While the full picture of trade's impact on women entrepreneurs is not very well known, what is known about the economic barriers facing women entrepreneurs globally is jarring.
Women in poverty account for 1.1 billion of financially excluded adults who lack basic banking services. A report released by the World Bank in 2016, found that 90 per cent of the 173 economies surveyed had at least one law impeding women's economic opportunities.
In many of these countries, women reported having to pay higher bribes to achieve their aims, resulting in higher business costs for women and impeding their ability to compete with their male counterparts. Many of the countries in this report also have legal barriers that limit women's rights to work and own assets, the most prevalent being discriminatory laws of inheritance. Even if international trade laws are gender neutral on their face, there are evidently practical differences in terms of how they impact disadvantaged women attempting to engage in global trade.
Given concerns around direct and indirect impacts on women entrepreneurs globally, it is fitting that this year's WTO Public Forum is dedicated in part to this topic under the overall theme of inclusive trade. The WTO is realizing that despite gender neutral trade rules, the hoped for reduction in poverty levels is not happening because of local and regional formal and informal barriers to women's successful engagement in economic activity. It is imperative for the WTO to consider what levers it has to help address this pressing issue.
One symbolic gesture that is open to the WTO General Council would be to add a clarification - what's called an Interpretative Note - to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) Article XVIII:3 that deals with the growth of enterprises.
This Article has been used as a platform to create a trade-friendly environment for infant industries. Its purpose is to provide more relaxed trade rules to allow developing country industries to scale up and eventually compete in global markets (where economies of scale and comparative advantage rule). Different economic arrangements might fit this development purpose: it could be a new industry or a new group of stakeholders needing assistance, such as women entrepreneurs. With the new focus on inclusive trade, a developing country that wanted to support women entrepreneurs by easing rules would have the additional comfort of being able to rely on the WTO's Note clarifying that measures to support development of women entrepreneurs are covered under this Article.
It is hard to see why any country would not leap at the opportunity to vote in favour of adding this clarification. It would have high symbolic value, showing that the WTO is serious about its new focus on inclusive trade and about making a meaningful contribution to achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goal to "achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls".
This added Note would clarify meaning, but not alter the rights and obligations of state parties or interfere with their domestic law, policy and programs. It would provide an opening for women in developing nations to ask their governments to use this provision to assist them in starting and sustaining economic activity. It would also provide an opening for developed countries to partner with developing countries by shaping foreign assistance to promote development of women traders and entrepreneurs.
The WTO and World Bank's own study tells us that gender discrimination reinforces women's poverty and limits their access to the benefits of international trade. By adopting a provision that assists women entrepreneurs, the WTO would show that inclusive trade is more than a public forum theme, it is a necessity if global trade is to lift these women from poverty.
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