Declining trade hurts women in poorer nations, says top UN trade official

10 March 2009

A decline in trade resulting from shrinking global markets may cost many women in developing countries their jobs, the head of the United Nations agency that promotes commerce to fight poverty warned today.

Governments should consider including measures to bolster women’s employment and support small businesses run by women as they craft economic stimulus packages, Supachai Panitchpakdi, Secretary-General of the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), said at the start of a two-day meeting of experts on the theme, “mainstreaming gender in trade policy.”

Due to rapid growth in exports at the beginning of the new millennium, women have been heavily employed in the export sector, accounting for as many as 80 per cent of the textile industry workforce in developing countries and making them vulnerable to the turmoil in global trading.

UNCTAD estimates that merchandise exports from developing countries could drop by 15.5 per cent in 2009, which Mr. Supachai said was an optimistic forecast.

He told participants at the Geneva conference that there have been documented cases where women have been penalized by trade integration.

“Trade policies have often disrupted markets where women operate. Agricultural liberalization has often meant that small-scale farmers, most of whom are women, can find it impossible to compete in international markets and be forced into subsistence activities,” he said.

“In other cases, women operating in import competing sectors and small-scale enterprises have also been unable to compete with foreign goods, thus losing employment.”

The International Labour Office (ILO) is predicting a global rise in unemployment this year of up to 51 million, some 22 million of whom will be women.

Although the crisis had its initial impact largely on male-dominated sectors such as finance, insurance and construction, it is now spreading into fields where women are widely employed, said Mr. Supachai.

He recommended that governments add special measures to protect women’s interests and to focus on women’s employment in their economic recovery plans, including support for expanding micro-credit programmes, which mostly benefit women.

UNCTAD is tasked with managing the Inter-agency Task Force on Gender and Trade, and the expert meeting is expected to provide new impetus to the task force’s work.

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