SPEECHES — DG NGOZI OKONJO-IWEALA

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Ladies and gentlemen,

Today is my first International Woman’s Day as the WTO Director-General. Given the particular challenges the pandemic has brought to women globally, I wish to focus my opening remarks today on what the WTO can do to help address these challenges. But I am keenly aware that achieving gender equality is also one of the top priorities for the Secretariat itself, and we will find an occasion soon to have a focused discussion on gender issues for the Secretariat.

The COVID-19 pandemic has deepened inequalities of every kind. Between countries with money to spend on vaccines and economic relief, and those that cannot. Between workers who must risk their health every day, and those who can safely work from home. Between big firms and small businesses.

But perhaps no divide has deepened more than that between men and women.

In both paid and unpaid work, women bore the brunt of the pandemic’s social and economic impact.

Globally, 5% of women lost jobs in 2020.  The employment loss of men was 3.8%. Women have also been much more likely than men to drop out of the labour market and become inactive.

In low-income countries without the means to offer economic support during lockdowns, many women lost their only source of income. As family incomes fell, many girls stayed home when schools reopened, or went to work.

Why has the recession caused by the pandemic had such a disproportionate impact on women?

First, women are overrepresented in sectors that have been more negatively affected than others.

This includes jobs requiring in-person contact, such as food service and retail — sectors that either shut down or became much riskier. Women also account for a large share of workers in services such as tourism — sectors directly affected by travel restrictions.

Women also outnumber men in the manufacturing sectors hardest hit by the pandemic, such as textiles and apparel, where factories shut down early in the pandemic in response to plummeting export demand. In Bangladesh, for example, female employees represent 80 per cent of the workforce in ready-made garment production. Industry orders declined by 45.8 per cent over the first quarter of 2020 — by 81 per cent in April 2020 alone.

Second, more women work in informal sectors than men. Women make up 58% of employment in informal sectors, and the numbers are higher in developing and least-developed economies. In Africa, for example, almost 90% of employed women work in the informal sector.​ These women workers are hurt the most because they are likely to have lost their only source of income and been left with no social and legal protection. 

Third, many women entrepreneurs own or manage small businesses that already struggle with limited financial resources and borrowing capacity. The pandemic worsened these pressures.

And within families, women continue to shoulder a heavier burden than men. Temporary school closures made fathers step up a little, but mothers stepped up much more. Working mothers changed work schedules, reduced hours or took unpaid leave far more frequently than working fathers. In Germany, 6% of fathers but 62% of mothers indicate they have taken on the primary responsibility for their children during school closures.

Finally, women face greater health risks as they work more in areas such as health and social care, sales of food and other necessary goods. In many countries, women comprise over 75% of the healthcare workforce. In certain countries (Italy, Spain, and the US), a higher proportion of women healthcare workers (69%, 75.5%, and 73% respectively) were found infected with COVID-19: although work is still ongoing to understand the reasons for this, one possible reason is that personal protection equipment has been designed to fit for men and even the smallest size is too big for some women.

Even before COVID-19, progress towards gender parity had been too slow, too uneven. Now, unless we act quickly, the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on women could last for decades. This would be a moral failure — and an economic disaster.

The biggest thing the WTO can do right now is to work with Members to keep trade open.

As the economic data shows, trade has proven crucial in the global fight against the pandemic.

While too many export restrictions remain in place, trade helped improve access to key medical products over the past year. In the first half of 2020, while global trade contracted by 14% compared to the year before, total imports of personal protective equipment and other COVID-related products rose by 29%. The value of trade in textile face masks grew six-fold. PPE trade grew by 50%. Trade thus enhanced supply resilience, particularly for those countries without manufacturing capacity.

The pandemic has also highlighted how the temporary movement of healthcare workers, of whom many are women, has particularly helped the most affected countries to deal with the crisis. Open trade will continue to be key to building faster and more inclusive growth.

Second, WTO Members must minimize or remove existing export restrictions that are impeding access to essential medical supplies and disrupting supply chains. Transparency on any export trade restrictions should also be improved through prompt notifications.

In all these efforts, our priority should be to contribute to making vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics available and affordable in all countries. Until we have successfully tackled health challenges for everyone, we cannot tackle economic ones.

Third, trade can be a source of more and better jobs, and increased purchasing power for women. Overall, countries that are more open to trade, as measured by the ratio of trade to gross domestic product, have higher levels of gender equality.

For one, women are more likely to be in formal jobs if they work in trade-integrated sectors with higher levels of exports, thereby giving them opportunities for benefits, training, and job security. A recent World Bank survey shows that, for women, the probability of being informal declines from 20% in sectors with low levels of exports to 13% in sectors with high levels of exports. 

Digital technologies can also help women overcome gender-based barriers to trade, reach broader markets, and weather the impact of crises better. Women facemasks producers in Kenya, for example, found ways to develop and even expand their businesses during lockdowns using growing e-commerce opportunities. Rwandan women coffee producers were able to export their products directly to China. Let’s close the existing gender digital divide and help all women benefit from the opportunities created by digital technologies.

Finally, all these efforts must be supported by targeted support measures for women.

Women could be left behind in the recovery unless adequate measures are put in place to address the uneven impact of the pandemic on them. Let me give you one example of how targeted intervention can make a difference: in Zambia, the Enhanced Integrated Framework (EIF) and the International Trade Centre (ITC) helped women-owned businesses selling textiles, leather, and honey to attend trade fairs and other B2B activities. The result: they were able to break into 10 new international markets, and generate hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of new sales. They also expanded their supplier networks, and many of those new suppliers were also run by women.

Governments need to prioritize women in the labour force and in the home through financial, legal, and educational measures. Fiscal support for women will be particularly crucial. Yet currently less than 40 per cent of all measures taken globally for the recovery are gender sensitive, with only 7 per cent containing measures supporting women's economic security.

This is a crude reminder for all of us that women must be at all decision-making tables equally as men. As Dame Graça Machel once said, “…socio-economic transformation will only be realized once we aggressively address gender-specific challenges, prioritize gender equality and women's participation, and firmly entrench women in leadership positions at all levels in society.”

The cost of gender inequality is enormous. A few years ago McKinsey estimated that if women played a fully equal role to men in the labour market, global economic output could increase by as much as $28 trillion per year. To put it in perspective, this pandemic reduced global output last year by between $3 and 4 trillion.

The COVID-19 pandemic is setting women back in all domains of society.

At the same time, it has reminded everyone of the enormous value of care and other kinds of work traditionally associated with women. And it has highlighted the power and effectiveness of women's leadership. Although no analytical study has been conducted yet, anecdotal examples show that economies led by woman leaders (e.g. New Zealand, Denmark, Chinese Taipei, Iceland, Finland, and Norway) have outperformed their peers in terms of management of this pandemic.

We cannot expect to make good policy for all members of society if half of the population is not properly and equally represented at the table.

Gender equality is a fundamental human rights issue and also an economic empowerment issue. We should all work harder in our respective roles to achieve complete gender equality.

I wish you all a happy International Women's Day!

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