UN Geneva: Empowering Women to Seize Economic Opportunities

By Jimin Millet and Carolyn Handschin

“80% of policy makers are men. Gender balance should be a natural thing, but, to come to that understanding, we need to have a more equal representation,” said Mrs. Hulya Kurt, president of the Organization of Women in Trade (OWIT). Perspectives for Trade Policy & Women’s Economic Empowerment was the title of the HRC side event organized by WFWPI and the Graduate Women’s Institute (GWI) during the 39th Session of the Human Rights Council (HRC) on September 24, 2018. “Economic development drives growth and alleviates poverty. While negotiations of global trade policy have not been the defining profile of many women NGOs, the obstructions and remedy to advancing women’s economic empowerment at any level sound very familiar and are supported by the same UN conventions,” explained Carolyn Handschin, Director of the UN Offices of WFWPI, in opening the debate. 

Women and Trade- l-r- Gea Meijers (WIED+), Hulya Kurt (OWIT), Carolyn Handschin (NGOCSW Geneva), Simonetta Arrilli (UNCTAD), Madi Sharma (WESTT).png

The event was designed based on a concept note prepared by the organizers together with the Women’s Economic and Social Think Tank (WESTT) based in Brussels. Trade provides tremendous potential to sustain life, and develop prosperous, flourishing societies. Unethical trade, however, can have negative effects on human rights. Consumers, workers, and marginalized communities like women and those living in poverty, are disproportionately affected by unethical trade policies. Worse, it is the most marginalized communities that are often excluded from policy-negotiations. There has been a shift in perceptions by experts, who now recognize the importance of gender-based economic analyses and the importance of ensuring liberalisation policies do not negatively impact those with less of a voice.

Having the opportunity to sit together and discuss issues with the Chief of UNCTAD’s Department on “Trade, Gender and Development” was very insightful and encouraging for all present.  Simonetta Arrilli explained that the interest in gender equality and women’s economic development in trade is a relatively new development, but rapidly being taken more seriously. She stated that legal instruments are changing and links between women’s empowerment and its impact on nations’ financial health are clearer. The WTO “Declaration on Trade and Women’s Empowerment” in Buenos Aires has focused attention. Sharing the results of research and best practices among regions has been very helpful, but more can be done. This is why UNCTAD has launched a Trade and Gender Toolbox as a methodology to better assess what  the impact on women in trade could be and how to redress the imbalance. 

Hyla Kurt from the Organization of Women in International Trade (OWIT) described the disadvantages women have, including lack of access to credits, lack of knowledge, skills and, especially, confidence. She proposed that platforms be created for better information sharing, skills training, trade-specific knowledge, opportunities for collaboration and mentoring. She summarized by saying that benefits to society would be much greater than expected if there was more commitment and certification from global trade institutions towards women in the financial sector.

Women in Economic Development (WIED+) is a coalition that has been promoting gender equality in trade policy for 20 years, explained its representative, Gea Meijers. The EU has a strong impact assessment policy and is seriously involved. She requested more data to show the engagement that the WTO has for women. It seems that policies have not changed much in two decades and called for a global reassessment that would evaluate country by country, context by context. Only then could gaps be pinpointed and guidelines and recommendations made toward new policies.  

The final speaker and co-organizer was Madi Sharma of the Women’s Economic and Social Think Tank (WESTT). A very strong speaker, she laid out several clear points. 1)Women need to be involved in policy development. 2)When you have profit, you have choices. 3)Gender equality is not about women, but is a social and economic imperative. 4)Policies are supposed to be preventive and protective but that is often not the case. 5)Solutions starts by implementation. 6)Women must act together because it is our right and responsibility to do so.