28 November 2022
Whither “Invigorated” WTO Work on Trade and Gender?
story highlights

The WTO Informal Working Group on trade and gender is continuing its work.

The focus appears to be increasingly on how women entrepreneurs can trade internationally, diverting attention from other ways that trade can affect women.

While some members are interested in using the group to develop rules, it is not clear whether and how the Informal Working Group might embark on this.

By Caroline Dommen, Senior Associate, Economic Law and Policy Program, IISD

The World Trade Organization’s (WTO) Informal Working Group (IWG) on trade and gender resumed work after the Organization’s summer break. This work was to have built on the planned Ministerial Declaration on gender equality and women’s economic empowerment that over 125 members had agreed to but ultimately did not adopt.

“Invigorated” WTO trade and gender work

As IISD reported in June, the Ministerial Declaration that IWG participants had been working on for much of 2021 and early 2022 was withdrawn at the eleventh hour in June, just before MC12. However, the MC12 Ministerial Outcome Document recognizes women’s economic empowerment and acknowledges the WTO’s work on the issue.

The fact that the full WTO membership agreed to include this wording is significant. According to academics Erin Hannah and Silke Trommer, the Outcome Document demonstrates members’ view that “the position of women in the global trading system falls within the purview of the WTO” and constitutes “a comeback” for gender issues in the Organization. “The Outcome Document reference has boosted motivation for the trade and gender work,” WTO Secretariat sources told IISD, adding that Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala “supports this work 100%.”

In contrast to the unadopted Declaration, however, the Outcome Document does no more than note the importance of women’s economic empowerment and recognize the WTO’s work on the topic. The unadopted Declaration referred to SDG 5 and other instruments supporting gender equality, acknowledged that factors such as unpaid care and domestic work are barriers for women, and set out a detailed work plan. Hannah and Trommer also note in their analysis that the Outcome Document’s “wording appears weak and includes no reference to gender equality.”

Whatever the arguments about the relative weight of the two documents, the fact is that the IWG’s work is continuing apace, with regular meetings being held every two months, complemented by a number of technical workshops.

The chairs of the IWG are Botswana, Iceland, and El Salvador, as has been the case since the IWG’s inception. Similarly, participation in the IWG remains open to all WTO members. According to the delegates that are most engaged, this group has a sharpened focus and an increasingly active set of participants.

A core group of several members – mainly from Latin America and Europe – is most active, convening meetings and workshops, or funding work on trade and gender under the four pillars of the IWG’s work programme.

Some members continue to not participate in the IWG. In practice, only a few dozen members regularly participate in the IWG meetings and technical workshops. The reasons for this are unchanged: for some this is not a priority topic, with several asking how relevant gender equality is to the WTO’s mandate. Other members, such as India and South Africa, would like priority to be given to the work on agriculture and other topics that are still pending on the WTO Doha Development Agenda, or object to the work on systemic grounds as they oppose any plurilateral processes within the WTO.

The four pillars of the IWG’s work

The IWG is continuing to organize its work around the same four pillars as before MC12, namely:

  1. gender-responsive trade policy and information sharing;
  2. developing a “gender lens” to apply to the WTO’s work;
  3. reviewing gender-related research and analytical work and improving data collection in trade; and
  4. contributing to the Aid for Trade work programme as a means of increasing women’s participation in trade.

Different countries are taking the lead on work on specific pillars. Canada, for instance, is leading on gender-related data collection, Australia – on Aid for Trade and the EU is working on a gender lens framework with the International Trade Centre (ITC).

Findings of these work streams are presented in technical workshops. While the workshops are usually held at the WTO headquarters, most are not IWG meetings. This is due to the need to side-step the Russian Federation’s presence and to be able to move forwards with a smaller group of willing members. According to the WTO website “plenary meetings will then be held for members to consider reports on the thematic discussions. These will be an opportunity to ensure the process’s transparency, and to hear from gender experts from the WTO and other international organisations.”

Recent workshops include one on ‘The Business Case of Trade and Gender’ that the IWG Co-Chairs convened on 5 October and a Canada-convened session on data collection in early November.

