Trade and Gender in South Asia


Trade has the potential to significantly enhance women’s lives by providing new employment, boosting consumer choice, and strengthening women’s negotiating power in society. However, women’s connection with trade is complicated since it can lead to employment losses and a concentration of labour in lower-skilled occupations. To guarantee that trade improves possibilities for all individuals, irrespective of gender, authorities must examine the possible effects of trade laws on different categories of people and establish evidence-based policy responses.

Women’s economic participation can be increased by trade, reduce inequality, and enhance women’s access to skills and education. Women’s incomes rise as a result of trade, as does economic justice: Women’s share of overall manufacturing incomes might rise from 24 percent to 30 percent in developing nations that double their manufacturing exports—a standard gain for developing nations that open up to trade.

Trade policy is accidentally prejudiced against women, leading to fewer jobs and higher consumer products costs. Even though no government explicitly enforces gender-based tariffs, latent prejudices can equate to “pink tariffs,” putting women as both producers and consumers at an economic disadvantage . Women spend a bigger proportion of their income on commodities with high tariffs, such as food, than males. Import taxes might aid women earn 2.5 percent more than males in actual terms. Targeted measures can assist women in reaping the full benefits of trade. These include reducing trade restrictions that prevent women from entering foreign markets and increasing women’s access to higher education, banking sectors, and digital technology.

The international flow of commodities, services, investment, innovation, and communication has reshaped markets and modified the financial environment for individuals, families, businesses, and governments during the last three decades. During this period, cross-border commerce expanded in all areas, but it was especially expedited in South Asia, where goods trade climbed from 16% to 41% of GDP from 1993 to 2008.

Gender considerations in commerce are significant for both intrinsic and instrumental reasons. Governments have pledged to uphold and support globally agreed-upon principles of equal rights for men and women. The 5th SDG goal is committed to giving equal opportunities for women which includes women’s equal access to economic possibilities. Furthermore, gender equality and economic empowerment for women boosts a country’s economic development, export competence, and trade prospects. Wage equality for men and women in labor markets might contribute up to US$28 trillion, or 26%, to global yearly GDP by 2025. Furthermore, increasing economic engagement by women contributes to the achievement of other development goals such as reducing poverty, food and nutrition security, enhanced educational and health outcomes for children, and higher social standing for women.

South Asia is now the world’s least economically interconnected area, with intra-regional commerce accounting for only 5% of overall trade in the region when compared with Sub-Saharan African 22%  trade and 50 % East Asia.

However, boosting intra-regional commerce necessitates giving women and men equal access to the benefits of improved collaboration and partnerships. This is crucial since women’s engagement in trade occupations may help raise many families out of poverty, achieve food security, and enhancing overall human development. Gender-neutral trade barriers, like inadequate facilities and burdensome regulatory and paperwork procedures, disproportionately affect female merchants and female-owned businesses.  This is due to women having more time limitations as a result of their unequal accountability for home and care activities.

 South Asian nations are unable to enjoy the economic benefits of geographical closeness, intra-region commerce, and complementing resource endowments due to a long history of mutual distrust. The lack of intra-regional commerce can also be explained by insufficient transportation connection between nations, as well as legal and logistical hurdles. Trade between the countries of South Asia and the rest of the world is more economical than trade from within South Asia. South Asia still lacks the required infrastructure for trade.

South Asia has been slow to embrace the idea of regional integration due to past political disputes and mutual distrust. Sri Lanka pioneered trade liberalization in 1977, and other nations in the area quickly followed suit. However, trade liberalisation in the area occurred mostly as a result of independent liberalisation by individual governments, and was inconsistent and reluctant across countries.

The challenges and gradual pace of regional integration can be explained in part by

discrepancies noted in South Asian nations.  The BBIN subregion, which includes Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, and Nepal, is the most active of them. The BBIN initiative will not only facilitate the flow of goods across borders, but will also facilitate the movement of workers across borders, resulting in better people-to-people contact, which will have significant implications for regional integration, business travel, and trade in services. It may also give numerous advantages to the area as a result of the potential development of regional value chains in South Asia. Despite its strong growth performance, this sub-region falls behind in reducing poverty and gender balance, notably in women’s economic opportunities and empowerment. As regional integration gets traction among policymakers in the four BBIN nations, it provides an excellent chance to support inclusive trade policies and guarantee that women and men have equal access to and benefit from intra-regional trade expansion.

