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As the world celebrates International Women’s Day, it is crucial to recognize the strides made in women’s inclusion in trade while acknowledging the work that remains. India has taken steps to improve the economic opportunities available for women. Yet, significant progress toward achieving transformative impact remains elusive. By increasing the accuracy and accessibility of trade statistics disaggregated by gender, India’s state and national governments can use this information to more effectively implement trade policy reforms, including women’s empowerment through international trade, trade up-skilling, and remodeling trade institutions to address gender financing gaps. As the adage goes, “What gets measured, gets done.”

Gender Disaggregated Data: An Undervalued Barrier to Progress

Globally, advocates’ ability to outline the link between gender equality and trade has been hindered by limited data and a lack of research regarding the connections between women’s roles as workers, consumers, and decision-makers. The 2020 joint World Bank and World Trade Organization (WTO) report on the role of trade in promoting women’s equality made an initial effort to quantify the impact of improved trade on women in the workforce by utilizing gender-disaggregated labor datasets. The findings revealed that firms that engage in international trade tend to employ more women, and women are more prominently represented and receive relatively higher wages in firms participating in global value chains. Among other international reports, ample research supports the argument that international trade tends to benefit women in developing economies, but the benefits often depend on effective policy implementation. 

To further benefit women and enhance their participation in the economy, additional funding and effort must be directed to gathering national gender-disaggregated data at the firm level and ensuring its accessibility to third-party research organizations.

India has undertaken various initiatives in trade policy and capacity-building to address digital access, financial literacy, and trade up-skilling for women. The country’s strong commitment to gender inclusive trade is evident in the government’s National Trade Facilitation Action Plan (NTFAP) 2020-23, where under Action Point 27, policymakers, business chambers, and private sector representatives are dedicated to promoting gender inclusiveness in trade. In the 2023 UN Global Survey on Digital and Sustainable Trade Facilitation, which covers 160 economies and over 60 digital and sustainable trade measures that include inclusive participation in trade, India achieved an overall score of 93.55 percent, a significant increase from 63.44 percent in 2015. Within this survey, India’s score for “Women in Trade Facilitation” reached 77.8 percent, marking a notable improvement from 66.7 percent in 2021. The UN survey attributed this increase to India’s trade facilitation efforts, which in turn improved women’s participation in trade and women’s representation in the National Trade Facilitation Committee and similar governing bodies.

The ongoing shift from physical to digital interactions holds the potential to create a more level playing field for women in trade. Amid the pandemic, India implemented the Turant Customs Programme, which modernized the customs clearance process at ports, making it faceless, contactless, and paperless. While these reforms are noteworthy, more needs to be done to bridge the gender gap in the labor force, which stands at 37 percent female participation against 78.5 percent male participation in the total labor force as per 2022-23 estimates. While the labor force participation is known and measured, the participation rate for women in India’s trade ecosystem is unknown and expected to be even lower.

To further advance the extent to which India’s trade facilitation initiatives benefit women and enhance their participation in the economy, additional funding and effort must be directed to gathering national gender-disaggregated data at the firm level and ensuring its accessibility to third-party research organizations. More accurate and granular gender disaggregated data would facilitate the development of more targeted and effective policy interventions and reforms aimed at promoting gender equality in trade. Data gaps pose a greater challenge in recognizing prevailing gender disparities and formulating policies aimed at narrowing them.

In India, the benefit of apportioning specific funding for improving gender equality is gaining traction alongside increasing recognition that “gender blind” policy is not an effective approach to improving women’s economic conditions. In the 2022-23 fiscal year, 41 ministries, departments, and union territories reported allocating a total of USD $20 billion to the Gender Budget Statement, a reporting mechanism for the government to review state programs from a gender perspective, marking an 11.5 percent increase over the previous year. Nation-wide budget reports on women’s economic empowerment programs and accessible gender-disaggregated data on women’s involvement in India’s trade ecosystem are two essential initiatives that must occur in parallel in order for effective legislation to be possible.

