Published on The Trade Post

Women and trade: improving conditions for success in development

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Small-scale traders in Rwanda. Photo - Simone D. McCourtie / World Bank.Women – as entrepreneurs, heads of households and consumers, among other roles – are crucial to ending poverty and boosting global prosperity. They are key to success in international trade.

However, gender-specific hurdles to working, trading and earning the benefits of trade are complex. They also come in surprising forms – family members, government policies and social networks, to name a few. Increasingly, along with other international institutions, we at the World Bank Group are addressing that complexity. We know that if our assistance to developing countries improves only the lives of men, we have failed. 

Take women’s roles in global value chains, production processes that cross multiple borders and tap the efficiencies of modern trade. In one report that examined a number of case studies, we found that women in the horticulture sector in Honduras were workers, but seldom owners of land. While women might be employees at call centers in Egypt, they are rarely managers. Women in Kenya’s tourism industry might clean hotel rooms but they almost never hold the more lucrative job of safari guide. Policy solutions, such as increasing women’s access to training and to networking organizations, could help.

Formidable obstacles must be overcome to ensure women have access to economic mobility and advancement. In Africa, women are disproportionately harassed and asked for bribes at border-crossings. However, they are also key to expanding trade in Africa as farmers, cross-border traders and business owners. We recently launched an innovative approach to help improve the treatment of small-scale traders in East Africa and Southern Africa, the majority of whom are women. This project involves having traders and border officials sign a document that sets ground rules for a respectful environment.  

In the Lao People’s Democratic Republic we examined how gender constraints affected trade, including employment in the production of traded goods. We found that the country had untapped export potential in agriculture, tourism and garment manufacturing. These are sectors in which women account for a large share of employees and are exposed to the associated risks but do not always gain access to the full benefits that international trade can provide. As a response, we are helping to improve working conditions in garment factories where externally verified improvements can help the industry reach premium buyers. We are also providing grants to women entrepreneurs. While this work is in its early stages, we have begun to see small signs of success. One of the garment firms we are working with, for example, has improved its productivity and human resources systems and added 600 new jobs.

Recognizing that women face unique challenges is important to increasing their participation in trade.  Solutions to those problems must go beyond traditional assistance. They require collecting more data – for example, in informal employment, where most women are concentrated. They require legal changes such as eradicating barriers preventing women from working or owning a business, factors we track in an ongoing project entitled ‘ Women, Business and the Law.’ They require approaches that target behaviour and leverage technology, such as programmes encouraging the use of mobile phones to report abuse at border crossings. At the World Bank Group we continue to work towards creative and pragmatic solutions. We believe people should have a chance to reap the benefits of economic growth and to maximize their contributions. We see how important it is to give women around the world that chance. 

This post was originally published in the International Trade Forum Magazine.


Anabel Gonzalez

Consultant on Trade and Investment, World Bank

Caren Grown

Former Global Director, Gender

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