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Examining the ECTA through a Gender-Inclusive Lens

08 Mar 2023
By Aditi Mukund and Ambika Vishwanath
Australia-India Economic Cooperation and Trade Agreement Signing Melbourne. Source: DFAT/

There are working examples of gender-inclusive trade agreements that build upon the strengths of equality and diversity. The trade agreement between India and Australia can build upon these frameworks.

In December 2022, Australia and India signed the Economic Cooperation and Trade Agreement (ECTA). This comes at the heels of a new chapter of reinvigorated Australia-India ties, marked by a rapid momentum of bilateral relations, several high-level visits, and enthusiastic mutual interest to enhance and strengthen cooperation. At an event in Australia, February 2022, Indian External Affairs Minister Dr. Subrahmanyam Jaishankar said, “If I were to look at five big relationships that have changed for us very profoundly in the last decade, I would surely put Australia right up there.”

Australia and India have had a long-standing multifaceted bilateral relationship based on economic ties and strategic interests. In 2021, two-way goods and services stood at US$34.3 billion, higher than the pre-Covid-19 numbers. The two countries have cooperated in a range of areas apart from trade and investments, though largely in the space of education, culture, and people-to-people connectivity. The recently signed ECTA is a strong reflection of this, and trade is expected to rise to US$45 billion in five years.

For Australia, the ECTA creates new opportunities for its businesses to access the large Indian market of 1.4 billion people, particularly in sectors such as agriculture, resources, financial services, and education, and offers a diversified market from reliance on China. For India, it would provide access to Australian technology and expertise, as well as increased access to Australian goods and services, and a market that has been under-explored. Broad in scope and deep in commitments, experts and policymakers in India are looking towards the ECTA as a benchmark for other free trade agreements (FTA) as well.

The missing gender lens

Despite evidence pointing towards the role of trade in promoting gender equality, and gender equality increasing economic output, gender remains an overlooked dimension of international trade. As of November 2018, a review by the World Trade Organisation of 556 regional trade agreements showed that only 74 agreements referred explicitly to gender issues. The ECTA does not mention gender equality at all. Having a gender focus in international trade recognises that trade policies and practices can have different, inherently unequal, impacts on women, men, and marginalised sections of society. Restricted by socio-economic norms and realities, women and men often participate in trade differently, with women often being concentrated in low-paid and informal sectors, facing barriers to market access, and having limited access to finance, technology, and information, and the requisite education to rectify this gap.

There are many advantages to having a gender focus in international trade. At the very forefront, and in order to facilitate their participation in the economy, it addresses these inequalities and takes into account the different needs of women and marginalised groups. This can include measures such as promoting women’s entrepreneurship, addressing discriminatory trade policies and practices, and promoting greater access to markets, finance, and technology. By ensuring that a strong gender perspective is embedded into trade agreements and not simply featured as an add-on, it can also serve to address inherent biases both at the policy making stage and by the implementers of the agreements. The long term cascading effects are seen in the distribution and benefits that are often more equitable and benefit whole of society.

By supporting and promoting women-owned Small to Medium Enterprises, it can help to create more resilient and adaptive supply chains. There are several examples of trade agreements in other geographies that include clauses or provisions for gender. The African Continental Free Trade Area recognises the role of women’s participation in economic and development activities; as does the Argentina-Chile FTA. Even more informal trade practices that incorporate gender considerations, such as the Border Haats between India and Bangladesh, have led to gender-equal benefits, with local women reporting a rise in their annual incomes.

The Way Forward

Gender as a topic of discussion is frequently featured in high-level multilateral and minilateral conversations between India and Australia. Within the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, for example, there are provisions to integrate a gender perspective in humanitarian assistance activities. However, bilaterally, with the exception of the Australia-India 2+2 dialogue and some aid and development initiatives, gender does not feature as a mainstay in discussions on traditional hard security and foreign policy discourse. While both countries in their own way are committed to a more equal and equitable lens in their domestic and foreign policy making, a lack of a strong gender focus will be the single most overlooked value-addition.

Several initiatives exist within India and Australia where relevant ideas can be brought into the ECTA framework. Australia, for example, has committed AUD$65 million for global and regional gender equality initiatives in 2022-23. The Indian government has a program to promote women’s participation in trade, such as the Trade Related Entrepreneurship Assistance and Development (TREAD) program, which provides training, credit, and marketing support for women entrepreneurs. India’s G20 presidency also presents an opportunity for high-level conversations to percolate to the grassroots level. Women-led development is considered a priority area for India and a platform to bring success stories from across the country to bilateral and multilateral discussions. The two countries also recognise the need for more diverse and inclusive voices in critical areas such as water security, and to build upon initiatives, such as the Young Water Professional Program.

New Delhi and Canberra can also draw from other best practices in the Indo-Pacific. ASEAN, for example, has in place a Gender Mainstreaming Strategic Framework with a strong focus on institutional practices, and the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade funded and World Bank-administered South Asia Regional Trade Facilitation Program in the BBIN (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal) group of countries that include several provisions for women empowerment.

A gender lens for a future-proof bilateral relationship

The operationalisation and implementation of the ECTA will be a crucial milestone for India and Australia, and will serve as a foundation for future cooperation. As noted by Lisa Singh, CEO of the Australia-India Institute, “the ECTA is just the beginning. The hurdle of negotiating a Comprehensive Economic Co-operation Agreement remains for our trade negotiators.” The success of the ECTA will no doubt affect the negotiations for the Comprehensive Economic Co-operation Agreement (CECA) that have been reopened.

This also serves as an opportunity to integrate a more diverse lens and inclusive thinking across India-Australia economic relations, particularly in the Indo-Pacific region. A broader lens would ensure the economic participation of all disadvantaged groups and bring diverse perspectives to policy planning. Because of the interconnected nature of “hard” and “soft” security, where hitherto unknown challenges require smart and bold thinking, it is imperative that this inclusive lens is brought to dialogues on security and strategy. Both countries are familiar with rapidly rising geopolitical tensions, an uncertain diplomatic future with China, and a multitude of newer and emerging non-traditional security challenges. In light of the post-pandemic economic recovery, there is a strong focus on building resilience for the future, and women play a critical role in building this resilience. Women have been shown to be strong advocates for sustainability and can help to promote environmentally responsible and socially inclusive supply chains. This is about smart, long-term economic growth, and a strong gender component within the ECTA provides India and Australia with one of the many avenues to begin that investment.

Ambika Vishwanath is the Founding Director of Kubernein Initiative, a geopolitical advisory, Ambika is a geopolitical analyst and water security specialist with experience in the field of governance and foreign policy. She has lead track two diplomacy efforts and consulted with several governments and international organizations in the MENA region, Europe and India, and helped shape their policies in the field of conflict resolution, water diplomacy and climate security, gender and global governance. She leads Kubernein’s flagship project on Gender and Indian Foreign Policy.

Aditi Mukund is a Program Associate at Kubernein Initiative, leading their work and projects on gender and Feminist Foreign Policy. She also runs the Women in International Relations platform on Twitter which seeks to amplify the voices of women in international security, foreign policy, and peacebuilding and conflict resolution, with a focus on India and the Global South.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.