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  • Urja Joshi and Saaransh Shukla

Assessing Gender Mainstreaming in International Trade through Preferential Agreements

This article is authored by Urja Joshi and Saaransh Shukla, both fifth-year B.B.A. LL.B. (Hons.) students from the School of Law, NMIMS Bengaluru.


The landscape of modern trade agreements is rapidly evolving, extending its scope beyond traditional market access concerns to encompass critical yet contentious non-trade issues like gender, labour, and environment. The 12th WTO Ministerial Conference of 2022 was a milestone as it was collaborative effort among WTO Members as it held thematic discussions on trade and gender issues, putting these issues on the WTO agenda for the first time.

This discussion delineates four key pillars:

i. Gender-responsive policymaking,

ii. Incorporating a gender lens within the framework of the WTO,

iii. Advancing research and analytical endeavours, and

iv. Facilitating Aid for Trade.

Delving deeper, ‘Gender’ encapsulates socially constructed norms, behaviours, and roles associated with being a woman, man, girl, or boy. The practice of gender analysis, entailing the collection and examination of gender-specific data, proves crucial in both identifying and rectifying gender-based disparities. It serves to not only recognize the divergent needs of men and women but also discern the nuanced implications of policies and interventions. In essence, gender analysis acts as the foundational step before embarking on the broader process of Gender Mainstreaming.

Complementing this, ‘Gender Mainstreaming’ constitutes an essential approach, aiming to seamlessly integrate gender perspectives throughout the stages of policy development, implementation, and evaluation. By doing so, it endeavours to foster gender equality and combat discrimination, making policies more inclusive and impactful.

A recent joint report by the WTO and World Bank titled ‘The Role of Trade in Promoting Gender Equality’ underscores the significance of gender mainstreaming. It highlights the remarkable correlation between trade advancements and higher wages for women, subsequently leading to a reduction in economic disparities. This revelation underscores the critical importance of mainstreaming gender concerns in the design and implementation of Preferential Trade Agreements (PTAs).

The Author in this article makes an attempt to delve into the critical dimension of gender mainstreaming within modern trade agreements and assesses the integration of gender-related provisions in Preferential Trade Agreements (PTAs) and their impact on equitable trade benefits.

Global Evolution of Gender Mainstreaming

'Gender mainstreaming' involves integrating gender equality considerations into all aspects of policymaking, programs, and actions. This approach stemmed from the 1985 Nairobi World Conference on Women and has gained significant prominence through emphasis by international bodies like ECOSOC, Council of Europe, and ILO.

This phenomenon is serving the core objective of promoting gender equality within the realms of social and economic development. It's a longstanding element in international policymaking, can be traced back to notable initiatives like the 1945 UN Charter and subsequent resolutions.

Among significant landmarks in this trajectory is the declaration of 1975 as the International Women's Year and the establishment of the United Nations Decade for Women. The Nairobi Forward Looking Strategies for the Advancement of Women, stemming from the 1985 World Conference translating aspiration into practical applications. These strategies address the existing and emerging challenges, prioritizing inclusive development for vulnerable groups among women.

Additionally, The 1995 Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action is a visionary agenda for women's empowerment, advocating for equality, development, and peace for all women. It advocates the full realization of human rights for women and girls and aims to implement the Nairobi Forward Looking Strategies, addressing a wide spectrum of concern.

In summary, the global progress of gender mainstreaming is evident in these developments. Definitions by major international organizations affirm its role in achieving gender equality, underscoring its vital contribution to global gender parity.

Trade Agreements and Gender Inclusion

PTAs bring a unique dimension to non-trade concerns compared to gender-related provisions. These clauses differ in scope, commitments, and placement within PTAs. Unlike areas like environment and SMEs, gender-specific chapters are relatively scarce, primarily found in PTAs between developed and developing economies, indicating an emerging role in promoting gender-balanced trade benefits.

In international trade, agreements encompass various subgroups based on factors like ethnicity, religion, education, and migration status. The European Commission highlights three key impacts addressed by gender provisions in trade agreements:

1. Employment Effect: PTAs' trade liberalization often leads to growth in export-driven sectors, creating job opportunities. Conversely, import-dependent sectors may contract, potentially reducing employment opportunities.

2. Consumption Effect: Opening trade can influence price fluctuations for goods and services, impacting real income and accessibility, especially for women who often manage household consumption.

3. Public Provision Effect: Reduced tariffs from trade liberalization can lead to a decline in state revenue, potentially posing challenges for implementing gender-focused welfare policies.

The COVID-19 pandemic starkly highlighted unique challenges faced by women, particularly in sectors like tourism, hospitality, and informal work. In India, where around 30% of women work in the service sector, the pandemic caused a significant downturn. Studies by UN Women and the OECD underscore that women in informal sectors were disproportionately affected by pandemic-induced lockdowns, exacerbating existing economic disparities.

In the realm of international trade, discussions on 'gender mainstreaming' were notably absent until 2016, marking a turning point in trade and gender considerations at the WTO. This shift was underscored by the launch of the first WTO Action Plan on Trade and Gender (2017-2019), a pivotal step towards addressing gender-related issues in trade.

This plan aligns with the broader international commitment to gender equality. Target 5.A of the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) calls for reforms to ensure women's equal rights to economic resources and access to ownership and control over property, along with enhancing women's participation in leadership and decision-making roles.

