Day 8: On the Virtues of Discrimination

All things being equal, countries benefit from more open trade. But all things are not equal. For women, the context is almost always one of inequality. To protect and advance women’s rights, it’s time for trade negotiators to start discriminating.

By Sophia Murphy, senior advisor to the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy

Non-discrimination has been one of the core principles of the multilateral trading system since 1947. It means that if two countries are World Trade Organization (WTO) members and agree to trade with one another on a given set of terms, they must offer those same terms to every other WTO member.

As far as it goes, it’s a good principle. All things equal, all countries benefit from more open trade, and the more a country opens its borders, the more wealth its economy generates.

"All things are not equal—and who knows that better than women?"

But here’s the rub: all things are not equal—and who knows that better than women? The world is not a blank slate, created anew each time a trade agreement is signed. The context in which a trade agreement comes into force does not just matter; it is more or less the whole story. For most women just about everywhere, the context is one of cultural, political and economic inequality.

International trade and investment in agriculture has created new sectors in which women dominate the workforce. For example, 80 per cent of workers in Uganda’s cut-flower industry are women, as are 80 per cent of the workers in Thailand’s production and packaging of fruit for export. Important questions remain about the quality of these jobs, but there is no doubt that international trade and investment has created new opportunities for women, many of them trapped by economic dependence in their traditional cultures and glad to have the chance to earn an independent living.

Women farmers I met from Burkina Faso in 2006 made a joke of it: “If you come to see our fields, we’ll have to invent a cover story. Should the men see a European interested, they might find out how much money our cut flowers sell for, and then they’ll take over.”

Yet women are at a disadvantage to men in the face of globalization.

The liberalization of global trade and the deregulation of international investments have tended to favour those with more cash (usually men), more education (usually men), and control of productive assets (men, again). And they have tended to disfavour people with greater responsibility for dependents (usually women), with few or no productive assets (more often women), and those without legal or political protections (again, women).

The new opportunities women have found through globalization tend to be in sectors where barriers to entry, and thus returns, are low.

"The assumption that all things are equal exacerbates existing inequalities."

You could say the dominant model of global trade and investment produces discriminatory results through its failure to discriminate. The assumption that all things are equal exacerbates existing inequalities.

The Green Revolution that swept Asian and Latin American agriculture in the 1960s and 1970s illustrates the problem. The technologies introduced by the Green Revolution worked best for farmers with relatively larger land holdings, greater capital reserves and a higher educational base (far more men than women). By and large, the scientists and extension workers involved in the Green Revolution (again, most of them men) were blind to the contribution that women made to agriculture, reflecting the inherent sexism of their education and culture.

In consequence, the Green Revolution tended to marginalize women in agriculture. It ignored women’s traditional knowledge of seeds, cultivation and marketing; it exposed the millions of women who worked as agricultural labourers to pesticides and herbicides that damaged their health and that of their children; and it worked against their economic interests by increasing the importance of cash in the agricultural household at the expense of non-cash transactions.

In most cultures, cash is predominantly a male not a female realm. The need for cash creates a need for credit and therefore for collateral—which means ownership of productive assets, such as land, becomes important. Again, men are much more likely to own these assets.

The donor community has recently acknowledged the fact of women’s inequality in agriculture. The 2007–2008 food price crisis seems to have focused donors’ attention, and they are now promising to make good on their neglect. Increased aid to women farmers could do a lot to improve women’s ability to engage in and benefit from international trade and investment.

"Rarely do donors talk about women’s rights, or the importance of investment in women for women’s sake."

Yet much of the motivation is openly instrumental, justified on the grounds that investment in women will lead to faster growth levels and higher total agricultural output. Rarely do donors talk about women’s rights, or the importance of investment in women for women’s sake. If donors only look to raise agricultural productivity, they will fail to reduce gender-based inequity. They may even exacerbate it, as happened during the Green Revolution.

Donors need to be part of a comprehensive agricultural strategy that is deliberate about addressing women’s needs and interests at many levels. For women to succeed as producers and as traders, governments need to free women from the time they spend on reproductive care by investing in child and elder care and in affordable, accessible and clean energy. Women need to have control of their fertility. Governments have to invest in secure roads and decent communication networks, not only to allow goods to get to market, but for women to be able to move around in safety. Girls need to be educated; the whole household needs access to affordable, good quality healthcare.

Women need legal protection, too, to be able to benefit from new economic opportunities. Women need the legal right to equal pay for equal work. They need to be able to protect their claims to productive assets, not least with the support of equitable inheritance and marriage laws.

And to engage economically, women need a political voice—in their communities, and in municipal, state and national government.

Governments (and donors) need to exercise discrimination. Public procurement rules should insist the companies receiving public funding have explicit policies to promote women’s rights. This might include a demonstrated commitment to working with women producers and women’s co-operatives, sourcing a minimum amount of product from women, or working with a minimum number of women processors or traders. Foreign investors, too, should have to demonstrate how their investments would provide meaningful opportunities for women.

If women are to benefit from trade and investment, governments have to redefine what counts as a benefit in the first place. Is a rise in GDP or an increase in trade flows enough? No. Governments need to be more discriminating, looking for benefits such as better wages in the poorest paid sectors, or greater employment opportunities for women.

To discriminate, governments need more information. Gender-disaggregated data remains all too rare. New indices, such as Social Watch’s Gender Equity Index, can shed light on women’s reality: the economic value of women’s reproductive work in the household; gender differences in access to and conditions of employment, levels of education, access to credit and finance, access to contraception and family planning; and more.

There are many good reasons to aim for simplicity in international trade and investment agreements. Non-discrimination has the virtue of simplicity. But it fails to satisfy the larger need for multilateral rules that reduce inequalities and protect and promote human rights, including women’s rights.

It’s time for trade negotiators to start discriminating.

Download: On the Virtues of Discrimination

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