Unleashing the potential of women for a better future

15 September 2014
ITC News
Women can be important players in global trade. However, discrimination has kept them from reaching their full potential and participating in high-growth trade opportunities, writes UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka.

The adoption of the United Nations Millennium Declaration in 2000 was a turning point in international development. Since then, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have served to mobilize international support for human development in a range of key areas.

Still, recent MDG progress reports have shown that much remains to be done, especially when it comes to trade and the economy. MDG 3, for example, to promote gender equality and empower women, is focused on education and leadership and less on the challenges women face as economic participants. The distribution of the benefits of trade has major implications for national economic growth.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development has found that the true beneficiaries of trade can be determined by the degree of trade openness, the nature and sequencing of trade policies, existing productive capacities and the structure of the economy (Trade and Gender: Issues and Interactions, 2005). MDG 8, meanwhile, identified discrimination as a constraint to inclusive trade but did not address gender inequality.

Governments, UN agencies, civil society, activists, academics and experts are joining forces to shape the post-2015 development framework. There is wide spread agreement that unlocking the economic and political potential of women will be critical to the success of this new agenda.

Addressing the nature of global trade is essential. Recent studies by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) on women and trade in Angola, the Gambia and Lesotho show that, while men are relatively evenly distributed across all sectors of the economy, women face an uphill battle thanks to the burden of unpaid care work and other domestic tasks (Trade policy and Gender Inequalities: A Country-Based Analysis, 2012). Women are overrepresented in low-value-added, low-productivity or subsistence-oriented work. They also suffer from a lack of access to training, credit and vital productive resources.

It is clear that discrimination has kept women clustered in particular sectors. These constraints make women less likely to enter non-traditional sectors, locking them out of high-growth trade opportunities. Gender wage gaps also increase women’s economic vulnerability. Women can be important players in global trade if these barriers are removed and they have access to the means and opportunity to participate.

The agency I head, UN Women, recently conducted a study that suggests that women informal cross-border traders could have a multiplier effect on poverty reduction, employment generation, intra-African trade and regional integration (Unleashing the Potential of Women Informal Cross Border Traders to Transform Intra-African Trade,2011). The study found that women informal cross-border traders in Africa make an important contribution to economic growth and government revenue, contributing 64% of value-added in trade in Benin, 46% in Mali and 41% in Chad.

UN Women is working with African governments to address constraints keeping women from reaching their full potential. We supported the Ministries of Commerce in Benin, Burundi, Cameroon, Kenya, Niger, Nigeria, and South Africa in 2013 to develop and implement national cross-border strategies. This work has supported women informal cross-border traders and aims to protect them from violence and harassment while helping to facilitate their movement. It has led to increased access to foreign currency exchange, water and sanitation facilities. Infrastructure for the storage of goods and refrigeration of agricultural commodities in markets and transport facilities is now more readily available.

At the regional level, UN Women supported women traders to participate in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Civil Society Forum. We also partnered with SADC to ensure the inclusion of informal traders’ interests in economic and trade policies at national and regional level. These efforts and those of the International Trade Centre, the World Bank and others show how results can be achieved. However, to truly create an inclusive global economy, change must be more fundamental.

As the international community moves to adopt a new development framework national and international trade and investment policies must focus on inclusion and equality. We must be clear about why we want to promote and accelerate trade liberalization in Africa and around the world: to grow and share the economic and social benefits of trade. It is to create a world where every woman, man, girl and boy can achieve their potential.