International trade policies have traditionally been measured in terms of net economic benefit and market-based criteria. For the most part, these policies have largely ignored any of the societal effects that a liberalized trade regime may cause. Recently, however, the environmental, health, and labor impacts of trade agreements have slowly gained recognition as areas of concern. This recognition has led to an overall growing trend towards acknowledging the linkages between trade and non-trade issues.
One area that has been relatively untouched by any new developments is the issue of gender. Trade theories proceed from the premise that trade agreements are gender neutral. As a result, the texts of trade agreements do not address any differential impacts on women. The object and purpose of many trade agreements is to raise standards of living and to promote sustainable development. As gender inequality has been recognized as an impediment to the promotion of economic development, it must also negatively impact opportunities to increase living standards and sustainable development. Accordingly, if international trade agreements are to meet their stated objectives, gender inequality must be addressed.
By exploring the underpinnings of the exclusion of gender issues from international trade, challenging the presence of a rights-based discourse within international trade, and viewing the construct and institutions of international trade through the lens of feminist theories, this article seeks to illustrate the reasons for the reluctance of trade bodies to examine linkages between trade and gender. It also examines three examples of the linkages between trade and gender as a means of exploring the gendered context of trade and the social and cultural conditions under which trade can affect men and women differently. Finally, the article examines possible methods for uncovering and alleviating gender silences in international trade.