriate fora and not be dragged under the purview of WTO, India decided to not back the declaration.
Response of women’s rights organisations
The declaration has also received flack from over 160 women’s rights organisations around the world. The groups advocating for gender equality criticised the initiative and called on member nations to not adopt the same. According to activists, the declaration failed to “address the adverse impact of WTO rules on women and instead appears to be designed to mask the failures of the WTO and its role in deepening inequality and exploitation.”
Kate Lappin, Global Coordinator of APWLD termed it a “pink herring” that is attempting to divert attention from the “harm” trade policies often cause to development of gender equality under the guise of gender-based economic empowerment.
Flora Partenio of Argentina, an Executive member of Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era (DAWN) said, “Since its inception in 1995, the WTO has only deepened its agenda of neoliberalism, focusing on treaties that harm local production, regulatory frameworks and peasant agriculture.”
A 2015 report by McKinsey Global Institute revealed that achieving an economic scenario where women’s participation in labour markets is equal and identical to that of men could add nearly $28 trillion to global annual GDP, allowing it to grow by 26% by 2025.
However, many have questioned the declaration’s motives, believing the initiative to be a ruse to draw attention away from the harmful effects of current trade regulations. Liberalising trade impacts men and women in different ways due to the distinct gender-based roles they play in the economy. According to Professor Jane Kelsey from the University of Auckland, “The declaration does not acknowledge or address the negative impacts on women of the WTO, as with access to medicines, job losses from removal of tariffs, the feminisation and vulnerability of the cross-border services workers in call centers and other harmful effects of current trade rules.”
WTO declaration is non-binding. By agreeing to such a declaration, member nations promise to incorporate prescribed actions, though they are under no legal obligation to do so. The declaration plans to identify barriers that keep women from participating in trade, improving financial inclusion with a focus on women traders and encouraging women-led MSMEs (micro, small and medium-sized enterprises) and businesses. While the importance of gender equality cannot be neglected, the impact of this declaration on the link between gender and trade, especially in developing countries must be considered.
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