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TRADE: UNCTAD Hears Gender Inequality Becoming Worse – and Better

Francis Kokutse

ACCRA, Apr 24 2008 (IPS) - The only way that the poor, particularly women, will benefit from all the efforts that the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) has put into improving global trade is to ensure that power inequalities are redressed.

This is the comment of Esther Busser, trade policy advisor of the Geneva-based International Trade Union Confederation, who is attending the 12th UNCTAD meeting in Accra, Ghana. It started on April 20 and concludes tomorrow. The confederation is a non-governmental organisation (NGO) working towards realising workers’ rights.

In an interview with IPS she argued that UNCTAD leaders have previously not had the political will to take decisions that would benefit the poor. UNCTAD should look at how trade liberalisation has affected the poor, particularly women, and ‘‘move away from matters of trade and investment alone’’.

The United Nations’ special advisor on gender issues and assistant secretary-general Rachel Mayanja, said at the conference that UNCTAD should help governments to devise programmes that would ensure social equity in an era of imbalanced globalisation.

This is needed to free the poor, women and other marginalised groups from persistent constraints relating to employment, decision making and access to business finance.

‘‘Unless the world refocuses its policies to address the adverse impact of globalisation and economic inequality on development and poverty reduction, the poor and the privileged will continue to live worlds apart,’’ Mayanja said at a roundtable discussion on globalisation, development and poverty reduction.

She warned that few countries, poor or rich, were immune to the rising tide of global inequality, making it imperative for economic and social policies and institutions that will step up efforts to reduce widening social and gender disparities.

‘‘As for women and social equity,’’ Mayanja said, ‘‘despite some positive examples of globalisation having enhanced employment opportunities and strengthened women’s support groups and networks, it has also reinforced or exacerbated many existing gender inequalities.’’

Women do not only bear a disproportionate burden of the world’s poverty but in some cases globalisation had widened that gap, with women losing more than their share of jobs, benefits and labour rights.

‘‘Therefore, gender equality as a goal in itself and, as a means to achieving internationally agreed development targets, assumed a heightened level of importance and urgency,’’ she said.

Mayanja concluded by saying that policies should be sensitive towards gender. They should promote women’s capacity to engage fully at all levels of development activities. This would ‘‘go a long way towards eliminating inequality’’.

Supachai Panitchpakdi, UNCTAD secretary general, yesterday called for the inclusion of gender as a category in labour statistics that track the effects of trade liberalisation. He also suggested that trade capacity building should take cognisance of gender.

Busser said that, ‘‘in many countries around the globe, especially in export processing zones, workers are not allowed to organise. This has brought about the ill-treatment of workers, resulting in their earning very low wages.

‘‘In variably it is women who suffer the brunt because they are not organised they do not have the voice (to protest),’’ Busser told IPS.

Bernice Chenge, a textile worker from Zambia who attended some of the fringe activities hosted by non-governmental organisations at the conference, agreed with Busser.

‘‘When a foreign company opened a textile company in the Zambian capital Lusaka, women who made up the bulk of the employees were paid less than the national wage. When we tried to complain to the authorities, some of us were seen as rebels and fired,’’ she said.

The International Trade Union Confederation has through its contact with workers around the world found that, as UNCTAD tries to take away the barriers to trade, it is not creating any mechanisms that would protect workers, said Busser.

Consequently, it is the big companies that continue to reap the benefits of trade liberalisation. Examples would be the coffee, grain and banana trade.

Actionaid’s international trade policy coordinator Aftab Alam Khan said agriculture is, ‘‘at the heart of the commodities issue. Multinational companies dominate the sector, dictating the terms (of trade) and adversely affecting commodity-reliant developing countries while extracting unfair profits from the supply chain. ActionAid is an anti-poverty NGO.

Research conducted by Actionaid and the South Centre reveals that the top six coffee trading companies held half of the world market in 1998 while in 2002 only two companies controlled three-quarters of the global grain trade and another two, half of the world’s banana trade.

This situation has given more power to corporate bodies. Busser said, ‘‘governments are losing their political control and can no longer provide the social protection that can guarantee workers’ rights.’’

Most governments seem aware of the problem but do not know how to balance the conditions necessary for growth and at the same time push for social equality, which is what the poor and the vulnerable in society need.

Finland’s President Tarja Halonen said governments do not need to choose growth over social justice, because the two could and should co-exist.

‘‘Empowering women to be active in decision-making and to be equal partners in the labour force and business environment, is a sure way for countries to solidify social gains and boost competiveness.’’

Halonen added, ‘‘governments should do more to encourage and support young women and girls to take active roles in all spheres of society, including through the scaling up of education opportunities.’’

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