Gender Just Trade?

Posted on 10. January 2012

by Matilda Flemming


Trade is said to be the European Union’s most powerful external policy domain: the EU has the largest internal market in the world, and this makes it an attractive destination for trade. Furthermore, trade is one of the few sectors where the EU can act as a single actor and where the debate among member states is somewhat limited. This also gives the EU substantial power – in the trade sector, but also through its trade. The EU today makes demands for the adaption of certain normative standards on its trading partners, with regard to, for instance, human rights. The EU is able to include such conditions in trade agreements because of the unequal power relations between the EU and many of its developing country trading partners.

What then is the link between trade and gender equality? Trade can create possibilities to strengthen gender equality. Rai writes: “Capitalism, while exploitative, also leads an attack upon traditional patriarchy in the countries of the Third World, creating new opportunities for women in the public sphere”. An example of this is employment, which has the potential of being a source for women’s empowerment, and thus gender equality.

In the Treaty of Lisbon equality between women and men is established as a common value within the European Union. It also stipulates that the values of the union shall be “uph[e]ld and promote[d]” in its external relations.  From this a straightforward conclusion can be drawn that the EU should work to promote gender equality in its external relations, including trade policy. However, women in EU trade policy are mainly viewed in an economistic way: as human capital that is not used to its full potential. Gender equality or women’s wellbeing is not of interest, as economic interests generally take precedence over gender equality and as the EU is not using its trading power to promote gender equality.

Internally the EU has worked hard to mainstream gender, but externally as a trade organization, it has neglected gender equality. Within EU development cooperation, gender issues are a part of the institutional norm, while this is not the case in EU trade policy. In the European Council’s conclusions from May 2007, it is stated that “Gender equality is a fundamental human right, a question of social justice and also a core value of the EU, including EU development policy”. The Council calls on the Commission and on Member States to “provide special support for women to take advantage of the opportunities afforded by national and international trade and markets, address negative effects of trade liberalisation on women’s working conditions and income opportunities” and also recognizes that the scope of gender equality has to be broadened to include issues such as economic growth and trade.

In the new key trade policy document of the EU “Trade, Growth and World Affairs – Trade Policy as a Core Component of the EU’s 2020 Strategy” outlining the Union’s trade policy does not mention “gender”, “women”, “men”, “female” or “male” at all.  Similarly, the Commission communication “Global Europe – competing in the world” that lays out how the EU is to remain competitive and how the EU is to trade does not refer to “gender”, “women”, “men”, “female” or “male” a single time. Thus, despite the Treaty of Lisbon stressing the need for consistency “between the different areas of its external action and between these and its other policies”, there seems to be an obvious gap in the consistency between the EU’s trade and gender policy.

So what is the Commission doing to study the consequences of trade? Sustainability Impact Assessments (SIAs) are carried out by the European Commission to study the social, economic and environmental consequences of a free trade agreement with the EU as a partner. Gender is not a primary indicator in the SIAs, but a part of the social impact assessment, and thus a “second-tier indicator”. The SIAs are non-binding in the negotiations, and usually do not include policy recommendations. When the SIAs were introduced they were seen as a potential source of change of trade conceptualization within the EU, as the social consequences of trade were to be studied. Today however, there are concerns that the SIAs are only cosmetic and have no real input into the trade policy of the EU. The SIAs bring a real possibility of including gender into EU trade policy. However, SIAs would have to be made binding or at least responded to by the Commission in order for them to play an actual role in the negotiations and policy making.  Gender should be included in the SIA process as a first tier indicator in order to highlight its importance.

How could the trade policy of the EU change in order to strengthen gender equality? It would be essential that the consistency between EU trade and development policy is improved, and thereby that the scope of gender equality in the EU external policy also includes trade. It would be highly important that the role of the SIAs is enhanced in the trade negotiation process so that the SIA result play a role in the trade negotiations and that gender is made a first-tier indicator in the process. Giving the SIAs a larger role would also be a way of equaling the power inequalities between the EU and its developing country trading partners, as the SIAs optimally can give valuable input into the negative consequences of a trading contract. However, the SIAs currently are commissioned by the Commission, thus they should not be viewed as objective. Trade related assistance is one of the EU’s priorities in its development cooperation, and is an excellent opportunity to couple trade and gender policy. Currently the main focus on trade related support is on legal issues, but this should be broadened to also include issues such as strengthening labour standards in the export industry, especially in the female dominated sectors and vocational education programs aimed at low skilled women.

This is an extract of my MA thesis “Gender Just Trade? The Impact of Trade Liberalization on Gender Equality with regards to EU Vietnamese Trade” put forward at the Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam, the Netherlands.


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Kabeer, N. (2005) ‘Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment: A Critical Analysis of the Third Millennium Development Goal 1′, Gender & Development13(1): 13-24.

Kessler, S. (2009) ‘The EU as a Global Actor and its Influence on Gender Equality Globally’, Paper prepared for the 1st European Conference on Politics and Gender, Belfast (January) .

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Rai, S.M. (1996) Women and the State: International Perspectives. Vol. 3. London [etc.]: Taylor & Francis.

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