Moving beyond export-led growth towards securing women’s rights


The new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) contain lofty ambitions around gender equality, decent work, economic diversification and ending inequalities. A new ActionAid briefing, Trading up, Crowded out? shows how these issues are intimately linked.

It calls for a rethinking of the current global economic model if the SDGs are to be met and women’s economic rights are to be fulfilled. It is vital that the High Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment – convened earlier this year to help accelerate progress in this critical area – recognises these interlinkages and addresses the structural causes of women’s economic inequality.

Women face discrimination on the basis of their gender in every country in the world. This discrimination limits women’s choices and opportunities, denies them access to skills, assets and resources, sees them endure gender-based violence, and is used to silence and control them. Such discrimination is particularly pronounced for women living in poverty, where it overlaps with their lesser economic status and other aspects of their identity, such as race, ethnicity, migrant status and age.

Far from being gender neutral, gender discrimination, including stereotypes of what constitutes ‘women’s work’, is reproduced in labour markets. As such, women have fewer opportunities to access decent, secure work, where their rights are respected and where they can earn enough to support themselves and their families.

Instead, women are concentrated in poorly paid and insecure work, including in particular low value, low skilled export manufacturing sectors, such as garments, electronics and textiles. Low pay is falsely justified on the basis that sewing is not an acquired skill but comes ‘naturally’ to women, or that they are not the primary breadwinners.

Women are also assumed to be more docile and less likely to challenge poor conditions. This stereotype is often reinforced through violence, as well as insecure short-term contracts that leave women workers in a constant state of precarity. For example, a workers’ rights activist in Cambodia, where up to 90 per cent of the country’s 600,000 to 700,000 garment workers are women, told ActionAid:

“[A] worker told me…there was so much work for her to do she could not finish…[The supervisor and factor owner] shouted loudly at her and made her cry in front of other workers.”

And as is the case virtually everywhere, women must frequently combine long days of paid toil with a vastly disproportionate burden of unpaid care work. Cooking, cleaning, washing clothes, fetching water, caring for young children, the sick and the elderly – the time and energy needed for these tasks increase exponentially where public services and infrastructure are inadequate. As such, unpaid care hugely limits women’s right to decent work, to participate in decision-making, and to rest and leisure.


Global supply chains

Since the 1970s, the dominant economic paradigm, as manifest in global trade rules and donor prescriptions, has seen a growing number of developing countries implement export-led growth strategies. Such strategies are usually accompanied by steps to open up to free trade, dilute regulatory ‘red tape’, and limit the role of governments in the market.

Competition between countries to attract foreign investors is fierce, particularly when countries depend on a small number of sectors, as is often the case. Global corporates typically concentrate the lowest value-added aspects of their supply chains in poor countries, such as assembly of ready-cut garments.

They readily switch suppliers or countries when a cheaper deal can be found elsewhere, or rapidly withdraw their capital at times of economic crisis. Ever lower pay and conditions are the main bargaining chips developing countries can deploy, with gender discrimination meaning that women provide the biggest ‘competitive advantage’ in the sectors into which they have been crowded.

However, an over-reliance on low wage export-manufacturing based on women’s “comparative disadvantage” means countries effectively de-skill their labour force whilst constraining their potential to compete globally on a broader range of higher quality products. This broadening of the production base, or ‘economic diversification’, is recognised in the SDGs as key to creating decent work opportunities and fostering more sustainable growth.

In fact, research by ActionAid finds that gender equality is positively associated with export diversification and quality – even when controlling for GDP per capita and the importance of trade to the economy. Our Trading Up, Crowded out? report finds that countries that are more gender equal are associated with an average of up to 72 per cent higher levels of export diversity, and, on average, 42 per cent higher levels of export quality.


No silver bullets

However, neither diversification nor growth is sufficient to ensure gender equality. All too often, where countries diversify, gender discrimination kicks in and women lose out again. One study by Sheba Tejani and William Milberg found a significant decline in female manufacturing employment in 21 out 36 developing countries due to diversification and technological upgrading. Similarly, Naila Kabeer has demonstrated emphatically that economic growth does not automatically lead to gender equality.

On the other hand, ActionAid’s findings suggest it is possible for countries to diversify their economies whilst retaining or increasing levels of gender equality. Whilst there is no direct causal relation and the results should not be overstated – gender discrimination prevails everywhere – our research raises questions about the relationship between the two.

ActionAid’s analysis, along with the wider evidence, also points to the need for any efforts towards economic diversification to be accompanied by robust polices to tackle gender discrimination in labour markets and beyond. Policies to uphold women’s right to decent work – including freedom to engage in collective bargaining, and to recognise, reduce and redistribute their unpaid care – also need to be implemented.

Such measures are vital if the SDGs and other, binding commitments on gender equality and women’s empowerment are to be met. In as far as the current export-led growth model hampers efforts to achieve gender equality, the High Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment should pay due consideration to these issues in its September 2016 report.