The formation of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation in 1985 was the initial step toward regional cooperation and integration (SAARC). Another ten years passed before a preferential tariff deal, the South Asian Preferential Trade Area, was reached (SAPTA). The South Asian Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA) was signed eleven years later, and the Trade Liberalization Programme began in 2006. More progress was achieved in 2011 with the establishment of the South Asian Regional Standards Organisation (SARSO) to improve coordination and collaboration among SAARC Member States. SAARC members decided in 2014 to form a South Asia Economic Union (SAEU) similar to the European Union (EU), promoting a shared market and abolishing trade obstacles. In terms of trade relations with neighboring areas (South East Asian nations), only big countries such as India , and to a lesser extent Pakistan, play significant roles in South Asian integration, and each country makes deals with regards to trade agreements separately.

The expansion of global value chains (GVCs) in many developing nations has expanded the number of opportunities accessible for women in labor-intensive industries such as textiles and clothing. On the one hand, the rise of these businesses may benefit women by bringing them into the formal labor force and away from areas such as subsistence agriculture. Women in South Asia, like women in many developing nations, are less integrated in value chains than males. Their lack of mobility, and hence access to markets, as well as societal conventions, limit their contact with value chain actors. Women who work in value chains, for example, are frequently excluded from contacts with customers and suppliers.

Women have restricted access to chain services such as public finance, credits, or trainings due to cultural norms, and gender disparities in education result in lesser skilled roles in value chains for women. Specific policies are put in place to help women. The gendered perspective has now become an intrinsic feature of all new policies, since difficulties became obvious in the literature and the negatives were widely recognized. These policies include:

South Asia Regional Development Program Aid Investment Plan: 2015-16 to 2018-19 (DFAT, 2015): This program was funded by the Australian government and focused on two interconnected goals to address regional barriers to sustainable economic growth. It is significantly linked with the broader objectives of the Australian aid program, which include infrastructure, trade facilitation, agriculture, and water. Gender equality is claimed to be a priority in all regional project initiatives. The World Bank-implemented Infrastructure for Growth (IFG) initiative and the South Asia Regional Trade Facilitation Program will work together to achieve this goal (SARTFP). SARTFP aims to strengthen border commerce and connectivity in South Asia’s eastern subregion, with a special focus on increasing women’s engagement in trade and economic activities.

Pakistan trade initiative funded by Deloitte and carried out in collaboration with USAID and the Pakistan Ministry of Commerce: Deloitte is assisting with trade-related policy with technical expertise. One of the goals of this project is to help women in business.

South Asian governments should also take special steps to enhance the trade benefits to women. One strategy is to enhance existing export sectors that are dominated by women. For instance, the textile and garment industry has yet to realize its full potential. Governments in the region can safeguard the garment sector’s competitiveness by identifying bottlenecks and areas for development.

Aside from export-oriented industries, investments in agriculture can greatly raise demand for female employees and businesses. This means facilitating export sectors where women are already active (such as the ginger and cardamom sectors in Nepal) as well as agricultural expansion, specifically investing in high-value specific export products such as organic crops, traditional medicines, horticulture, and floriculture, and facilitating direct participation of women into these sectors. Women have historically dominated food production in Bhutan, therefore the expansion of the agro-processing business is expected to benefit women greatly. Investments in communications, information technology, tourism, and travel may considerably boost prospects for female employees and entrepreneurs in the services industry. The corporate sector can play an important role in these initiatives.

Improving female producers’ and entrepreneurs’ access to financing is one of the most significant areas for encouraging women’s participation in trade-related activity. This agenda should involve both financial firms and the private industry. Similarly, improving women’s access to production inputs and ICTs is critical for growing female involvement in export industries. Border infrastructure should be favourable to cross-border trading by women. Good lighting, hygienic amenities, along with nursing, education, and health services at or near crossing points help female traders and make it easier to recruit women at border posts. Furthermore, trade facilitation programs that expedite and unify trade processes, develop single window systems, and allow electronic submission of import/export documents assist in leveling the playing field for women. Nepal’s Automated System for Customs Data (ASYCUDA) World and India’s Customs Electronic Commerce Interchange Gateway portal are such examples.

Innocentia Atchaya
Innocentia Atchaya
Feminist scholar advocating for the recognition of gender in geopolitics and international relations.