The second WTO Action Plan (2021-2026) builds on this foundation and outlines a comprehensive 5-year strategy with specific objectives and action points. For example, it emphasizes gathering and analysing data on the gender impact of trade measures, reflecting a commitment to evidence-based policymaking and recognizing the importance of data in shaping effective gender mainstreaming strategies.

Furthermore, the WTO's Aid for Trade initiative plays a crucial role in targeting developing and least-developed countries to enhance their participation in international trade, with a clear mandate to incorporate gender perspectives. This is underlined by the recognition of sectors like fisheries, agriculture, and tourism, where women's active participation is of paramount importance.

A significant development is the integration of women's empowerment into national and regional trade strategies by approximately 70% of WTO members. This is evident in policies addressing financial incentives, agriculture, fishery, and government procurement, with a focus on supporting women-owned and led businesses.

These initiatives collectively position international trade instruments as catalysts for female economic empowerment and increased employment opportunities. The establishment of a comprehensive database on gender provisions within Regional Trade Agreements stands as a significant stride towards advancing gender equality in trade policies.

The intersection of trade and gender represents a nuanced area, with a diverse array of gender-related provisions in PTAs. These provisions can take various forms, from mention in the preamble or articles, to specific chapters or side agreements. In conclusion, the WTO's increasing focus on gender considerations in trade policies reflects a growing recognition of the importance of gender mainstreaming in international trade. This not only opens up economic opportunities for women but also signals a broader commitment to advancing gender equality on the global stage, in line with international legal frameworks.

Advancing Gender Inclusion in India's Trade Policy Landscape

India has taken significant steps in recent years through gender budgeting and policies to address the challenges faced by women due to their subordinate status. The transgender community has also gained recognition in the development discourse, with directed welfare actions guided by a policy framework.

However, India's 2023 Foreign Trade Policy (FTP) missed a critical opportunity by not including "gender" in its vision document. This oversight is crucial considering its potential impact on India's goal of achieving $2 trillion in exports and could hinder the implementation of the National Trade Facilitation Action Plan (NTFAP), which emphasizes gender mainstreaming.

Being "gender blind" differs from being "gender neutral." Research by the WTO and World Bank shows that trade policies affect men and women differently, outlining the need for specific provisions to empower women in policies shaping the country's trade growth.

India's NTFAP (2020-23) recommended promoting "gender inclusiveness in trade" (Action Point 27) to address shortcomings in gender mainstreaming. While India's overall score in the Global Survey on Digital and Sustainable Trade Facilitation improved, the score for "Women in Trade Facilitation" was lower. The Land Port Authority of India is working to create more gender-friendly land ports, setting a precedent for other trade bodies and agencies.

Another significant arena where gender mainstreaming is anticipated is in India's Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) currently under negotiation with the EU, Israel, Canada, and the UK. Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal has indicated that discussions now encompass subjects like gender, environment, SMEs, labor, and anti-corruption laws. Globally, FTAs increasingly include gender provisions, ranging from reaffirming existing commitments to outlining measures for promoting gender equality and women's economic empowerment.

Out of 353 RTAs notified to the WTO as of 2022, 101 explicitly reference gender issues, aiming to foster equal opportunities. India is expected to incorporate gender considerations in its ongoing FTA negotiations.

Regrettably, despite the promising draft FTP in September 2022 which called for at least including gender in the Vision statement, the final policy document does not mention gender or women at any point. While several provisions within the new Foreign Trade Policy have the potential to support women's participation in trade, it is crucial for the FTP to explicitly convey the government's vision of enabling women's economic empowerment and outline measures for increasing their involvement in trade.

Moreover, the FTP should advocate for data collection on women's participation in trade. The policy should also lead to more trade opportunities for women and guide policymakers in devising strategies for gender empowerment, especially in sectors where women are more prevalent.

In conclusion, the absence of a gender perspective in India's Foreign Trade Policy contradicts its efforts towards gender mainstreaming in other economic policies. Incorporating gender considerations will affirm India's commitment to reducing gender inequalities through trade policies and agreements, aligning with the government's women-led development agenda. Research shows that trade policies with a gender perspective are pivotal in overcoming overall gender inequalities.


The integration of gender-related provisions into Preferential Trade Agreements (PTAs) marks a significant milestone in recognizing the intrinsic link between gender considerations and international trade. While these commitments primarily take the form of cooperative measures, their inclusion signifies a growing awareness of the need to address gender disparities within the realm of global commerce.

Nevertheless, challenges persist. Achieving a comprehensive embodiment of gender equality within PTAs remains a work in progress. The concept of 'intersectionality,' acknowledging the complex and layered identities of women, demands further attention. Additionally, the current interpretation of 'gender' and 'gender mainstreaming' needs refinement, ensuring that the rights and experiences of all individuals, including transgender individuals, are adequately represented.

To propel the discourse on trade and gender, it is imperative for PTAs to undergo linguistic revisions that more closely align with the principles of inclusivity and equity. This transition towards a more comprehensive approach not only strengthens gender equality but also signifies a commitment to fostering global development. In an era of increasing interconnectedness, adopting a broader perspective on gender within trade agreements is essential for meaningful progress. PTAs must evolve to better reflect the complex realities and diverse identities of those affected by international trade.

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