The WTO's most recent milestone on trade and gender equality was reached at the 12th Ministerial Conference (MC12) in June 2022, when trade ministers recognized in the Outcome Document the importance of women's economic empowerment and the contribution of micro, small and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs) to inclusive and sustainable growth, recalled Ambassador Ana Patricia Benedetti Zelaya of El Salvador, co-chair of the Informal Working Group on Trade and Gender. She noted that the ultimate goal of the Informal Working Group is to make gender equality part of the WTO's DNA and encouraged the international community and other stakeholders to “create awareness back home with national authorities on the importance of trade and gender and the need to establish gender-responsive policies”.

The WTO and gender equality: background

WTO Trade and Gender Officer Lolita Laperle-Forget said the issue of gender equality in trade started to gain traction after the 2017 Buenos Aires Declaration on Trade and Women's Economic Empowerment adopted by WTO members in the margins of the 11th Ministerial Conference. However women's economic empowerment was already making its way into the WTO's work even before then. While it does not explicitly address gender issues, the preamble of the Marrakesh Agreement, which established the WTO, refers to the objective of raising standards of living, and  that this objective “cannot be achieved if women remain disadvantaged in accessing and benefiting from trade opportunities,” explained Ms Laperle-Forget. “The preamble makes the case that the WTO includes other considerations than those strictly related to trade rules,” she added.

Gender issues were formally considered in the WTO's work for the first time in 2004, when they were included in the Technical Assistance Plan adopted by WTO members, said Ms Laperle-Forget. In 2006, the final report of the Aid for Trade Task Force submitted to the General Council provided a clear mandate to include gender equality in Aid for Trade activities. The Buenos Aires Declaration of 2017 then paved the way for the institutionalisation of gender issues within the WTO, leading to the creation of the Informal Working Group on Trade and Gender in 2020.

Gender issues discussed in several WTO bodies

Gender equality in trade made its way into the daily life of the global trade body beyond the work of the Informal Working Group, as emphasized by Anoush der Boghossian, who leads the Trade and Gender Unit in the WTO Secretariat. Women's economic empowerment is today a priority for 92% of Aid for Trade beneficiaries and 90% of donors, according to the 2022 Aid for Trade Monitoring and Evaluation Exercise. Between 2018 and 2021, 55% of WTO members that were going through their Trade Policy Reviews included information on gender-responsive trade policies in their reports. Gender has also been discussed during question-and-answer sessions, as part of the Trade Policy Review mechanism, as well as in the Committee on Regional Trade Agreements (CRTAs), said Anoush der Boghossian. 

In recent years, WTO members looked at trade and gender in thematic ways, holding for instance discussions on gender and standards back-to-back with the Committee on Technical Barriers to Trade, and examining the linkages between trade and the environment. In 2021, seven members issued a communication on the links between trade, gender and intellectual property. “Interestingly, we have synergies between organizations, as this communication was in sync with the gender-related events organized by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO),” said Ms der Boghossian, adding that collaborations also take place internally, between different WTO bodies like the Informal Working Group on MSMEs and the Informal Working Group on Trade and Gender.

In December 2021, a provision on non-discrimination between men and women was the first of its kind to be included in a negotiated text at the WTO. The provision was adopted by 67 WTO members as part of the Declaration on Services Domestic Regulation and seeks to boost women's participation in services trade. According to Jane Korinek, Economist and Trade Policy Analyst at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, this historic provision aims “to close gender gaps in services trade,” and may impact national legislations covering licensing and qualifications requirements.

Making trade work better for women

To support WTO members' work on trade and gender, the Secretariat has developed a trade policy questionnaire that can be used to further include gender issues into the reports members submit for their Trade Policy Reviews, among other uses.

Moreover, the Secretariat is building members' capacity on trade and gender issues through the WTO Trade and Gender 360° Strategy the capacity building programme of the organization. Three training pillars are part of this initiative. The first one targets government officials to help them better integrate gender issues into their national trade policies and have an enhanced understanding of gender provisions in RTAs. The two other targets focus on building the capacity of women entrepreneurs and parliamentarians, and tackle development.

The Secretariat also provides online tools, such as the database on gender provisions in RTAs, which maps all existing provisions on gender equality included in 109 agreements. A one-stop source for policymakers and other trade stakeholders, this policy tool is intended to promote the formulation and implementation of provisions that address women's specific needs, pointed out Ms Laperle-Forget, who designed the database. In addition, the Secretariat published a research database on trade and gender compiling close to 150 studies by trade and gender experts from the WTO, other international and regional organizations, institutions in the WTO Chairs Programme, academia, and other researchers.

Other international organizations have also developed specific tools to promote gender-responsive trade policymaking. Launched in 2017, UNCTAD's Trade and Gender Toolbox provides a systematic framework to evaluate the impact of trade reforms on women and gender inequalities prior to their implementation. “The idea is to move from a traditional approach where countries look at the overall impact of a trade agreement on a country as a whole, to an approach where the analysis is on different segments of the population, since we know that there will be losers and winners,” commented Simonetta Zarrilli, Chief of the Trade, Gender and Development Programme at the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) .

The audio recording of the third Think Up! session is available here.

More information on the WTO Gender Research Hub can be found here.




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