The WTO’s Gendered Comeback: Gender Concerns at the 12th Ministerial Conference

Date Posted: Monday 20th June 2022

by Erin Hannah, King’s University College at Western University, and Silke Trommer, University of Manchester


You can hear more on this topic at the webinar for the launch of the policy paper on 29th June 13:00- 14:30. Panellists will be Dr Silke Trommer, University of Manchester, Professor Sophie Harman, Queen Mary University, and Anum Qaisar, MP.

Register for Trade and Health through a feminist lens here


This blog sits alongside our upcoming policy paper: Trade and Health, which you will be able to read on the WBG site


Policymakers and activists keen on using trade to achieve gender equality had been harbouring high hopes for the World Trade Organization (WTO)’s 12th Ministerial Conference (MC12) taking place in Geneva from 12-17 June 2022. Such hopes had been sparked by the WTO Declaration on Trade and Women’s Economic Empowerment adopted in 2017 at MC11 in Buenos Aires and the various advances on pushing a multilateral gender and trade agenda within the organisation that have followed. These include the appointment of a WTO Gender Focal Point in 2017, since expanded into a Trade and Gender Unit within the WTO Secretariat; the forming of the WTO Informal Working Group (IWG) on Trade and Gender in 2018; the creation of a WTO Gender Research Hub in 2020; the adoption of two WTO Action Plans on Trade and Gender (2017-2019, 2021-2026), and more.

For MC12, insiders expected to see a plurilateral Joint Ministerial Declaration on the Advancement of Gender Equality and Women’s Economic Empowerment within Trade, which promises to carry on the work commenced at Buenos Aires, by collecting gender-disaggregated data and using it as the basis for “gender-responsive” trade policies; advancing research to economically empower women and promote gender equality; developing and integrating a gender perspective into the work of the WTO; and mainstreaming gender into Aid for Trade.

Prospects of driving forward the WTO’s gender agenda at MC12 appeared to have been crushed when participants arrived in Geneva on a hot June day. As delegates descended into the coalface of trade negotiations at Centre William Rappard and NGO representatives struggled with access to MC12 negotiations, news emerged that WTO members had shelved the Joint Ministerial Declaration supported by over 75% of the membership. While commentators were seeking to understand why the sudden tabling of an expected plurilateral ministerial declaration with a detailed work plan for trade and gender had occurred, a joint statement by the co-chairs of the IWG affirmed a promise to continue its work. At MC12, an exhibition of the International Trade Centre’s SheTrades Initiative and a high-level event on women’s empowerment and sustainable development on the opening day seemed to be the main focus of activities on gender and trade. Negotiators instead focused on a number of pressing outstanding and contemporary issues among trading nations, including fisheries subsidies, food security, e-commerce and vaccines.

In a welcome further twist, the MC12 Package of Draft Decisions and Declarations adopted in the early mornings of Friday 17 June 2022 contains a section on women’s economic empowerment. In the MC12 Outcome Document, the WTO Ministerial Conference states: “We recognize women’s economic empowerment and the contribution of MSMEs to inclusive and sustainable economic growth, acknowledge their different context, challenges and capabilities in countries at different stages of development, and we take note of the WTO, UNCTAD and ITC’s work on these issues”. While the wording appears weak and includes no reference to gender equality, and the fate of the plurilateral declaration remains uncertain, this is nonetheless a major step for an organisation which until MC12 held no consensus on whether it should tackle gender-related issues.

The MC12 Outcome Document is significant in that it signals broad agreement among the membership that the position of women in the global trading system falls within the purview of the WTO. It confirms the standing of the IWG and the Secretariat’s Trade and Gender Unit, and all of their activities and, most significantly, it gives the WTO a multilateral mandate to advance the gender and trade agenda. Nevertheless, the wider outcomes of MC12 regrettably suggest that many trade negotiators do not see that all of the pressing issues addressed at MC12 – vaccines, fish, e-commerce, food security, and so on – are also and invariably gendered.

Gendered norms and power relations shape how people engage in and are affected by global trade – from kitchen tables to workplaces, to the boardrooms of the world’s transnational corporations. It is a false pretense to behave as though there are certain dimensions of the economy that exist outside of gendered power relations and social structures. Trade impacts people in their multiple roles as carers, informal and formal workers, consumers, users of public services, traders, business owners, entrepreneurs and investors. This is true for all areas of negotiation that WTO delegations were actively working on at MC12, although the outcomes of the conference seem oblivious to this.

