Women and Trade

October 27, 2005

African women are widely recognized as active contributors to economic systems and trade. Women work to generate over half of most household's incomes, and work extremely long hours. They are also the main caretakers of children and other extended relatives, while at the same time accounting for more than half of the workforce that grows, processes and markets food and other goods. At the same time, women are often left out of formal economic planning and development schemes. Rarely do they have access to business loans, and in most cases the land they work does not belong to them. Women also make up the poorest of any social grouping in Africa, and this increasing "feminization" of poverty should be of utmost importance to all. The WTO is directly involved in shaping the lives of millions of people across the global, and Africa's women are not exempt. In fact, the policies that the WTO dictates often have devastating effects on individuals, families and communities.

One of the other most specific threats to women in Africa relates to the ending of the quota system in the textile and garment industry. This changed on January 1st, 2005. Up until then, a quota system had been in place, making it mandatory for large, wealthy countries (mainly the US and EU) to spread their orders for textiles and garments over factories in several dozen countries, mostly in developing nations. With the end of this quota system, these obligations have been lifted, meaning that orders can now simply go to the lowest bidder. This country is China, and as a result, garment factories around the world are shutting down because they cannot compete in this new market. Women make up the majority of workers in this industry, and Africa is no different. Women are now starting to lose their jobs to Chinese workers in large numbers. One of the places in Africa where the highest concentration of garment factories are found is Mauritius. Almost a fifth of the working population is involved in the industry in one way or another. Over two thirds of those employed are women. As a result of the end of the quota system, factories are now closing, and the unemployment rates are soaring. At least 10 000 jobs will be lost, and the women that once held them, often the main breadwinners in their families, are left with small severance packages and nowhere to look for new jobs.

Another threat to African women in terms of trade involves trade liberalization. One of the most serious ways that this plays out is in relation to food security, which itself is important on individual, household, national, regional and global levels. Indeed, food security in many ways determines poverty levels in any given country. Agriculture is one of Africa's largest industries, and women are its largest contributors. Trade liberalization in relation to agriculture has meant a number of things. Chemical pest control and fertilizers have made their way into the African agricultural sector, leaving small scale farmers unable to afford them, and thus keep up with the market. Women also make up many heads of households, and are left, therefore, with the double burden of carrying for their families and homes, as well as their agricultural workload. The opening up of the export market means that many of these women no longer have time to care for crops that would go towards feeding their families, they must work solely for commercial purposes. The wages earned from these crops are limited, as many African countries rely too heavily on one single crop, and many more cannot compete in the global market.

These comprise simply two specific examples of the way in which African women are affected by trade. Numerous others exist, and the realities faced by African women are difficult to summarize because of their enormous variations and complexities. But one thing is possible to conclude: governments and decision makers must take into account the specific circumstance of women in relation to trade, and put into place mechanisms that protect their abilities to meet those basic human rights which are being violated as a result of policies that rarely benefit Africa and its people.

More Information on Social and Economic Policy
More General Analysis on Gender and Inequality
More Information on Gender and Inequality
More Information on Global Injustice and Inequality
More Information on The World Trade Organization

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