What role for women in international trade?

28 September 2016
ITC News
WTO Public Forum discussion puts focus on gender, trade and how to achieve the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

How can women be empowered in international trade? That was the big issue tackled at a session during the World Trade Organization’s Public Forum on 27 September. With reducing gender and economic inequalities prerequisites for achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, panelists at the gathering touched upon a range of issues related to women’s role in trade, and in particular on Sustainable Development Goal 5, empowering all women and girls.

Setting the stage, Susan Barton, trade and gender lead at the UK Department for International Development, pointed to a report launched last week by the UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment, which suggested drivers to unleash greater participation of women in the economy.

‘If we are to achieve the Global Goals, we have to achieve women’s economic empowerment,’ Ms. Barton said. ‘Where women are more economically empowered there is more growth, but women’s economic empowerment does not follow economic growth. There is much work to be done.’

Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) generate approximately 50% of global GDP and 70% of employment. The benefits of trade to SMEs and women-owned businesses are significant – and so are the benefits to the broader economy from greater engagement in international trade by SMEs and women. According to research by McKinsey, the consultancy, advancing women's equality could add $28 trillion to global GDP by 2025 – equivalent to adding a new United States and China. Currently, however, ITC survey dada suggests that women are only in charge of one in five exporting companies.

The audience got a chance to hear how women entrepreneurs are empowering themselves and their communities, but also to learn about the challenges they face.
Rose Maghas, Managing Director at GreenBell Communications, a Kenyan women-led enterprise that won a competition to develop a digital platform for ITC’s SheTrades initiative, pointed out that whereas the challenges remain the same for her as they were for her mother, today’s ‘interventions’ are more favour of women.

‘If no one had stood up for women in trade, I would not have been here today,’ she told the audience. ‘We were able to develop the SheTrades app because we had received an education, but also because the procurement process was women-friendly.’

Ms. Maghas pointed out, too, that it was training that allowed Greenbell to expand beyond Kenya’s borders. ‘Going through training in brand communications helped a lot, as it ensured that people actually understand what you are communicating and what you are trying to sell.’

Basic challenges

Meanwhile Sharlene Gawi, Head of the Papua New Guinea Bilum Association, said that for the traditional weavers she represents the challenges run deep. ‘Whereas half the women know how to count, the other half don’t. And many simply cannot open a bank account because they don’t know when they were born, they don’t have a birth certificate,’ she said.

Ms. Gawi said whereas her organization trains women to improve the quality and design of the bilum bags and other hand-woven articles they make, producing one item can take a long time because women still have to other daily chores.

In response, she said, ‘we train women to become market ready’. ‘With the support of Australia and ITC, we have identified what bilum products we can export and we are now building capacity and aim to have the scale of production needed to export.’

Hamish McCormick, Australia’s Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the World Trade Organization (WTO), said he was honoured to hear practical examples of how women are being economically empowered.

‘It demonstrates how cross-cutting the challenges we face are, and why the solutions we come up with must be cross-cutting too,’ he said. ‘In Australia, we are learning on a daily basis how to improve our approaches to make them better and more effective, and a majority of Australian aid is now focused on gender.’

Societal issues

ITC Executive Director Arancha González said: ‘There is an army of women that are simply waiting to be part of the economy. Gender issues are not exclusively women’s issues, they are societal issues.’

She pointed out that while it will take time to achieve full economic empowerment for women, there are measures that could be taken immediately. ‘We can change laws and norms,’ she said. ‘More than 90% of countries have laws that prevent women from participating in global trade. Seventy countries prevent women from participating in the economy on equal terms with men.’

Ms. González also pointed to technology as a game-changer, since it allows women to sell their services and goods without showing their face. ‘We launched SheTrades to make sure that women are visible and can connect to buyers. We got tired of the question from buyers: where can we find all these women?’ she said.

That view was backed by Adriana Rodrigues, Business Manager, Apex-Brasil, who said that another huge challenge for women entrepreneurs was access to finance. She said: ‘In Brazil: women entrepreneurs lack knowledge and confidence on how to run a business; they lack access to information on exports, there is no specific access for women to finance. Overcoming that hurdle would make a huge difference to thousands of women entrepreneurs across Brazil.’

The event was moderated by Xin Liu, Europe Correspondent for CCTV, and was supported by the Governments of Australia and the United Kingdom.

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