The Canadian Gender and Trade Consultation

Posted 2002-02-17 by Nancy Peckford | Jurisfemme Publications – Volume 21, No. 1, Winter 2002

After the World Trade Organization wrapped up its meetings in the heavily patrolled city of Doha, Qatar this past November, Farah Khan, an observer, stated: "Compared with other international gatherings, Doha has been a remarkable and unrelenting gathering of male suits. From the opening plenary to the closing ceremony, men have dominated proceedings." Khan's comments point to the insidious phenomenon that the motives for and impacts of trade agreements are seldom evaluated from the vantage points of women.

Non-governmental organizations that focus on trade have difficulty grappling with the overwhelming and multiple effects of corporate led free trade. Few have been well equipped to focus upon how women's lives in particular are challenged and changed as a result. This is unfortunate as women's experiences have shown that corporate led trade agreements like the North American Free Trade Agreement adversely affected the quality of many women's lives and have undermined hard-won domestic commitments to women's equality rights:

"In the current international trading system women have been turned into producers and consumers of traded commodities and are even traded commodities themselves. Life support systems of household and communities have been damaged resulting in increasing burdens for women who continue to bear the social cost of reproduction. This is so because international trade that once was only a component of economic and social life now reigns supreme in the new global order." - (International Gender and Trade Network, Vol. 1, No. 5).

NAWL was invited to join in the Canadian Gender and Trade Consultation, a broad coalition of organizations that came together to address this issue in a Canadian context. Coordinated by the North South Institute and the Maquila Solidarity Network, and funded by Status of Women Canada, the Canadian Gender and Trade Consultation was designed to foster discussion between trade advocacy organizations, such as Common Frontiers and the Council of Canadians, and national women's organizations and their allies in the labour and anti-poverty movements. Also present were

international groups representing local and transnational constituencies, including the Association of Women and Development, and the International Gender and Trade Network. The aim of the weekend was to establish how organizations in Canada could enhance their capacity to evaluate trade issues from a gender perspective and participate in international coalitions, like the Hemispheric Social Alliance, that are committed to doing the same.

The primary difficulty in tackling women's equality interests within a trade context is the absence of accountable and empowered institutions at the international level. Despite the fact that many national governments are signatories to international accords on the civil, political and social rights of women, international trade agreements have regularly taken precedence over the human rights of women.

This is incredibly frustrating for domestic women's movements that after having spent decades struggling to secure commitments from their national governments now witness the displacement of these commitments by international economic agendas. As a result, trade agreements disempower, or in many cases, accommodate national governments' unwillingness to pursue women's equality, and severely impede their ability to maintain public services (many of which have provided stable, well-paying jobs for women's skilled labour), and act against corporations through the regulation of markets.

For example, in the current proposals for the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas, scheduled to be signed by the year 2005, four areas are particularly worrisome: 1) agricultural provisions that would displace domestic-oriented crop production on family farms through the elimination of farm subsidies thereby making it easier for multi-national corporations to invest money in non-traditional agricultural corporations; 2) the use of broad services language that may prohibit government subsidies for public services and have the effect of transforming health care, education and water into 'commodities' to be sold at the market; 3) Intellectual Property Rights language that promotes the exclusive use of legal patents and will compromise the use of 'community based knowledge' often held by women and aboriginal peoples; and 4) Foreign Investment provisions that will facilitate the rise in foreign-owned production and distribution via the establishment of Export Processing Zones (EPZ).

Although EPZs are often promoted as creating jobs for women, the jobs provide extremely low wages that are insufficient to support a family, and demand long hours and difficult working conditions.

All neo-liberal free trade agreements strive to increase access to local markets through provisions such as this. Free trade does not regulate markets so much as it creates new ones. As Marceline White, Women's EDGE, states these agreements "codify the increasing dominance of corporate-led free trade, which places profits and economic growth above basic human needs", including those of women and their families.

The organizations involved in December's Canadian Gender and Trade Consultation agreed to pursue additional funding for a follow up conference and to then apprise the Minister responsible for the Status of Women of the weekend's discussions. Further, three working groups were established to oversee developments in negotiations for the General Agreements on Trades and Services (GATS), monitor food security issues and evaluate the feasibility of a popular education campaign.

For more information, please contact NAWL.