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Trade policy

Gender justice advocates have been waiting for far too long for trade justice. Women’s rights organizations have been pointing this out for at least two decades, during a wave of activism around globalization and the role of trade agreements in exacerbating inequality.

This activism, epitomized by memorable protests when trade negotiators convened in Seattle in 1999, and Montreal and Cancun in 2003, catalyzed exciting proposals for inclusive, people-centered alternatives. A few of those ideas have found their way into trade regimes, but far from enough. Meanwhile, global inequality has reached an unprecedented level.

It’s time to renew our calls for equity in light of the Biden administration’s stated commitment to worker-centered trade policy – and foreign policy for the middle class.

Years ago, groups like the International Gender and Trade Network provided thorough analysis showing that trade rules as written disproportionately disadvantaged women and marginalized communities. Activists collaborated through coalitions like the Alliance for Responsible Trade to generate ambitious proposals for inclusive and equitable trade rules.

An FPIF brief titled Trade Is a Women’s Issue is an example of one part of that vision.

For the most part, these ideas were written off by policymakers of the era who were complacent about the eventual trickle-down benefits of their policies. Today, with dramatic new evidence of economic winners and losers in the wake of a global pandemic, it’s clear that if we want rules that work for the majority of the world’s citizens, we need to adopt a gender and social inclusion framework for our trade negotiations and future trade agreements.

To be sure, activists of an earlier era gained some small wins on gender justice. Worker rights clauses in U.S. trade agreements in the 1980s and 1990s notably overlooked one of the recognized core labor rights: non-discrimination in eE. This was no accident, and only after years of advocacy by women’s rights groups did Congress amend legislation to include that provision.

But trade policy that works for workers should be about more than just protecting core labor rights. We need to disrupt rising inequality and use trade policy to catalyze shifts to equitable and inclusive labor markets, both here in the U.S. and elsewhere. This means we need better social inclusion analysis of the sectors covered by our trade agreements and their disparate impacts on women and marginalized communities. Then we need to put that analysis to work, to ensure our trade policies lead to equitable gains for all constituents and affected communities.

The idea of using an intersectional gender justice lens on trade rules is not new. Encouraged by robust discussions around women and the economy at the 1995 Beijing Fourth World Conference on Women, advocates began to engage their governments. However, like all too many promises of that era, the vision of economic rules that fostered equity in the economy was never realized. Gender justice advocates’ attempt to restart this debate in this year’s Generation Equality Forum have fallen short. Meanwhile, women continue to lose ground in the global economy.


Bama Athreya, "Trade policy," The News. 2021-09-10.
Keywords: Economics , Global economy , Economic rules , Economic winners , Trade , Employment , Beijing , United States , FPIF