After more than 30 years of neoliberal globalization, the devastating gendered impacts of austerity, privatization, financial and corporate deregulation, and trade and investment liberalization have been increasingly acknowledged, even by some of its biggest proponents. These structural gendered inequalities have been further exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The current system promotes a model of economic competitiveness and growth depending on a “flexible” and deregulated labour market in which the cost of labour can be minimised relative to earnings. Patriarchal structures have positioned women, particularly from vulnerable social groups, as an easier source of exploitable, low cost labour due to their marginal social and economic power. Corporations operating in global value chains—facilitated by liberalized trade and investment regimes—rely on the devaluation of women’s labour as a source of comparative advantage, hiring women at low salaries and with few benefits and protections to bring down the costs of production and increase profit. The prevailing economic model thus relies on the systemic discrimination and exploitation of women and resources, especially in the global South.
Although women constitute over 60% of the African labour force in certain sectors such as cocoa and coffee, they earn only a third of the income in these sectors.
For example, although women constitute over 60% of the African labour force in certain sectors such as cocoa and coffee, they earn only a third of the income in these sectors. David Kucera and Sheba Tejani’s (2014) study of 36 countries shows high female employment in labour intensive, low value added, and low wage export industries, particularly in emerging economies in the global South. The exploitation of women and other vulnerable groups therefore acts as an instrument of growth under neoliberalism, exacerbating the impacts of patriarchy on women’s human rights. This positioning of women in the neoliberal economic model also leaves them particularly vulnerable to the consequences of environmental exploitation; for example, the impacts of acid mine drainage are harsher for women in Africa, who tend to be water carriers.
Trade liberalization and the increasing concentration of land in the hands of large agri-businesses have also displaced women in the agricultural sector across the global South, a large percentage of whom rely on subsistence farming. Trade agreements seeking to harmonize intellectual property rights awarded to corporations have also perpetuated the theft of traditional knowledge from women and indigenous communities, and have undermined access to affordable medicines—particularly pertinent during the ongoing pandemic.
Additionally, an IMF briefing paper found that low income countries in sub-Saharan Africa, on average, only recover 30 cents from every dollar lost as a result of trade liberalization through other domestic sources, a dynamic also replicated in low income countries in other regions. This denies governments revenue that could be used to strengthen public services such as childcare, education, water, and sanitation—all critical to advancing women’s human rights. Further, these revenue losses are often compensated through regressive taxes, such as value added taxes or sales and service taxes, which disproportionately affect the poor and already marginalised groups, including women. As a result, women tend to use larger portions of their income on food and basic goods for the household.
Increasingly, trade and investments agreements contain provisions in the form of Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) mechanism. Known as the Magna Carta of Investors, ISDS gives corporations the power to sue governments in secret tribunals if they pass laws, policies, or regulations that infringe on the corporation's current and future profit. Corporations have used ISDS to avoid paying taxes, challenge public interest laws, undermine affirmative action policies, and prevent the re-municipalisation of public services. The costs of an ISDS case drain public resources and undermine legitimate fiscal, labour, affirmative, and environmental policies necessary to remedy persistent inequalities and discrimination.
ISDS gives corporations the power to sue governments in secret tribunals if they pass laws, policies, or regulations that infringe on the corporation's current and future profit.
Trade liberalisation is clearly incompatible with women’s human rights and gender equality. Feminist and other social movements have, for decades, been at the forefront of challenging neoliberal trade regimes, working to highlight and resist its impacts on women, and especially the poor, rural communities, Indigenous groups, migrants, the working class, and other marginalized groups.
After decades of resistance, many governments and international organisations have begun recognizing the gendered consequences of trade liberalisation. However, their recognition and responses have been at best inadequate, acting as band-aid solutions that fail to remedy the structures that have deepened social inequalities, and at worst a crutch, acting as a mechanism to further entrench these structures. For example, the World Trade Organisation’s “Joint Declaration on Trade and Women’s Economic Empowerment” has been criticised as a fundamentally orthodox approach to trade, advocating liberalisation and the deepening of corporate power through emerging issues such as e-commerce. Similarly, governments like Canada have started to adopt gender chapters in their bilateral trade and investment agreements, but they are largely unenforceable and they isolate considerations of women’s needs and human rights to a single chapter rather than a broader engagement with entire agreements and the economy as a whole.
The Gender and Trade Coalition: A feminist alliance for trade justice
In March 2018, a diverse group of women’s organizations and allies came together to grapple with this context and define the contemporary activist, academic, policy, and movement landscape at the intersection of gender and trade. There was a unified call to articulate a collective, feminist agenda on trade justice. Working together, these groups constructed the new Gender and Trade Coalition as a space for the widespread participation of feminist groups and allies, trade unions, trade-focused NGOs, and other social constituencies. We officially launched in March 2019 on the margins of the sixty-third UN Commission on the Status of Women.
The Gender and Trade Coalition has grown to over 300 members and undertaken critical work analysing and opposing the neoliberal instrumentalisation of women’s rights as a tool to open markets and expand the unjust trade system, through webinars, policy briefs, and public statements. We have also actively shaped conversations around a just trade agenda by convening events that bring together civil society, policy makers, and academics in key global and regional policy arenas, including the World Trade Organisation Public Forum, UN Commission on the Status of Women, UN High Level Political Forum, and International Association for Feminist Economics Annual Conference.
But this work has not come without challenges. Some of the biggest obstacles have included donors de-prioritising trade—particularly in comparison to the height of organising around trade justice in the 1990s—and the challenges faced by women’s rights organisations in tackling seemingly technical issues such as trade and investment law. In addition, the proliferation of bilateral, plurilateral, and multilateral trade and investment agreements being negotiated secretly was a challenge not only to women’s rights organizations, but to all social movements and civil society organisations. Coordinating multiple organisations and networks across every region of the world and holding them together as a coalition has been a monumental but worthwhile task.
The co-optation of women’s rights to expand neoliberal trade regimes is a key challenge facing organisations and movements advancing women’s human rights today. It also provides an opportunity, not only for the feminist movement but also for broader movements, to overturn the current system and rewrite one that is feminist and based on principles of human rights, accountability, international cooperation and solidarity.
This piece is part of a blog series focusing on the gender dimensions of business and human rights. The blog series is in partnership with the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, the Danish Institute for Human Rights and OpenGlobalRights. The views expressed in the series are those of the authors. For more on the latest news and resources on gender, business, and human rights, visit this portal.