Investing in women and girls has a multiplier effect on productivity and sustained economic growth. Investing in women is not only the right thing to do. It is the smart thing to do.

Ban Ki Moon, Secretary-General, United Nations.

On March 8th, we celebrated the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day,  and this seems an appropriate time to take a few minutes to discuss gender realities in the area of trade. As the above quote by Ban Ki Moon implies, there are differences in the way that trade impacts women. This is not a new concept, but I decided to explore the following questions to more fully grasp its implications:

  • What are gender-based constraints to increasing trade and reducing poverty in developing countries?
  • Are there trade-related constraints or realities that apply uniquely or predominantly to women and that therefore require special attention by policymakers and entrepreneurs – both corporate and social?

This is not a subject that can be exhausted in a brief discussion, so here are some initial thoughts.

Women dominate the informal trading sector: In many developing countries, and certainly throughout Africa and the Caribbean, women constitute the bulk of the informal trading sector – those traders who travel with a couple of suitcases to pick up cheap products, as opposed to importing containers of goods, which are then sold back home. As the term suggests, these “informal” traders and their interests, are often underrepresented, if not totally absent, in government policy, trade negotiations, and international aid policy.

We also have to consider why this sector attracts so many women. Self-employment can provide a flexibility that is not possible through regular employment that allows them to care for their children and dependents. While there are a growing number of women entrepreneurs, for those with limited education and access to finance the informal trading sector offers a ready means of livelihood. How is the informal sector viewed in your country, and do government policy and international aid for trade programs address the needs of that sector in your country?

Women need non-traditional sources of capital. Traditional sources of financing require proof of title to collateral (house, land) and of creditworthiness. Poor women are less likely than their men to hold title to such collateral. At the same time, these traditional sources ignore the reality that these women nevertheless manage households on very small budgets, paying the necessary bills and sending their children to school with food in their stomachs. Micro-financing recognizes and builds on these skills and experiences that women have, also recognizing that they often need just the tiniest sum to get started on the way to profitability in business and trade. Are there adequate means of micro-financing to provide access to capital for these women?

Women need strong support networks: There may, or may not, be studies that show differences between the male and female psyche with regards to the need for support networks. I do know from my own experience the importance of support networks comprised of family, and of people who look and think like me and share similar experiences. Women support groups can make a world of difference to the emerging female entrepreneur. They can also bring greater visibility and a voice to the special issues that women face. Do such networks exist in your neck of the woods?

Jobs must pay a living wage: Finally, while increased trade can undoubtedly bring improved growth and prosperity, this does not necessarily translate into improved livelihoods for women. The fastest growing sector in most developing countries is the service sector – which is also usually a high employer of women and payer of low wages. It is therefore not sufficient to extol the increase in jobs; it is equally important to pay attention to whether they generate incomes that allow women to feed their families.

Ultimately, women are quite capable of creating their own prosperity and, along with that, a brighter future for their families. What women, particularly poor women in developing countries need, is equal access to education and to opportunity. No surprise then, the theme of the International Women’s Day for 2011 — Equal access to education, training and science and technology: Pathway to decent work for women.

Happy International Women’s Day!