The annual World Trade Organization Public Forum on 15-17 September featured among its topics the role of women in reshaping the global economy as well as trade practices. This discussion did not come a moment too soon. It must now be taken and followed up with the seriousness it deserves in order to correct long-standing inequalities and promote both economic growth and human rights.
Women’s work accounts for two thirds of the world’s working hours. However, they earn only 10 per cent of the world’s income. Women produce half of the world’s food, yet they are typically concentrated in small land holdings that they till, but do not own, and that may be their only source of food. Their access to markets may be hampered by social constraints or by fear of sexual violence along unsafe roads.
As gatherers, women—particularly in indigenous communities—have often identified medicinal plants and developed plant-based pharmaceutical remedies. Frequently, these traditional medicines have been appropriated, adapted and patented with little or no compensation to the original knowledge holders and without their prior consent.
Another troubling aspect of women’s work in the global market—particularly migrant women’s labour—is that it tends to be concentrated in informal sectors which expose them to a heightened risk of abuse, including low wages, long hours, and uncertainty of tenure. Many of these workers in one given country compete with other women in similar positions in other countries. Such unbridled competition for global market shares among the poor of this world may engender a race to the bottom in terms of wages and working conditions. In export zones it has been reported that women were required to undergo a maternity test before obtaining employment. Child care benefits and parental leave are unavailable.
To level the playing field, human rights law is of great guidance. Specifically, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) sets the legal ground to promote and protect the rights of women in all spheres, including the economic field. To do so human rights law requires States to take positive measures in order to attain substantive and not merely formal equality between women and men. Further, the Human Rights Committee—the body that monitors implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights—indicated that the principle of equality enjoins States to take affirmative action to stem the root causes of discrimination.
These principles and responsibilities also apply to intergovernmental organizations and agreements. In this perspective, the Doha round can and should incorporate all human rights, including the rights of women and accommodate their special needs, as well as take full advantage of their knowledge and skills.
What the world needs is a balanced trade agreement that puts the needs of the hungry—women, men and children—at its centre. Progress must not merely be measured and assessed in terms of economic growth and volume of exchanges of goods and services, but also in terms of the impact such trade has on those who live at the margins of the global market and have no control over the invisible hands that shape their livelihoods.
Moreover, in order to achieve fairer trade liberalization in agriculture, developed countries must eliminate trade distorting export subsidies, especially given the inability of developing countries to offer similar protection to their farmers. Clearly, a rule-based international trade system must seek to correct these imbalances with specific rights-based and gender-sensitive approaches that empower women. At a minimum, it must ensure that their ability to secure food is not hampered by a bias for export crop production, and that States do not divert resources to satisfy that bias. Indeed, access to food is a human right.
Apparent short-term profits must be balanced against long-term goals that really benefit women and the communities where they are leading agents of social entrepreneurship. It has been found that when an educated girl earns an income, she reinvests 90 per cent of it in her family, compared to boys who devote 35 per cent of their income to their families.
As a result of the global financial and economic crisis, the need for regulation is now widely acknowledged. When it comes to essential elements of welfare, such as food, health care, and education, the international community and States cannot and should not leave the concerns of human welfare solely to market forces. Such welfare ultimately depends on not trading off women’s rights.