What the rest of the world can learn from Canada about gender equality


By Arancha Gonzalez, Executive Director of the International Trade Centre (ITC)


To some, poverty means a struggle to meet basic needs like access to water and sanitation, healthcare, education, food or shelter. To others, poverty is a lack of income and resources. According to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), poverty is all those things. Today, more than 700 million people live below the poverty line of $1.90 a day – and the SDGs commit all nations to end all forms of extreme poverty by 2030.

The challenge is monumental – but achievable.  In 1990, 1.9 billion people were living in extreme poverty. This figure has since been slashed by more than half. Yet building on this progress will get harder, since it will mean extending the benefits of growth to countries and groups that have not shared fully in the rising prosperity of recent decades. Success will hinge on one such group more than any other: women.

Women remain overrepresented among the world’s poor. Despite the enormous socioeconomic gains from gender equality, discriminatory laws and biased social norms continue to prevent girls and women from participating in the economy on equal terms with men.

This is why it was so significant when Canada announced its first Feminist International Assistance Policy in 2017. Like Sweden’s feminist foreign policy launched three years before, Canada’s ‘feminist agenda’ is aimed primarily at gender equality and investing in empowering women and girls. But there is a unique dimension to Canada’s Policy – it explicitly and unequivocally places the first “No Poverty” SDG into sharp focus.

The overarching objective is to use Canada’s international diplomacy and development assistance as a tool to support the poorest and most vulnerable. At the heart of this is economically empowering women and girls. In 2017, Canada has contributed substantially to the G20 Women Entrepreneurs Finance Initiative; and at the start of its G7 presidency, launched the first advisory council to support G7 gender equality objectives.


But Canada has not stopped there. It has placed this gender dimension squarely at the heart of its Progressive Trade Agenda, updated its free trade agreement with Chile to include a chapter on gender that seeks to reinforce the role of women in international trade, and is advocating for an explicit gender dimension to be included in any NAFTA revision. Last year, we saw Canada’s leadership in championing the Declaration on Women and Trade that was ultimately adopted by over 120 governments during the World Trade Organisation ministerial meeting in Buenos Aires. The hope is that Canada can add its ‘Feminist International Assistance Policy’ to its list of well-known exports, and help other countries follow suit and put women at the centre of their development assistance and commercial diplomacy.


Nearly a year into Canada’s innovative policy, it is natural to ask whether there are any poverty eradication lessons for the rest of the world. The answer is a resounding yes. Among them are two big ones:

Lesson one – Empowering women must be central to poverty eradication objectives – no matter how a country chooses to define it. Greater gender equality and the economic empowerment of women has been quantitatively linked to breaking intergenerational poverty cycles, reinforcing environmental sustainability; higher school attendance, improved medical care, healthier meals and increased savings. For communities, companies and countries alike, equal roles for women is associated with better economic performance. At the International Trade Centre (ITC), we have seen the transformative impact of interventions that empower women economically. ITC’s  Ethical Fashion Initiative, which aims to connect women to the international fashion value chain by building their skills, has not only lifted thousands of women and their families out of poverty but has led to increased self-esteem, greater respect at home and community and fewer incidents of domestic violence.

Lesson two – Start small, think big, scale fast and you will get results which last generations. Strategic partnerships are critical for building up to and achieving the greatest possible impact for poverty eradication and gender equality. The private sector can be a partner, an investor or a market that provides opportunities to support women at the base of the pyramid with sustainable trade opportunities. ITC’s SheTrades initiative to connect one million women to markets by 2020 is one approach that has worked. SheTrades has leveraged in-country partners - large firms, the banking industry, policy makers and micro-sized enterprises, including thousands in the informal sector - to create an ecosystem of support for women-owned businesses to trade. When SheTrades supported a Rwandan coffee plantation owned by Marie Laetitia Kayitesire, more than 2,000 of her small women suppliers benefitted from the higher prices she obtained selling premium coffee to Europe. “One to one to many” is how trade is helping empower women. Public-private partnerships like these that support women-run enterprises like Marie Laetitia’s tend to translate into a much wider network of increased incomes for other women and their families. 


These two key lessons are worth replicating in the G7 and beyond. To quote Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, “…[w]omen entrepreneurs are vital to our ongoing prosperity. They create jobs, advance gender equality, and help build economies that work for everyone. When women entrepreneurs succeed, everyone benefits”. I could not agree more. As Toronto hosts the Women Forum Canada this week it is worth pressing for progress in the area of women’s economic empowerment.