Add women and stir? What do we mean by this, and what role does a feminist foreign policy play in challenging this? What does it mean to me as a feminist, but more importantly as an African feminist, as a Black feminist, and as one who is specifically engaged on economic justice issues?
Feminist thought exposes and challenges the intersecting layers of oppression that occur within society and the global system towards gender just outcomes, and indeed the realisation of futures that offer us societies and a global economic order that is very different to the one we have now.
So my own positions and what I will share with you in this keynote is heavily informed by feminists such as Mariama Williams, Stephanie Seguino, Zo Randramario and others who have been evidencing and working on trade for decades.
As an African and a black feminist, I also have a duty to critically appraise and challenge a system that remains embedded with coloniality in various forms, trade being one of them. And here I am bolstered by the knowledge of African feminists including Hakima Abbas, Sylvia Tamale, Lyn Ossome, Wangari Kinoti, LebohangPheko and Crystal Simeoni to name but a few.
Women and trade liberalisation
Global trade is currently dominated by free trade theory, which drives the process of trade liberalisation. What we are talking about of course is not just trade, but more specifically free trade theory.
Trade liberalisation relies on the theory of comparative advantage as justification for why countries should compete with one another without restrictions. As such, trade liberalisation acknowledges that there will be winners and losers as a result, although claims that this will only be in the short to medium term as countries and sectors adjust.
Trade is not gender neutral. It has often been gender ignorant, because it has ignored the fact that policies have differential impacts on men and women. Feminist economists and economic activists have been able to successfully demonstrate these impacts at various levels.
Trade liberalisation has gendered impacts at the macro, micro, and meso levels, all of which impact women’s lives in various ways. At the macro level, women’s participation in certain markets will narrow or grow as sectors either expand or contract through trade liberalization – i.e. jobs / livelihoods will either be created or lost.
At the micro level, trade liberalisation also increases or reduces women’s capacities and control over household incomes and spending, depending on whether it creates or destroys sources of independent income for women. Liberalisation can also impact women’s roles within local structures, evidence has shown how liberalisation processes have resulted with land acquisitions, and the grabbing of common lands and resources.
Meanwhile, the public provision of essential, rights-based services that women in particular use, such as health and education, might also be undermined when the loss of government revenue through tariff reductions lead to cuts in government spending or deregulations that lead to privatisation of those services and resources.
What does the evidence say about gender, trade liberalisation and a genuine feminist trade policy?
The current gender and trade agenda being mainstreamed is flawed. There is an intense emphasis on women as entrepreneurs and traders and as producers within global value chains. This obscures the wider impacts of trade liberalisation and injustices that can and have flowed from it.
While on the surface the focus on women and trade through the lens of inclusion, increased production and high incomes may seem to be adequately addressing the issue of women’s inequality, it often doesn’t address the structural issues of inequality and intersectional oppressions – gendered and otherwise – at play within trade liberalisation.
From a feminist positioning, simple inclusion into a system that does not systemically address the intersectional oppressions women and others face is not a solution at all. Inclusion into such trajectories is problematic because in the first instance it reduces them down to units of production and consumption. This is not only an extractive and instrumentalist approach to understanding women’s economic and wider rights but also undermines the multiple roles that women hold within the economy (this will be unpacked later).
It also ignores the reality that trade liberalisation, by being based on the theory of comparative advantage, also utilizes women’s cheap labour as a source of that comparative advantage by sectors and countries. For lower income countries in particular, faced with the reality of trying to compete in a desperately unequal geopolitical order, this can never be called a fair choice. It also means that there will be a constant tension between policy makers and civil society processes that aim to guard basic working rights. And right now the battle for civic space has become critical.
These inclusions have been proven to ”bake-in” gendered inequalities, even as countries have grown economically, and even as women have entered the formal job market in higher numbers on the back of trade liberalisation. Examples of this can be seen globally, where gendered job segregation, gender pay gaps, and the resultant inequality and abuse of women’s rights (including continued violence against women in the workplace) have persisted even in societies deemed "developed" and
Trade liberalisation has therefore become wilfully reliant on the reproduction of gendered and other oppressions at various levels in order to function at the optimum levels of market competition that underpin it. More broadly, trade liberalisation uses power imbalances at global, national and micro levels, and these all run counter to feminist justice principles and aims, including gender justice, economic justice, and climate justice.
Feminist considerations on trade
Women experience in the economy takes multiple forms, including as: workers, producers, traders, consumers, users of Public Services and taxpayers.
A feminist approach – counter to what has occurred so far – needs to recognise all of this, and to delve deeper.
An example of impact on the role as producer is that in many countries women are still the main producers of food for household consumption and also for domestic, often very localised markets. This includes both local staplecrops (such as legumes and tubers) and smaller household livestock. As such they play a critical role in both food security and food sovereignty (where control over food choices remains with individuals, families, and within communities). However, when trade liberalisation hits, cheap food imports following the removal of tariff barriers have been found to reduce the domestic prices of agricultural produce, and this then lowers women’s agricultural earnings, while also compromising the availability of fresher, local produce. One example of this is the dumping of EU poultry products following the EU Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) left many of the local farmers unable to compete with the tonnes of frozen chicken dumped on African markets annually.
