Central American women at risk from EU trade agreement
The third round of negotiations for an Association Agreement between Europe and Central America took place in El Salvador in April. To mark the occasion, a broad coalition of women’s movements from across the region joined the widespread protests highlighting the deterioration in gender equality and poverty that the agreement would create.
Association Agreements govern bilateral relations between the EU and other countries, and cover several areas of cooperation, including politics, economics and trade. The EU demands that the Agreement with Central America should include a far-reaching free trade agreement (FTA) in goods and services, despite the huge difference in development between the two regions. Trade liberalisation would see agricultural smallholders, fishermen and women, craftspeople and small businesses compete “freely” with Europe’s transnational corporations.
Even more worrying is that the Agreement embraces issues and areas that developing countries have been successful in excluding from the latest World Trade Organisation round. These include privatisation of services, government procurement and the removal of non-tariff barriers, including labour and environmental regulations.
The EU plans to undertake a ‘Sustainability Impact Assessment’, but only after the Agreement is in place. This means its findings will not inform the negotiations but at best help mitigate the Agreement’s worst effects.
The Central America Women’s Network (CAWN) commissioned a study (see below for details) – starting from analysis of the Central America Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA) – which found that women’s livelihoods and their struggle to defend and promote their rights would be severely damaged by further liberalisation in trade and services as part of an Association Agreement with Europe.
The small businesses that are likely to suffer from trade liberalisation are important employers of women and are often led by women. Their collapse would seriously undermine women’s economic independence. Cutbacks in the public sector due to privatisation would also disproportionately affect women. With increased global competition, the already poor labour conditions in export processing zone (EPZ) factories are likely to worsen, leading to higher production targets, compulsory overtime, lower salaries and more labour rights violations.
Rising unemployment is likely to force women out of the formal labour market – a trend already seen in the growing numbers of men employed in EPZ factories. Livelihoods of women in the informal sector are more precarious. Many domestic workers do not have contracts, work extremely long hours and some experience abuse. Women may face danger working in the sex industry to support themselves and their families.
Destruction of rural livelihoods
DR-CAFTA has already had a devastating impact on agricultural smallholders, and this can only worsen with further liberalisation under an Association Agreement. Many small farmers in Central America engage in sustainable, low-technology production. In contrast, technology- and pesticide-intensive European agro-industry receives high subsidies and internal support from the EU, which would enable it to flood Central American markets with produce at below production costs. Meanwhile strict sanitary standards for imports will continue to exclude Central American products from the European market.
Increased burden of social reproductive work
The free market economic model –which the Association Agreement aims to further – fails to recognise or value the importance of people taking care of each other and the environment. Much of this work is done by women and girls in the home and community and is already burdensome enough to damage their health. Lower public budgets and privatisation are likely to result in a transfer of costs and labour in public services such as health, education and water to the domestic economy, adding to women’s responsibilities. At the same time, reduced employment opportunities will increase the pressure to work ever longer hours outside of the home. The cost of essential medicines will rise as intellectual property laws introduced under the Agreement prohibit the production and import of generic drugs.
Rising poverty and migration
Violence against women is endemic in Central America amid an in grained culture of machismo. Femicide –murder of women because they are women, often by an unknown attacker – is a growing problem. Poverty and unemployment are recognised as important contributing factors to male violence against women. Greater economic insecurity and unemployment resulting from the Association Agreement can only result in family breakdown and an increase in male violence against women.
As people lose their livelihoods, migration within Central American countries and to other regions will rise. When men migrate, pressures increase on women to provide for their families and family cohesion is threatened. When women migrate, they suffer discrimination and abuse as migrant workers and the social reproductive duties they leave behind fall to other women and girls, often damaging their own education and health. There is increasing concern about trafficking of vulnerable girls and women for sexual exploitation.
Reduced political participation
At a regional meeting of women to discuss the Association Agreement negotiations in April, leaders identified the financial situation of their organisations and members –obliging them to focus primarily on survival – as a constraint in the struggle to challenge gender inequality and rights violations. The increasing burden of women’s economic and social reproductive responsibilities resulting from the Agreement will mean they are less able to organise and participate in public life and demand respect for their rights.
As it stands the Association Agreement between Europe and Central America will perpetuate and deepen poverty and inequality in the region. Despite the risks, negotiations –led by the narrow interests of the European Commission’s Directorate General for Trade – are not subject to significant MEP scrutiny, and have been marked by a lack of transparency and failure to engage in meaningful debate with civil society.
Call for moratorium
CAWN is calling for a moratorium on the negotiations in order to establish democratic accountability in the agreement of trade relations that will have such a far-reaching impact on the lives of women and men in Central America. There is an urgent need to:
- establish greater MEP scrutiny of the negotiations
- establish greater transparency and access to information
- assess fully the impact of the proposed trade, investment and service liberalisation, including the differential impact on women and men
- engage in meaningful multi-stakeholder discussion to ensure that Europe’s trade and investment agreements promote – and do not undermine – economic justice, ecological sustainability, democratic accountability and the rights of women and girls
Visit www.cawn.org to join the call for a moratorium or to obtain a copy of the report, “The Association Agreement between the European Union and Central America: its potential impact on women’s lives in Central America” by Martha Yllescas Altamarino & Guadalupe Salinas, in English and Spanish.