Talking about Women’s Economic Empowerment on the International Women’s Day and Beyond

The United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) includes Gender Equality as a fundamental goal. Under SDG Goal 5, “gender equality is not only a fundamental human right, but a necessary foundation for a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable world.” While there has been progress in the gender equality in the last decades, the world is not on track to achieve gender equality as envision in the SDG by 2030. In achieving this goal, trade has proven to improve women’s lives through job creation, consumer choice enhancement, and increasing women’s wages and bargaining power in society.

While most trade rules are gender-neutral, women face inadvertent disadvantages and bias when trading, as woman overrepresent in the informal sector, low-skilled jobs, and SMEs. In the area of e-commerce, which holds the potential to accelerate the growth of businesses across several sectors, women also face disadvantages due to limited access to the internet and technologies and low digital literacy. For example, according to the “Women and E-commerce in Africa” report by the International Finance Corporation (IFC), women e-commerce traders faced disproportionately large impact due to COVID-19 compared to men. It was reported that women vendors experienced a 7% drop while men experienced a 7% rise in average gross merchandise value during the pandemic.

In a paper prepared for the UK Government, International Economics looked into the main barriers faced by women whilst exporting, and how unilateral preferences such as the EU GSP has fallen short in promoting women’s economic empowerment. It was found that women are particularly disadvantaged when trading, with non-tariff measures (NTMs) representing the main challenge. Technical barriers to trade (TBTs) and sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) measures can be particularly burdensome for women-owned firms, owing to the wider social inequalities affecting access to education and training, which are required to better understand and navigate trade regulations. Women cross-border traders are particularly affected by the lack of information and transparency around customs procedures.

Despite the EU GSP scheme linking the granting of trade preferences with a gender dimension, particularly through GSP+, which has contributed to the ratification of international treaties linked to gender equality, research shows that the ratified conventions have not always been strictly complied by the GSP beneficiary countries. In some cases, there have been doubts whether such schemes only benefit major export industries rather than civilians and small business,

While the paper was written in the context of UK’s seeking to develop its own GSP schemes post-Brexit, the recommendations still hold as the EU will soon update its own GSP. In order to ensure that these unilateral trade preferential schemes effectively promote women’s economic empowerment in its beneficiary countries, a better design set of rules, including rules of origin and more participative and transparent monitoring procedure, shall significantly reduce the inadvertent barriers face by women traders. Furthermore, to ensure benefit incurred to women, there is a need to provide a more joined-up approach to better tackle women-centric challenges to trade. In order to do so, it will be crucial to merge tariff preferences with access to export training, trade finance and trade support services, targeted to women exporters and/or sectors with high levels of female participation and employment – as much as possible.

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