Improved Data Advances Broader Trade Objectives

Greater availability and accessibility of trade statistics disaggregated by gender can enable authorities at different levels — such as the Ministry of Finance and Ministry of Customs at the national level and port authorities at the local level — to more effectively measure the gaps and implement suitable gender specific provisions in the trade ecosystem. Working on high-level trade policy reforms, funding up-skilling programs geared toward women, implementing institutional reforms in trade, and encouraging holistic empowerment are some ways that India’s trade ecosystem can become more inclusive. 

High-level trade policy in India cannot afford to be gender neutral, especially considering the pre-existing disadvantages women face in trade due to various social, institutional, and structural factors. Drafting guidelines for new trade agreements ought to consider incorporating gender-specific provisions. Further, enabling women to effectively participate in trade goes beyond the scope of general trade policy alone. It necessitates a comprehensive approach that integrates trade policy with domestic reforms and capacity-building initiatives, encompassing digital literacy, financial literacy, and other trade related skills. These policy interventions can only be carried out with improved trade statistics disaggregated by gender. 

Research conducted by the World Bank Group on agriculture and spice value chains in the northeast region of India indicates that women’s participation is particularly prominent in lower levels of the value chain, such as on-farm activities including cultivation, harvesting, sorting, grading, packaging, and labeling. However, greater focus on capacity-building initiatives has the potential to enable women to transition into higher levels of the value chain, including roles in research and development, quality assurance, marketing, and distribution. The gap in education, skills, and training significantly undermines women’s ability to participate and assume leadership positions in trade-related sectors.

High-level trade policy in India cannot afford to be gender neutral, especially considering the pre-existing disadvantages women face in trade due to various social, institutional, and structural factors.

In addition, internal institutional reforms are crucial to real progress. India’s financial institutions must prioritize gender balance in their staff to help address the societal bias and skepticism toward women-owned enterprises. At the local level, port authorities need to promote women’s participation in decision-making processes. This necessarily includes ensuring women’s representation in the Permanent Trade Facilitation Committee (PTFC) and Customs Clearance Facility Committee (CCFC), and regular interactions conducted at the port level in India. 

Further, the disproportionate burden of care on women adversely impacts their participation in the workforce. India allocates less than 1 percent of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to the care economy. Yet, investing in public-sector care infrastructure, even at just 2 percent of India’s GDP, has the potential to create 11 million jobs and improve women’s economic and social welfare as they transition into formal employment. Therefore, it is imperative to develop an action plan geared toward women’s holistic empowerment. This plan should include enhancing care policies and expanding care service provisions, which could include mandating gender tagging for all projects undertaken in India, irrespective of the implementing agency, to ensure that they address the specific needs and priorities of women.

One metric used to assess the empowerment of women in India’s care economy is maternity leave, where India stands out by offering 26 weeks of maternity leave, surpassing the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) standard mandate of 14 weeks, which is followed by 120 other countries. It is crucial to transform maternity leave into parental leave to foster a more supportive environment for working parents. However, this coverage only applies to a small fraction of women who are employed in formal sectors in India. 

Each of these reforms is essential for promoting gender equality in trade and advancing the pillars of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF). The four pillars of the IPEF aim to advance resilience, sustainability, inclusiveness, growth, fairness, and competition in trade; the centrality of women’s empowerment to all of these cannot be overstated. Given the significant gender disparity levels around the globe, India has the opportunity to take a leadership role by integrating a gender-inclusive approach into its global trade partnerships. Moreover, India’s growing integration into global trade presents an opportunity for India to address its own skill and capacity gaps by advancing gender equality and women’s empowerment. The first step in this journey is to provide Indian decision-makers with accurate and inclusive data that enables gender-conscious trade policy.

This article is based on the findings of the Policy Paper titled “Women’s Inclusion in India’s Trade Ecosystem,” authored by Nikita Singla.

Also Read: Empowering Women in Pakistan’s Economy

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Image 1: Women selling sausages at a Goa market via Wikimedia Commons.

Image 2: Woman designing jewelry via Wikimedia Commons.

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