Integrating Gender and Trade Policy in CARICOM for this Year’s International Women’s Day

By Jan Yves Remy and Tonni Brodber

It would be remiss not to highlight important strides made recently to advance the trade and gender agenda in CARICOM:  Under the incoming Presidency of Barbados, UNCTAD XV hosted an inaugural Forum on Gender and Development, led by Caribbean feminists, with the strong voices of the Global South represented in the final Declaration; for the first time ever, the Shridath Ramphal Centre (SRC) hosted a 9-day WTO online seminar on Women and Trade in the Americas; and last year the UN Women, Caribbean released a dedicated study on the topic, with a focus on the Caribbean. 

But even with these milestones, the Caribbean region lags behind in its study, understanding, and advocacy on the topic of trade and gender.   This is unfortunate since, being among the most trade-vulnerable in the world, the Caribbean region presents a fascinating case to explore the history of women in trade, the gender considerations within the existing trade framework, and the implications of these for sustainable development.

On the occasion of this International Women’s Day, and mindful of this year’s theme “Gender equality today for a sustainable tomorrow”, we have come together to explore the impact of CARICOM’s current trade policies on women and how CARICOM pursues trade and development policy. Trade policy remains a critical development strategy and must be employed, with greater effect, to promote gender equality and sustainable development in the region. 

How do women show up in CARICOM Trade?

CARICOM countries are among the most trade-dependent and open economies of the world, and trade constitutes a major cornerstone of their economies, critical to economic growth and development.  Extra-regional trade is dominated by relations with the the United States, the United Kingdom, the European Union, Canada and increasingly, China. While some are steeped in commodities trade, today, our economies are predominantly services-based, with tradable services focused on the tourism and financial services sectors.

Our trade performance in the last 40 years has declined or stagnated, and the region is generally considered one of the least competitive in the world. Intra-regional trade continues to lag behind other regional groupings, accounting for just 12.5% of CARICOM’s total exports in 2016. The region’s susceptibility to natural disasters as well as its chronic indebtedness compounds our trade profile, meaning that governments struggle to meet public expenditure on basic social systems like health and education, which impacts marginalized and low-income groups. The economic shutdowns and global supply disruptions of COVID-19 wreaked havoc on fragile economies, including tourism, resulting in a 73% decline in international arrivals globally by end of 2020.  CARICOM’s economic and climatic vulnerabilities have had, and continue to have, serious repercussions for vulnerable groups, in particular women. To paraphrase the UN Women COVID-19 Impact Summary Report, these intersecting vulnerabilities mean women are more exposed to negative shocks like COVID-19 than men.

Trade liberalization policy, as it has been practiced in the Caribbean, has not been sensitive to the differentiated impact on men and women.  Moreover, we in the trade world have under appreciated the historical and current profile of women as producers, traders and consumers.  Historically, women’s participation in trade was in agricultural production, especially during and after the colonial period, giving way in the 1980s and 1990s, in some countries like Jamaica and Haiti, to employment – often in sub-par conditions – in Exclusive Economic Zones.

When agriculture declined in many islands, exportable services from the region – especially in tourism and travel related sectors – were predominated by women, but even here, they occupy lower paid positions and continue to be vulnerable to external shocks, like the pandemic. Even in areas with export potential, including agri-business, they are outperformed by men. While it is true that women-owned micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) are increasingly niche, they continue to be concentrated in low growth areas; and many do not have as much access to financing as men entrepreneurs do.

Another feature of women’s participation in the labour and tradable sectors is informality.    For many women managing households on their own, informal care work has not only been integral to their and their families’ livelihoods, but to Caribbean economies as a whole. Efforts to support the transition from women entrepreneurs in the informal sector to the formal sector have not been successful.

Finally, women in the Caribbean experience trade policy as consumers and heads of single parent households. As primary caregivers they are often responsible for food, security and nutrition. With declining economic fortunes in many of the islands, women have to resort to cheaper– often less nutritious – imports to feed their families. This has contributed to the region’s high import food bill and translates into limited expenditure to support and space for subsidizing care, health, education that impact women and their families.

Some gains but not enough

While the women have made gains under certain equality indicators – including removal of discriminatory legislation; and equal number in education – systemic and entrenched problems like gender violence, poor integration into leadership positions and low entry as entrepreneurs continue to stymie their economic and trade performance.

The Caribbean feminist agenda, which has gone through a number of movements, and was led for a long time led by CAFRA, which spearheaded the region’s gains under the CEDAW and the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995. Today, beyond a general rejection of trade liberalization, the specifics regarding the gender and trade agenda amongst the network of Caribbean women’s and gender equality organizations is focused on creating an enabling environment for women to equitably engage in trade. This includes the promotion of gender-responsive social protection measures such as subsidized childcare, paid parental leave and equal pay for equal work. The private sector and international community have engaged in supporting women-owned businesses through skills strengthening, increased access to financing as well as networking opportunities, and is supported by projects such as Compete Caribbean, We-Xport project by the Caribbean Export Development Agency and the SheTrades Outlook policy tool developed by the ITC captures new trade and gender data to better inform policy and programme formulation to support women in business.    

At the level of trade and economic policy, CARICOM’s promotion of gender equality through trade policies and agreements is disappointing. Many CARICOM countries signed up to 2017 WTO Ministerial Conference in Buenos Aires, and in the lead up to the WTO’s MC12, the 2021 Joint Ministerial Declaration on the Advancement of Gender Equality and Women’s Economic Empowerment within Trade, and all subscribe to SDG 5 to “achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls”.  But this has not been accompanied by actual policies at the domestic level to promote and mainstream gender.  According to a recent UN ECLAC Study, eight Caribbean countries have national development plans that mainstream gender, and trade remains virtually gender neutral despite its widely accepted gender dimensions.

CARICOM’s rate of incorporation of gender provisions into its trade agreements are among the lowest.  Using the ITC’s survey which measures the sensitivity of trade provisions to gender equality, CARICOM’s trade agreements – include those with the European Union, UK, and bilateral agreements with some Latin American countries – were analyzed and found to be “completely or close to gender-blind or gender neutral” because they failed to mainstream gender concerns.

At the institutional level, some work has been done by CARICOM which focuses on social and health-related themes and addressing sexual violence against women and girls. But virtually none on integrating the trade and gender concerns and pursuing them actively in trade agreements.

Let’s start with us…

Despite increasing recognition globally of the interlinkages between trade and gender, and the role that trade can play in advancing women’s empowerment, CARICOM Member States have not demonstrated a clear understanding of the differentiated impact on women who encounter the trade space as producers, traders, and consumers; nor have they adequately and sufficiently mainstreamed gender provisions into their trade agreements to date.  Other countries of the world, including developing ones have shown that, if negotiated with a gender lens, trade can translate into more job opportunities, better business connections, enhanced market access, and fewer barriers to access finances and other productive resources for women, all of which remain issues stymying the advancement in CARICOM States.

It is time to move beyond rhetoric to transformative policies that work for women. Transformation begins with unconditional acknowledgement of the problem facing women, an open approach to understanding the dimensions of the problem and an unflinching commitment by trade and gender groups to work collaboratively to promote the sustainable development of the region through women’s advancement.

We at the SRC and UN Women have come together to make a start.  Hopefully, others will follow. Jan Yves Remy is the Director of the Shridath Ramphal Centre for International Trade Law, Policy and Services, UWI, Cave Hill Campus; Tonni Brodber is the Representative for the UN Women Multi-Country Office-Caribbean.  These thoughts have been further developed in an upcoming academic article.  For more information on the SRC visit our website at: