“Women are losing out”

Interview with Ranja Sengupta on the effects of trade and investment liberalization.

In countries of the Global South, trade and investment agreements often have a negative effect on the weakest parts of society, in particular women. Why is this so? And how can unequal power relations that foster an economic system at the expense of the weakest be challenged? Ranja Sengupta shared the results of her research in India in a video interview. The interview is also available in pdf form here.

“Women are losing out”
Interview with Ranja Sengupta on the effects of trade and investment liberalization

Ms Sengupta, taking the example of trade and investment policies, which are the negative impacts of today’s global economic system on women, in particular in countries of the “Global South“?

What we have seen in the area of trade and invest­ment policy globally, is that it is driven by inequality. It exploits the weaker. Women who are economi­cally, politically and socially weaker and more vulnerable and marginalized get too often to bear a disproportion­ate burden of the so-called liberalization of trade and investment. Different types of agreement perpetuate that inequality. For example, in the developing countries, in the Global South, women really depend on agriculture or informal services like retail. In India, retail is the second largest employer of women after agriculture. But these sectors are getting squeezed by the current trade liberalization framework – both from the WTO and the free trade and investment agreements. These agreements were supposed to be of advantage to small farmers, small players and developing countries, but we have not seen that happen. Because of the way global power relations have been used, these sectors are getting squeezed and women are losing out.

 “Women get too often to bear a disproportionate burden of the lib­eralization of trade and investment.”

At the same time, you see new issues, new areas that are thriving under these trade agreements, but women do not have the chance to do better there. For example, look at intellectual property rights which used not to be a trade issue. But they have now come under trade agreements. Women don’t own the intellectual property because they don’t have so much access to knowledge, to education and to technology. At the same time, they are losing out disproportionately from, for example, the result of high medicine prices or increasing prices of agricultural inputs which they really need. But their access is getting compromised. Look at the investment agreements. They are threat­ening, for example, access to natural resources which women really use. They are also threatening access to development policy and human rights, which again hurts women more than men.
For example, I was talking to HIV affected women. One of them told me that if the medicine is inac­cessible, the woman gives up the treatment but she ensures that her husband continues the treatment – and these medicines have to be taken in a cycle, you should not break the cycle. So the inequality really hurts these women.

 “Investment poli­cies are threaten­ing access to devel­opment policy and human rights.”

And then there are areas like government procure­ment, government pur­chases which are now being liberalised. Those were often tools used, for example, to give preferential treatment to woman producers. So they are losing a lot of ground. And that’s why we are really concerned. Existing social inequalities which are on gender lines, they are increasing from this framework of trade and investment liberalization like we see it today.

 “Existing social inequalities are increasing from this framework of trade and investment liberalization.”

As you said, unequal power relations foster an economic system that serves a few at the expense of large parts of the world’s population. How can these power relations be challenged?

I do wish I had the answer to this question. I think one is to control the power at the top, to build in more responsibility and accountability. Like, for example, the business and human rights discussion that is going on: How to make the corporations that are so rich, more transparent and accountable? The big corporations are determining policy worldwide through these different types of agreement whether it is in finance, in trade, in investment. They are controlling the policy. So how do you curb that gigantic influence, is one challenge. And then, of course, we have been hear­ing it historically that you strengthen the weakest but we haven’t seen it over so many decades of globalization. I think you have to build in more transparency, more participation, more democ­racy in all these systems and different frameworks that drive inequality.

“How to make corporations more transparent and accountable?”

What would be elements of a fairer trade system that would be contributing to rather than hindering the materialization of human rights?

The one major challenge that we are facing is that countries are losing their policy flexibility. They are getting tight to agreements and to binding rules which may not be working for them and for their people. In fact, the biggest advocates of trade liberalization do say that there has to be redistribution. But the countries are losing the policy flexibility to do that redistribution. So I think, most important is to retain the policy flexibility so that a country can design its own trade agreement or trade relationships for each point on its development path. You know, it is not go­ing to be the same when it is a very poor country and when it is moving up the development path producing different sets of goods with different sets of skills. Secondly, countries must have the policy flexibility to address these inequalities that different social classes face when they are affected by these trade liberaliza­tions. That’s crucial.

“Everything must be subservient to an overriding hu­man rights frame­work.”

In terms of process, the one major thing is to have an overriding human rights framework. Everything else must be subservient to that. You have to recognize that that is your primary frame­work and nothing gives you the power to violate that framework which would include the right to develop­ment for developing countries and their citizens.

“Countries must have policy flexi­bility to address inequalities.”

Furthermore, we need independent human rights assessment where affected people are participating. The results from these assessments which should be in conformity with the human rights framework must determine the terms of your trade relationships.

“Everything must be subservient to an overriding hu­man rights frame­work.”

Ranja Sengupta works as Senior Researcher with the Third World Network (TWN) and is based in New Delhi. She currently works on global trade and investment policies including those framed by the WTO and the Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) and their impact on development priorities in the South. She has specifically looked at the gender dynamics of trade and investment policies and the impact on SMEs.

Source: Development and Peace Foundation (sef:)

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