Trade liberalisation increases gender inequality in India

Trade liberalisation, considered by some as the cure-all of development, has contributed to large economic growth in many different countries.  Nathan Parton investigates India’s growing gender inequality as a result of such practices.

Evidence of an average 7% growth in India for more than a decade supports the claims of those that advocate for trade liberalisation. However, this liberalisation has only really benefited a very small section of the upper echelons of society. Thus, such economic growth has failed to prevent millions from facing poverty and malnourishment daily, especially women. Women are subject to societal inequalities that have resulted in increased acts of rape and violence as well as day to day indirect, or structural, violence.

Economic institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and the World Trade Organisation tend to be oblivious to the impact their economic policies have at a micro level. Although policies may be drawn up and implemented with good intentions (this is subject to debate), these institutions are frequently accused of being gender blind.

The removal of trade tariffs are thought to benefit local farmers through increasing exports. Men are the greatest owners of land in India and women often find themselves working for their husbands or the family in fields and in the home. The caste system relegates women to certain positions within society that regularly prevents any advancement.

©Gates Foundation/Creative Commons License

©Gates Foundation/Creative Commons License

Pushing women into the informal sector

According to the Foundation of Sustainable Development, in India, only 54 percent of women are literate compared to 76 percent of men. Families tend to prevent, or at least not encourage, girls from attending school because there is little obvious financial reward. Traditionally, the female’s place exists within the household doing the housework which is an additional reason why women are redundant from important positions within businesses and politics which is highlighted by Rani. Cyclically, the lack of education is also the reason why women generally work in harder conditions, such as agriculture. Although there is a percentage of women that have been able to enjoy foreign capital investment and have found themselves in positions of importance, there are many more (millions) women who have found no place to earn a living other than within the informal sector.


The reality is that trade liberalisation has increased the need for cash incomes in rural households to compensate for the costs that the new technology has amounted to. Consequently, women have to work as labourers and even have worked in unpaid labour for farming tasks.  These circumstances have resulted in augmenting women’s already high labour burden and have displaced women’s wage-earning opportunities through mechanisation.

The WTO has had several prohibitive effects for women in India. For example, the ‘Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights’ (TRIPS) agreement essentially took the traditional role of primary seed keepers and processors from women. This policy which is in place to ‘support’ producers and manufacturers actually undermined the role and position of women in their workplace. In 1997 US based RiceTec Inc. was granted a patent on basmati rice. For India, basmati rice is the 4th highest export product so this became a controversial issue that illustrated the vulnerabilities that developing countries face. Foreign corporations can take a product and develop it for their own benefit.

Land ownership

According to Oxfam India, only 6 percent of women own land and 8 percent have control over agricultural income which is linked to preference for sons. The issue does not stop at land ownership. Once women own their own land, they face difficulties in gaining access to institutional credit. Therefore, the WTO is guilty of being myopic and needs to incorporate gender specific protection mechanisms. An eye-opening example that illustrates women’s struggle for land comes from India itself. A wife of a farmer, known as Usha, was left with no land after her husband’s death because the government sold the land to pay off his debts, leaving her with nothing.

©International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center/Creative Commons License

©International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center/Creative Commons License

Indeed, multinational economic institutions have created departments in order to recognise the role of women in development – a movement branded as ‘gender mainstreaming.’ Gender neutrality has thus far failed to improve the rights of women farmers and India still falls behind many other developing nations in the percentage of women who own land. This is a complex issue that needs to be addressed sooner rather than later. 80 percent of women in India work in agriculture and it is therefore essential that the government and these economic institutions introduce effective strategies that offer women independence and authority.

Follow Bangladesh’s example?

Bangladeshi economist Muhammad Yunus has influenced more than 40 countries to adopt his microcredit programmes which offer women empowerment and economic independence. If implemented effectively through economic institutions and the Indian government, a microcredit programme like this would help women take loans to develop the land and themselves.

Irrespective of how this matter is addressed, what is clear is that gendered inequalities are exacerbated by trade liberalisation. With 2015 and the setting of Post-Millennium Development Goals, we must look for alternative development models if we are change this.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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