From the Editor’s Keyboard

Gender Issues and Trade in Africa

10 September 2006 at 22:32 | 427 views

Substantially reducing poverty in Africa will require massive policy shifts, writes Roselynn Musa. This is unlikely to happen unless the voices of women and poor people, which are largely missing from trade policy negotiations, are heard and respected.

By Roselynn Musa, Guest Writer

It has often been propositioned that ‘trade’ and not ‘aid’ is the catalyst that will plunge African countries from unending poverty to economic prosperity. There is no denying the fact that trade has brought benefits for African women particularly in generating a rise in employment opportunities, yet research into the impacts of trade policy on gender relations and equality paints a disturbing picture.

Such research shows that trade under similar terms has different impacts on women and men and often affects women more negatively than positively in their position as workers, consumers, producers, and care givers within the domestic sphere. It also shows that even among women trade affects urban dwellers differently from rural dwellers and younger women differently from older women.

This paper therefore challenges the myth which claims that trade liberalisation brings many benefits at very little cost. Trade liberalisation can bring benefits to a country, but it is also true that trade liberalisation imposes heavy burdens on women as workers in Export Processing Zones (EPZs) and in commercial agriculture. It discusses issues of gender and trade in Africa centering on employment, labour, privatization, salary gaps, and the impact of trade on productive and reproductive spheres. It concludes with steps that could be taken to promote gender equitable trade relations in Africa.

It is evident that trade liberalisation has different outcomes for men and women. These differential impacts relate to many of the most fundamental aspects of livelihoods and well-being, including employment, income, food security and access to health services. The outcomes differ across countries and regions and are based on the type of economic area and specific sector, measures, timing and sequencing of trade policies. They also cut across different sectors and sub-sectors of trade liberalisation: agriculture, services, clothing and textiles, and intellectual property.

Practically, the impacts of trade are felt by individual men and women as fluctuations in price (and hence availability of goods) and through changes in output (what people work to produce, how and under what conditions). The main argument of the proponents of free market policies, including some gender advocates, is that increased trade and investment liberalisation can improve a country’s economic growth, which in turn can increase women’s participation in the labour market. Consequently there have been increased employment opportunities in non-traditional agriculture such as cut flowers, and clothing and textiles, and the services sectors.

Trade may bring new employment and business opportunities, but existing inequalities such as low skills and gendered division of labour means that any adverse effect of trade liberalization - including impacts on the labour market and working conditions - are felt more by women than men.

The impacts of trade liberalisation may vary at different levels of the economy, and may differ between women and men. Yet the picture is often complex and contradictory. For example, African women have benefited from trade liberalisation by increasing their access to employment such as in the Economic Processing Zones (EPZs), but at the same time, African women have paid the price of adjustments in their roles in household management and traditional agriculture, which have been negatively impacted.

The inequality emanating from the differential impacts that trade has on women and men can be effectively addressed and government and other international players held accountable for existing commitments on women’s human rights conventions during trade negotiations. For example, the lack of a mechanism to hold the current trade and international financial regimes into account on women’s rights is evident. This is aggravated by the fact that these regimes did not exist at the time of the Fourth World Conference on Women and the resultant Beijing Platform for Action (BPfA) did not specifically address concerns around them and their implications on women’s lives.

Import liberalisation means decreasing tariffs payable to national governments on goods coming into the country. This usually leads to a drop in domestic revenue and consequently cuts in government spending. Such cuts disproportionately affect women, particularly cuts in social services such as health, provision of water, electricity and so forth.

Going back to the example of the consequences in a fall in prices of domestically produced goods due to the abundance of cheap imports, though women may benefit from lower prices of imported products, as small scale producers they face stiff competition with cheap imported goods. This is exacerbated by the fact that government policies of export promotion intended to cushion this effect may be detrimental for small scale producers (mainly women) as these tend to prioritise cash crops, which are mainly produced by men. By extension this has a negative effect on food security, an area for which women are largely responsible.

If we look at the issues of gender participation and governance and ask who was included in decision-making processes around trade issues at the national, sub-regional and regional levels we discover that women play very small roles. There is a wide gap in integration of gender analysis or consultation with women. As long as African women must still negotiate family and work responsibilities, they tend to engage in more informal sector, or home- based work.

