from Women Around the World and Women and Foreign Policy Program

Women’s Economic Empowerment and Trade

"As our Nation and the world continue to respond to COVID-19, we should look ahead to how we will create a safer and more equitable economic recovery for workers in the United States and around the world...It should be a priority of the United States government to advance the rights of women around the world. To that end, our trade laws should be modernized."

December 23, 2020
10:00 am (EST)

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

Voices from the Field features contributions from policy leaders, scholars, and practitioners highlighting new research, thinking, and approaches to development, diplomacy, and security challenges. This post is co-authored by Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) and Senator Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV).

As our Nation and the world continue to respond to COVID-19, we should look ahead to how we will create a safer and more equitable economic recovery for workers in the United States and around the world. While Congress works to protect and support our frontline workers and our citizens, we should also turn to address pervasive deficiencies in women’s economic empowerment and participation around the world. The United States spent decades opening export markets for U.S. firms, yet there are few requirements that countries have economies that are equal and open to all citizens. This should change.  It should be a priority of the United States government to advance the rights of women around the world. To that end, our trade laws should be modernized.

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When the United States provides benefits through trade preference programs or negotiates trade agreements with countries that discriminate against women or constrain their full economic participation, we are granting preferential market access to nations that restrict full economic access to half their population. This is not simply a matter of fairness and human rights, but of economics.

In the United States, men and women have a right to equal opportunity and protection under the law, yet we largely fail to champion this fundamental tenet in negotiating and executing our trade agenda. Many of the barriers women face around the world today look a lot like the barriers women in the United States faced in our lifetimes or those of our parents: without a man’s signature, women couldn’t open a bank account, rent a car, lease an apartment, or buy a house. Legal restrictions on the basis of sex were layered on to cultural and societal sexism.

We know that when women participate in the labor force, economies see greater growth than similar countries that restrict access to women’s economic participation. A recent report found that as much as 40 percent of U.S. GDP growth between 1960 and 2010 is a result of greater gender and racial equality in the workplace. As we celebrate a century of women's suffrage in the United States and 55 years since the Voting Rights Act, we are reminded of how far we have come and how far we have left to go. In 2015, the McKinsey Global Institute found advancing women’s equality could add $12 trillion to global GDP in 10 years.

Simply enhancing equality between men and women can create an economic boon, nations that fail to provide broad-based rights for women and girls are effectively relying on gender-based discrimination for “economic advantage”. This harms workers everywhere.  We write rules to address labor rights and environmental standards in our trade laws precisely because they ensure workers can compete on a level playing field. The same should be true with respect to equal protection under the law for men and women.

Women face discrimination, violence and harassment, and restricted rights in society in countries around the world. The Council on Foreign Relations Women’s Workplace Equality Index shows:

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  • 75 countries restrict women’s property rights;
  • 104 countries restrict the kinds of jobs women can have;
  • 110 countries have no criminal penalties for sexual harassment in the workplace;
  • 59 countries provide no legal protection against sexual harassment; and
  • 41 countries do not ban discrimination in employment based on gender.

We also know from UNICEF that only 45 percent of countries have achieved gender parity in secondary education.

We propose a model for change. Specifically, we propose ensuring measures related to equal protection under the law, regardless of gender, become a core objective of U.S. trade policy.

Rights of Workers and Women First: Nations should meet baseline standards on labor rights and the rights of women before the United States engages in trade negotiations. The United States should not engage in trade negotiations with countries that do not have an adequate legal framework, and enforcement thereof, protecting labor rights and women’s economic empowerment and participation, including equal access to education.

Binding and Enforceable Commitments in Future Trade Agreements: The United States should incorporate binding commitments on gender in future trade agreements. Measures are often referenced in agreements but are not enforceable in any meaningful way.

Binding Commitments on Equal Protection, Non-discrimination and Violence and Harassment in the Workplace: All trade measures, including trade preference programs and the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP), should include binding measures on the rights of women; on equal protection under the law; and on provisions consistent with the International Labour Organization (ILO) Conventions on non-discrimination and violence and harassment in the workplace.

Development for Development: Countries should have laws supporting full and free economic participation for women and fundamental worker rights. Over time, failure to fulfill these measures should result in reduced trade benefits under GSP and other trade preference programs.

Strong Enforcement and Capacity Building: We should put real dollars toward monitoring, enforcement, and capacity building. This will ensure countries have the resources necessary to meet their commitments to improve conditions for workers and women, and that they are held accountable when they don’t.

Adequate Representation at the Table: Change cannot simply come from the top down.  Women and civil society groups should be part of the decision making process from the start.

We recognize the adoption of these changes will be a challenge, as countries will start from different baselines. Countries will need time to improve, but as the past two decades show, improvement will not happen unless fundamental deficiencies are measured and managed.

Steps have been taken to incorporate women’s economic empowerment in the trade space, including in the 2015 AGOA renewal legislation, but much more should be done. Several countries, including Canada, have taken action to incorporate gender chapters in trade agreements. This was a missed opportunity in the updated NAFTA, the USMCA. Multilateral institutions are also taking note. While these steps are promising and indicative of the heightened awareness to these matters, the initiatives are generally neither binding nor comprehensive. 

When it comes to the rights of workers and women, the United States should be leading the way. Our trade laws should support women’s full economic participation globally. We should uphold ILO standards such as non-discrimination and the recently adopted measure on violence and harassment in the workplace, as well as quantifiable standards relating to women, business, and the law. 

All workers, everywhere, should have the right to full economic participation. Yet these rights are denied to millions of women, in countries around the world. When women don’t have the same right as men to own property, to obtain credit, to open a bank account, to education, to inheritance, or to start a business, it harms workers everywhere. When women don’t have the same ability or right to negotiate for higher wages or better working conditions that harm workers everywhere.

We need to build back with an eye to the future. Our laws should support fairness and competition here at home and around the world. This means discrimination, in any form, cannot be used by companies or countries as a “trade advantage.” Workers in America can outcompete anyone in the world if the playing field is level. This means workers everywhere should have the ability to exercise freedom of association, the right to organize and bargain collectively, freedom from forced labor, freedom from discrimination, and equal protection under the law. Our trade policies should uphold these objectives, not simply for some, but for all.

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