In November and December this year, the ITC is co-convening, with Latin American delegations, a series of hybrid workshops on its four pilot studies for a gender lens to apply to trade. The topics of the pilot studies are e-commerce, trade facilitation, government procurement, and investment facilitation. These workshops are taking place outside the IWG, and little public information is available about them so far. Participants in the process indicate that the gender lens workshops’ closed nature is to enable WTO members to engage freely with the technical aspects, without fear of criticism from observers, but it seems the small-group format is also designed to enable discussions to proceed as some members object to Russia’s presence in the discussions.

Negotiating or not negotiating

Several participants describe the IWG as having a very different feel now than in 2021, as negotiations are not on the agenda. Prior to MC12, IWG participants had been working to agree on the content of the planned Declaration on gender equality and women’s economic empowerment. “Now the IWG is in listening and information-exchange mode,” according to one Northern delegate, who went on to add “we don’t expect a deliverable on trade and gender from MC13, although a lot may happen between now and then.”

Nevertheless, an OECD country representative says some would like the IWG to be a place where they can start to design rules, even if that doesn’t happen soon, whilst conceding that the “work is nascent; we still don’t know what the rules should be.” Another delegate echoes this, telling IISD that “first we need to figure out what the rules will be. We need to figure out what has worked elsewhere and what has not worked, so as to identify what kind of language we should be aiming for.”

Can gender equality become part of the WTO’s DNA?

Several delegates refer to the exploratory and signaling value of the IWG’s work. “It is a place where we can identify together what trade lever you want to pull to get the desired gender equality outcome,” said one delegate. Another notes that it sends a signal to the WTO membership that gender equality must be considered. El Salvador’s Ambassador Ana Patricia Benedetti Zelaya, one of the co-conveners of the IWG, describes the ultimate goal of the IWG as to make “gender equality part of the WTO’s DNA.”

Several observers of the process, though, argue that the work would need to happen at a much deeper level and across a broader range of WTO bodies if it is to effectively advance gender equality. A glimpse at the WTO website shows that so far gender issues are mainly limited to the business side of the WTO’s DNA, with a focus on supporting women entrepreneurs who wish to trade internationally.

“This makes the WTO appear disconnected from most women’s reality,” says Marzia Fontana, an economist who has pioneered work on trade and gender for over twenty years. “The Buenos Aires Declaration should have been called the Declaration on Trade and Women Entrepreneurs’ Economic Empowerment. The share of working women who are own-account workers or MSMEs (outside agriculture) is small in most countries, and even smaller is the share of these women-led MSMEs who is able to produce for international markets,” she explains. 

Adrienne Roberts of the University of Manchester, notes the limited scope within trade policy fora to consider that trade may have negative impacts on women or other groups, and that a gender lens needs to acknowledge such possible negative consequences.

Work on trade and gender elsewhere in the WTO

Apart from isolated references, the question of gender has not filtered much into other WTO bodies’ work, with the exception of Aid for Trade, where considerable attention is paid to the needs of women traders, and the Trade Policy Review (TPR) Mechanism. Some countries, such as the Philippines, consider gender issues to not be directly related to trade. The gender-related questions that countries have addressed in TPRs have also tended to focus on women-owned companies.   

Within WTO circles, much has been made of a provision allowing positive discrimination in favor of women in the rules on Services Domestic Regulation (SDR) that 67 WTO members adopted in December 2021. This provision recognizes that “Differential treatment … and adoption by Members of temporary special measures aimed at accelerating de facto equality between men and women, shall not be considered discrimination” inconsistent with the non-discrimination obligations that the Domestic Regulation rules set out. Commentators from outside the trade law community, however, emphasize that the provision does not create a new positive obligation to advance women’s participation. All WTO members bar one, and all 67 signatories of the SDR are already obliged to take temporary special measures to promote gender equality under CEDAW, the women’s rights Convention. “CEDAW parties already had that obligation under Article 4 of the Convention!” observes Gladys Acosta Vargas, Chair of the UN Committee that oversees implementation of CEDAW.

Meanwhile, participants and observers alike point out that the bulk of the work to ensure consistency between trade policy and gender equality objectives needs to happen in WTO members’ capitals. This is because impacts on women will differ depending on the sector and the country. Also, in the words of a Latin American delegate “it’s not trade ministries’ role to consider how women are impacted by different economic policies. Gender equality hinges to a large extent on how countries organize care, and this is not a matter for trade officials. We need to think what the WTO value-added can be.” Ambassador Benedetti Zelaya of El Salvador encourages creating “awareness back home with national authorities on the importance of trade and gender and the need to establish gender-responsive policies.”

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