Women’s equal participation in trading activities is further hampered by concerns such as difficulty in accessing capital, lack of relevant training and skills or limited contacts with national and international trade networks. On this basis there is a need to recognise that women’ participation in international trade must be on terms that allow them the same choices as men and in conditions where they are equally involved in decision- making, with the same opportunities for growth for their businesses and exports.

The question to ask at this point is: How far have African governments’ commitments to gender equality in trade policy been translated into practice? In recent years, it has been viewed that foreign trade has assumed a prominent place in economic development strategies as a key to financing development in African countries, without adding further to their indebtedness.

In addition, expectations have been raised that by creating jobs, transferring new technologies and building linkages with the rest of the economy, Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) will directly address the continents’ poverty challenge. Thus policy reforms aimed at improving the investment climate in African countries have increasingly been centred on attracting FDI without the desired results either in increasing FDI flows in productive sectors or in ensuring more rapid growth and poverty reduction. The continent at present accounts for just 2 to 3 per cent of global flows, down from a peak of 6 per cent in the mid-1970s. Even on a per capita basis, the gap between Africa and other developing regions widened significantly in the 1990s and remains very large.

Although there are signs of just a little advancement in Africa’s commitment to gender equality and gender mainstreaming, further steps need to be taken. Specifically, gender issues must be put in the trade and development agenda in a more coherent form, and trade policies should complement gender equality and development policies as enshrined in the Convention on The Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Beijing Platform for Action (BPfA)

It is widely understood that women make up the majority of workers in the EPZs where the labour and social concerns of women differ from those of men. Women workers in these factories are faced with issues of poor working conditions, and problems of managing both work and domestic responsibilities. Women are paid lower wages than men, partly due to persistent assumptions about women’s income being secondary, rather than primary in the household.

They also face instability of employment and lack of access to training, healthcare or social security provisions, notably childcare. They are frequently hired on short-term contracts - or with no contract at all - to work very long hours with little or no job security and little consideration for occupational health. In order to compete and keep prices low, many of the increased costs and risks of doing business are increasingly borne by women, who are still expected to raise children and care for sick and elderly relatives, even when they are the ‘breadwinners’.

Despite the existence of corporate codes of conduct and international conventions in place to protect workers, governments are under pressure from local and foreign investors and from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Trade Organisation (WTO), and World Bank loan conditions to maintain flexibility in the supply chain. This has meant that labour standards are not universally enforced, resulting in short term contracts with little or no benefits.

Studies have shown that work in industries has had a positive effect on women’s self-esteem and decision-making within the family. Paid employment can improve women’s autonomy as well as their economic and social status. It can also shift power relations between women and men, including at the household level, and can improve women’s well-being, negotiating power and overall status.

However, the picture is not as clear-cut as this might suggest. The structure of domestic labour markets and global production chains is highly gendered. Despite the advantages, in many contexts trade liberalisation is coupled with persistent occupational segregation by sex, both vertical and horizontal (Horizontal segregation refers to the distribution of women and men across occupations. Vertical segregation refers to the distribution of men and women in the job hierarchy in terms of status and occupation.)

Women not only supply a cheaper workforce, but are also supposedly more docile. And, because of the gendered division of labour, work with textiles, for example, fits in accordance with existing gender norms. Women therefore tend to have less skilled jobs than men; most of the time their wages are lower than men, and they often work in unhealthy and exploitative conditions characterised by incessant sexual harassment/ sexual blackmail.

At this point it is important to note the differentiated impact among women, due to differences based on age, class, race, geographical location or ethnicity. It is generally the poor and marginalised groups of women who are negatively affected by unemployment and the restructuring of labour markets. In reality, there are differentiated outcomes for women in their different roles and locations. For instance, in Ghana, women consumers in urban centres have benefited from the availability of cheaper foodstuffs because they are the net buyers of food.

However, women farmers in rural areas, as the net producers of food, have been negatively affected by export-promotion policies that have mainly benefited men and large-scale farmers. They have also suffered, as have men farmers, from declining household incomes due to the increased competition with imports, reduced farm gate prices (price of goods as they are sold where they are produced) and declining commodity prices in international markets.

