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GENEVA, Apr 7 2009 (IPS) - As the global economic crisis continues to unfold, it is having severe effects on international trade. UNCTAD estimates that merchandise exports from developing countries could decline by 15.5% this year. At the regional level, we expect export growth to shrink by 16.8% in Asia, 12.5% in Africa, and 10% in Latin America.

This will certainly have a significant impact on employment as well. Some 51 million people are projected to lose their jobs this year, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO) ­ and 22 million of them will be women. The sectors that were initially hit the hardest by the crisis ­such as finance, insurance, real estate, construction and manufacturing­ were largely dominated by male workers. But the crisis is now spreading to service-oriented sectors, which in many countries are dominated by females.

WomenÂ’s widespread marginalization in the social, economic and political spheres means they usually bear the brunt of the hardships. They continue to have less access to education and other social services, less secure employment, lower wages and insufficient political representation. This situation is not only morally unacceptable, it is also an obstacle to economic development. Women make a significant contribution to the economy, to better governance, and to their communities and households. Discrimination and marginalization hinder this contribution, making societies worse off. Like income inequality, gender discrimination tends to stymie growth and development by crippling a part of our human capital.

There is ample evidence, however, that enhanced opportunities for women lead to improvements in poverty reduction and economic growth. Indeed, some studies have shown that women tend to spend a greater share of their incomes on childrenÂ’s education and other human development goals than men. It is therefore high time for gender equality to be incorporated more broadly into development policy-making.

Trade policy affects gender equality in two main ways. First, trade tends to have strong redistributive effects, favouring some sectors and social groups while disfavouring others. And since economic and social activities differ by gender, these redistributive effects will affect genders differently. A countryÂ’s socio-cultural mores may restrict womenÂ’s mobility, and may also dictate what types of jobs are considered appropriate for women. Just consider the textiles industry in many developing countries, where more than 80% of the employees are women: trade policy measures causing this industry to expand or contract will have a strong impact on their employment.

There is some evidence to suggest that, on balance, trade has benefited women. This is particularly the case for some fast-growing developing economies. There, women have been active in some of the most important export sectors, such as textiles and electronics, and trade liberalization and international integration have led to an increase in employment opportunities for these women. Being able to earn cash is a tremendous advantage, empowering women both in and outside of the household.

But there are also documented cases where women have been penalized by trade. Agricultural liberalization has often meant that small-scale farmers (most of whom are women) find it impossible to compete with international markets and are forced into subsistence activities. In other cases, women operating in import-competing sectors and small-scale enterprises have been unable to compete with foreign goods, thus losing employment.

Trade policy can disadvantage women in yet another way. The theory behind trade liberalization is that those workers displaced from import-competing sectors can be re-employed in expanding export sectors or take advantage of other new opportunities. In practice, however, those who are unable to adapt can end up worse off than before. Unfortunately, adaptation often raises particular problems for women because of their relative disadvantages in terms of education, command over resources, and access to credit, new technologies, training, and marketing networks. This problem is often more relevant in developing countries, where the differences between the genders may be greater and where the lack of efficient government institutions, safety nets and compensatory policies can make adjustments more difficult.

Given the complicated linkages between trade policy and gender equality, we need more research on this subject and greater gender sensitivity among trade policy makers. Policy makers may wish to consider including gender assessments when designing trade policies, so as to better understand their implications for women and gender equality. Gender assessments will help governments to design better complementary policies for reducing the negative impact of trade policies on women, and to identify the measures needed to help women benefit from trade. Such gender assessments may also be needed in the context of the current global financial crisis and the stimulus packages being devised to address it. Female labour fuelled a large share of the increases in trade that preceded the crisis. For this reason, women will be among the first to suffer from declining trade, lay-offs, and the repatriation of migrant workers.

However, this does not mean that there are no answers. We can factor gender considerations into the crafting of national stimulus packages and social protection measures. Micro-credit, which is affecting the functioning of small and medium enterprises that in most developing countries are run by women, should be expanded. We must also build a better enabling environment for trade, including through better trade financing. The possible use of government procurement for national development priorities, such as support for women-owned businesses, could also be considered. (END/COPYRIGHT IPS )

(*) Supachai Panitchpakdi is the Secretary-General of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).

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