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Using trade to advance women’s rights

Human Rights . . . Here & There
|Written By Sonya Nigam
Using trade to advance women’s rights

Much of the discussion around International Women’s Day in Canada focused on how well woman are doing in the global north. In contrast, many of our southern sisters are still facing a daunting array of different forms of gender discrimination that leave them vulnerable and impoverished. Life can be very hard.

We know that women’s economic participation is key to lifting women out of poverty. Research conducted by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) states: “There is conclusive evidence that economic development and social equality tend to go together. . . . Societies where income inequality and gender discrimination are lower tend to grow faster. There seems to be a strong correlation between gender equality (measured by economic participation, education, health, and political empowerment), competitiveness and GDP per capita.” A proactive role in mainstreaming gender equality into international trade agreements through gender-impact assessments may be one way that Canadians can help improve the lives of women in the global south.

The purpose of trade agreements is to increase trade through the elimination of trade barriers, such as tariffs, quotas, and taxes. Canada has entered into, and continues to work on creating, trade agreements with other countries to further our national interest, that is, to keep our economy strong by attempting to strengthen conditions that increase trade and keep jobs at home.

When entering into trade agreements, Canadian negotiators at the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade are not seeking to promote the well-being of our trading partners. Trade is not meant to be aid. When, however, issues of helping the poor in the south are raised, our governments routinely roll out the language of aid and trade with the requisite emotion to convey their interest and commitment to alleviate suffering. It is important to understand that we are being provided with two separate messages by people who want to remain in government. This dual track aria, unfortunately, hampers our ability as Canadians to understand what effect our trade policies have overseas — how they have helped or hindered women’s rights, and what measures could be taken to remediate negative impacts.

To add to the complexity of the picture, we have an international development agency (CIDA), whose mission is to “[l]ead Canada’s international effort to help people living in poverty.” It manages the bulk of Canada’s official development assistance. In addition, Canada has ratified a number of international human rights conventions, whereby it has agreed to uphold and advance human rights, including gender equality and socio-economic rights, at home and abroad. Further, Citizenship and Immigration Canada manages the flow of foreign workers who provide services. It is important to note that all four areas — trade, development, human rights, and immigration — exist quite separately. Their histories, language, operational frameworks, and community of experts are each unique.

Trade, like any other activity, has consequences. It is not neutral. Some people benefit and some lose out. Since men and women play different social and economic roles, changes to local economies affect them differently. Women in developing countries often have greater difficulty adjusting to changes. They have reduced access to money, land, and education due to a variety of socio-cultural, economic, and political factors. They have less access to and control over resources in order to mitigate the changes, or take advantage of the opportunities created by new trade agreements.

While trade liberalization, brought into effect by trade agreements, has created a number of jobs for women in developing countries, they are mostly low-skilled, low-waged, and labour-intensive. Working conditions are often substandard. Despite the availability of paid employment, poverty levels remain high, particularly in women-headed households, often because trade agreements allow for an exemption from national labour standards.

In addition, there is no guarantee that the positive impact of these jobs will continue. As export-oriented industries seek work of higher value, these low-skilled jobs risk becoming further marginalized and even eliminated if the jobs are relocated to countries where wages are even lower.

Another area is the agricultural sector, where trade liberalization has resulted in an increase in the export of cash crops and an increase in the import of food crops. The importing of food into developing countries usually depresses the prices of food and the income of local food producers, who are often women. This situation has led many women, small-scale farmers, to abandon or sell their farms. The land is then used by commercial producers to produce more crops for export. There is some concern that if this trend continues, Africa may not be able to feed its own people.

In addition to the trade in goods, there is the trade in services. The creation of special immigration programs has encouraged women from developing countries to play an important role in the caregiving and health services sectors in Canada. While these programs have facilitated entry into Canada, the federal government has been slow to implement safeguards to protect these workers from abusive employers in Canada or unscrupulous employment agencies overseas.

Government policies put into force on Canadian soil are subject to protections that we have created through national and provincial legislation, as well as the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. We do not, however, hold ourselves to the same standards when we operate outside our borders even though we have ratified a number of human rights conventions that oblige us to respect international human rights. Are we really comfortable with this? Would we not prefer to incorporate a system of gender-impact assessments, similar to our environmental-impact assessments, into our trade policies so we can ensure we do not harm women in the south? Perhaps these are questions we can raise with those who will be seeking our votes in the next election.


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