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Trade Liberalization Does Not Always Lead to Gender Equality

Proponents of trade liberalization and economic globalization have often claimed such policies lead to increased equality for women. Evidence in Sub-Saharan Africa, however, has been mixed so far. Millennium Project South Africa Node writes the following:
"While in a large number of cases, trade in general has improved women's empowerment and livelihood, in some other cases, the benefits accrued by women from trade liberalization have been marginal, relatively lower than those accrued by men. Worse, in some other cases, trade liberalization has also exacerbated gender inequalities and women's economic and social status...
Gender relations are not outside the economy in some realm of ‘preferences,’ ‘aptitudes’ and ‘traditions,’ but rather permeate all economic activities. The characteristic that identifies the engagement of women above all others in economic activities in Africa is the informal economy; for example, around 70% of the informal traders in sub-Saharan Africa are women.
Social perpetuation of gender gaps is not, it appears, the most compelling obstacle to women being involved in trade. In fact, national, institutional and legal hurdles have a more adverse effect on women attempting to develop their earning capacity. The percentage of women who would be affected by trade facilitation aimed at the formal economy would be much smaller than changes brought about bearing in mind the existence of and impact upon the informal economy.
There is a crucial role to be played by trade agreements to fill in all these gaps. It is possible that trade agreements may not be mindful of, or may be indifferent to, national and local policies while incorporating gender-sensitivity. Here, international instruments on gender not directly related to trade can play an important role in creating a rights-based framework where women seek economic rights by way of entitlement. They can also ensure that national governments have the appropriate protective enabling instruments in place to avoid any deterrence or distortions to trade policies."

Implications from MPSAN:
"Regional trading arrangements are likely to offer opportunities that are best suited to women because they do not necessarily need large export markets and may find neighbouring markets more familiar and easier to deal with."

Implications from IFTF:
The statistic that 70% of the informal traders in sub-Saharan Africa are women is staggering. The “informal” status of this workforce leaves them vulnerable to government crackdowns which could put them out of business or tax their earnings, but, since their trade is so localized, they may be better able to withstand macroeconomic downturns. In the event that the formal economy collapses, women could find themselves in a unique position of power.

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Sources:

Millennium Project South Africa Node March 2010, pages 8
http://newsletters.clearsignals.org/SA-Node_Mar2010#page=9