An example of the impact on women as traders is that the higher availability of cheaper imported goods can adversely impact them. This happens because while most trade agreements focus on the removal of tariffs, they do not necessarily touch on the removal of domestic subsidies, an oversight that benefits wealthier countries with greater investment capacities. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) for example did not remove domestic subsidies, which led to cheap US-produced corn (made cheaper by the US Government’s high subsidies to its farmers), which eventually displaced many Mexican corn producers.
An example of the impact of free trade on women as users of public services is that women are the primary users of public services and infrastructure and also comprise the majority of workers in the public sector and the main providers of unpaid care work when public services are cut. While trade liberalisation in services in most trade agreements does not explicitly stipulate privatisation, the process of liberalisation itself makes it implicit and therefore hard to avoid. Many countries have embarked on their privatization processes due to the advice or pressure from institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, or as part of the wider adoption of neoliberal economic frameworks.
This has implications on the accessibility of public services, those it employs, and those that rely on it the most, women and girls especially. Privatised public services are open to the vagaries of the market, the pre-eminence of shareholder needs, and the resulting price hikes and lack of affordability when bottom lines are being protected. Reduced access to privatised public services such as water and healthcare greatly affect women. When privatised services come at a fee, this places an additional burden on women’s incomes. When healthcare is no longer available, women and girls have to care for the sick, often at the cost of pursuing paid employment or education and their mental and physical wellbeing.
How to reconcile this within a feminist trade policy?
This brings us to the issue of how useful gender chapters in trade agreements are, and where these sit from a gender just and feminist trade positioning. On the one hand this will be seen as a win by some simply because it specifically mentions Women’s Economic Empowerment (WEE), but on the other it is problematic in the longer terms as it detracts and effectively ignores from wider women’s economic rights and economic justice issues and consequences that the Economic Partnership Agreement may bring about. The duty to "gender equality” will be seen to be done. This will be counterproductive later down the line.
This is part of a wider issue around the inclusion of gender chapters in trade agreements –paying lip service to the issues without any substance – a classic example of "tinkering around the edges”.
The Buenos Aires Declaration is often used as a default in such chapters. Although there are some aspects of the Buenos Aires Declaration that are useful – such as the commitment to the collection of gender disaggregated data- the Declaration in itself is very limited, concretising the instrumentalization of a gender and trade agenda that avoids challenging the inherent unequal premise of trade liberalisation and the baking-in of inequities and oppressions that often follow. Fundamentally, its focus is on a WEE conceptualised from a perspective only of women's participation and production levels. Strong entrepreneurial focus – the usual gambit that avoids the issue of women as workers, engaged in precarity both formally and informally- pays no attention to known impacts of liberalisation of women in terms of ruptions to livelihoods, a source of low wage comparative advantage, the formalisation of informality by creating jobs that are insecure and casualised, and the longer-term impacts on public services that women are dependent on.
Challenging the geopolitical power structure that trade operates within
Many protectionist policies are today unavailable to governments in the Global South, and these can be further undermined by global trade rules – a genuine commitment to feminist trade policy needs to challenge this. Our most recent example of this has been the battle over the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) in the wake of COVID-19 as much of the global South struggled to access vaccines while global Northern countries bought and horded them.
Constraints over national policies means that the level playing field free trade needs to deliver returns for all parties does not exist – significant power imbalances between global Northern and global Southern countries remain.
Women’s rights need supportive fiscal, wage and employment, agricultural and industrial policies to address them (as underpinned by the gendered affirmative action approach prescribed by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)).
Diminished national policy autonomy faced by Southern governments prevent them making the kind of public fiscal investments needed to meet those prescriptions, such as being able to invest properly in the kinds of public services that women and indeed everyone needs.
Locked-in liberalisation and dismantled restrictions over capital flows also increases economic vulnerability, while trade rules and obligations – such as investor state dispute settlement (ISDS) provisions – further diminish sovereign control over those policies, and indeed serve to punish global Southern countries in ways that further deepen the Northern / Southern power polarity, embedding an inherent coloniality within the system.
Feminist economic thought goes beyond the realm of merely looking at "opportunities” within the system – often framed with simplistic indicators such as women’s access to markets and increased incomes - to address this. Because ultimately a feminist approach to trade – as with all feminist economic thought – looks at impacts and possibilities of trade on the economy in its entirety, and seeks to place the economy back in the service of people and planet, as opposed to people and planet in service to the economy in the quest for perpetual growth.
Where a feminist foreign policy is concerned, for governments in the global North, this comes at a price. A price of abdicating the power and privilege that currently the global trade regime affords them. And so for any global Northern country planning to embark on a feminist trade approach, they must first be willing to embrace that price.