At MC12, trade ministers were discussing a waiver, originally proposed by India and South Africa to the WTO Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property (TRIPS), that would help to speed up the global distribution of COVID-19 vaccines. The effect that Intellectual Property obligations in the TRIPS have on access to medicines, especially in developing countries, has been subject to much controversy since the inception of the WTO in the 1990s. The current approach to the TRIPS waiver treats price hikes for IP-protected products and resulting issues with access to vaccines, medical products and medical treatment as a problem  of inequality between nations. However, access to medicines is also deeply unequal along gendered lines globally. As the Feminists For A People’s Vaccine campaign highlights, “geography, wealth, income, gender, race, caste, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity and other factors shape who has access and who has not, who will live and who will die”. Economic vulnerability, differential roles and weak health systems interact with market conditions for medical products in order to determine who receives medication and who does not. Gendered and other social norms and power relations can play a role in determining what household members receive vital medicines in situations of scarcity. The Ministerial Decision on the TRIPS Agreement clarifies already existing flexibilities in TRIPS and temporarily (for 5 years) cuts red tape on the use of compulsory licenses for the export of Covid-19 vaccines to a limited number of importing countries that lack domestic manufacturing capacity. For many NGO activists, this falls far short of constituting a TRIPS waiver that can redress Covid-19 vaccine equity. What was missing from most conversations at MC12 were the gendered dimensions of access to essential and affordable medicines, especially in the world’s poorest countries.

For decades the WTO has been at pains to address the global injustices that are endemic to its fisheries and food security rules, and MC12 is no exception. While negotiators worked to reform global trade rules in ways that would foster equitable modes of agri- and aquaculture, including the equitable access to and distribution of food and fish, few considered that these are deeply gendered issues. For example, women are overwhelmingly responsible for provisioning households the world over and are therefore heavily impacted by food price volatility. It is also well known that subsistence agriculture in developing countries is a female dominated activity, and trade rules undermining subsistence agriculture therefore disproportionately impact women. The same is true for fishing. In fishing, “47% of the 120 million people who earn money directly from fishing and processing are women. In aquaculture, this figure is 70%. Women also make up 85% of the workforce in jobs such as gutting, filling cans or other processing worldwide.” What is more, when overfishing forces coastal communities to adapt new technologies in order to be able to recuperate fish stocks located further out in the seas, women typically lack the economic resources to invest in the necessary equipment, while also lacking the time to travel further for fish stocks while carrying household and care responsibilities. In relation to longstanding deadlocks on both food security and fisheries at the WTO, MC12 has made welcome progress on food, including enabling the activities of the World Food Programme, and on fisheries subsidies. Nevertheless, as commentators quarrel over the ultimate significance of this, it remains clear that WTO members missed the opportunity to consider the gendered aspects of agri- and aquaculture worldwide.

Much has been made about the potential for e-commerce to unlock women’s economic empowerment in least developed countries (LDCs). Indeed, inclusive digital trade was at the heart of two key plurilateral outcomes at MC11 in Buenos Aires – the E-commerce initiative and the Joint Declaration Trade and Women’s Economic Empowerment – and the work programme has continued to ramp up. WTO members agreed at MC12 to temporarily extend the moratorium on e-commerce until 31 March 2024. While e-commerce may create new opportunities for women entrepreneurs, the persistent digital divide may exacerbate existing inequalities. The continuation of the e-commerce moratorium on tariffs might aid women-owned micro, small and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs), but it also translates into forgone government revenue that could be put into public services and infrastructure that support the marginalised, including women. Attention should also be paid to how e-commerce affects the working conditions and domestic obligations of women, ensuring it does not increase unpaid or precarious work or multiply double burdens. Domestic violence and other knock-on effects at the level of households are also frequently the other side of the economic empowerment coin for women entrepreneurs. Cross-border data flows that accompany e-commerce increase the vulnerability of virtually everyone, and women and other vulnerable groups are particularly at risk.

The WTO’s important gender work has, for the very first time, received a multilateral mandate, and will continue under the auspices of the Informal Working Group on Trade and Gender, the activities of the Trade and Gender Unit and the WTO Gender Research Hub, and other formats. This is a major accomplishment. The key question remains if national trade negotiators will recognise and act upon the intrinsically gendered nature of all global trade issues or continue to silo gender as an ostensibly ‘non-trade’ issue. As always, hope lives on in Geneva.

*Issues relating to gender and trade will be further explored in a forthcoming Women’s Budget Group briefing by Silke Trommer, titled Trade and Health: A Briefing for the Women’s Budget Group. The briefing will be launched in an online event on 29 June 2022, 1-2:30pm, with presentations by Dr Silke Trommer, University of Manchester and Professor Sophie Harman, Queen Mary University.