The policy reforms induced by trade liberalisation and the WTO regime have also resulted in a shrinking policy space that has altered the role of the state in profound ways. Some commentators argue that trade liberalisation has endangered the fiscal basis of the state as a result of tariff reductions combined with the tight constraints on budgets imposed by

The most common policy response to these fiscal problems has been to increase domestic indirect taxation on goods and services, with a focus on value added tax (VAT). VAT can be particularly detrimental to women, both as consumers and in relation to their reproductive role, as it is often levied on goods for the household and labour-saving devices such as domestic appliances.

Fiscal austerity also has implications for spending on services such as health and education, which are essential for all, but particularly for women. It can also constrain the ability of governments to put in place social protection measures and safety nets to offset some of the negative impacts of liberalisation. These negative impacts are compounded by the undermining effects of international trade rules on national commitments to international conventions on human rights and gender equality.

In practice, service liberalisation is the ultimate outcome of the privatisation agenda carried out through the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank programmes under structural adjustment and more recently through the Poverty Reduction and Growth Facility (PRGF) and Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP) mechanisms. Although proponents of liberalisation argue that this will reduce the price of services, it does raise a number of issues such as universal access to essential services that pertain to basic needs and rights that states are obliged to provide for their citizens.

Experience has shown that when the costs of essential services rise, women typically make up for the shortfall in household resources and caring responsibilities. A government’s ability to regulate the quality of such services is critical to ensuring that the rules are applied in a manner that does not impede the achievement of national development objectives, especially in the area of gender equality.

Trade liberalisation therefore has an impact on women’s unpaid labour. In addition to having to take on added caring responsibilities with the reduction in social spending, the pressure to produce for export drives people out of subsistence farming where caring responsibilities could often be incorporated into productive work or shared among family members.

Moreover, although paid employment outside the home can be an advantage to women in many ways, the work needed to reproduce and care for the labour force often means a double or even triple work burden, demonstrating that women working in such industries can suffer extreme stress over juggling their workloads.

Women’s unpaid work within the household further increases during periods of economic downturn,. When household incomes fall and there is less money available to pay for labour-saving devices or for assistance in caring roles for children or the elderly, women move in to make up the shortfall. These are also the times when women are more likely to take on informal work to boost domestic finances.


- There is a need for the collection of gender aggregated data and detailed research into the impact of trade liberalisation on gender relations and women’s lives.

- Trade review mechanisms and mainstream impact assessments can be used as entry points for gender analysis

- Capacity building is needed to help women participate in determining priorities for trade and employment policies.

- Development agencies and trade ministries need to ensure that market access programmes acknowledge the unequal power between women and men.

- Strategic alliances must be forged between gender equality advocates, trade justice activists and development actors working on policies and programmes.

- There is the need to focus on raising women’s skill levels to cope with the loss of domestic production and to adapt to new markets, as well as develop better tools to establish the gendered impacts of trade agreements.

- Programmes should be developed that promote women’s access to resources (land and credit).

- Attention should be paid to provision of services such as child care, mobile health clinic, maternity protection, paid sick leave etc to enable women to participate in trade activities.

International institutions engaged in trade related functions should be more accountable for defending women’s rights.

- Existing international agreements on women’s rights such as CEDAW and the BPfA should be upheld.

- Women should be provided with training as well as access to credit and finance and improving access to management, marketing and technological skills that will allow them to move beyond micro- credit schemes.

- Networks should be established for advocacy, training, information-sharing and awareness raising between women entrepreneurs, gender focused NGOs, government officials.

- Employers should promote women’s advancement, not limit this to low-skilled, low- paid jobs.

- Women workers should be empowered to defend their rights.

- Introduction of fair trade to ensure that women are paid a fair wage for their contribution to agricultural and production processes resulting in stability of income.

- All institutions dealing with trade policies and governments need to be made accountable and transparent.

- Policy-making should be made democratic and participatory.

The African continent remains by and large marginalized in the world economy, with over half of the population living under US$1 a day per person. If the major Millennium Development Goal of reducing poverty by half by the year 2015 is to be achieved in Africa, a major policy shift is required, both at the national and regional levels, to help boost growth and development in Africa. Policy changes are unlikely to occur unless there is a substantive democratization of policy-making at all levels. In particular, the voices of women and poor people, which are largely missing from trade policy negotiations, need to be heard and respected.

* Roselynn Musa works with African Women’s Development and Communications Network, FEMNET, Nairobi, Kenya.

Source: Pambazuka News

Photo: Shirley Gbujama, Sierra Leone’s Social Welfare and Gender Affairs minister.