The effects of WTO on women's rights

With the advent of a new regime of globalisation as a result of the conclusion of the GATT final agreement and the establishment of the WTO, a new era of gender politics has begun. Gender analysis in the new era requires a paradigm shift away from the domestic realm to the global arena

By Vandana Shiva

THE completion of the Uruguay Round of trade talks at the GATT, and the establishment of the World Trade Organisation on January I 1995, has drawn all domestic issues into the 'global economy', and all matters related to life þ ethics, values, ecology, food, culture, knowledge and democracy - into the global arena as'matters of international trade'. The perspectives and position of women in the remotest villages of the Third World have thus come into direct collision with the perspectives and power of men who control global patriarchal institutions.

Two major shifts

Gender analysis in a period of globalisation therefore needs to make two major shifts. Firstly, since 'globalisation' is primarily a removal of national barriers to trade and investment, gender analysis needs to move from the exclusively domestic paradigm (either limited to the household or to the country) and needs to understand gender relations between actors globally.

Secondly, gender analysis needs to move from the impact and victimhood paradigm to a structural and transformative paradigm. Most gender analysis is limited to how the global economy impacts on women. However, global financial, trade and corporate institutions have differential impact on men and women, rich and poor because they are institutions dominated and controlled by men, especially men from the rich G-7 countries; and being shaped by a particular gender, class and race of humans, they are expressions and vehicles of the preferred visions, aspirations and assumptions of this particular group. Gender analysis of globalisation therefore cannot limit itself to impact on women but needs to take into account the patriarchal basis of paradigms, processes, policies and projects of global economic structures. It needs to take into account how women's concerns, priorities and perceptions are excluded, how the economy is defined and how economic problems and solutions are proposed and implemented. Ecology, economics and gender are all thus intimately related to the construction of 'home' as a metaphor.

The household was originally the metaphor for the economy. The word 'economy' has its roots in the Greek word 'oikos', which referred originally to the family household and its daily operations and maintenance. In 1988 Ernest Herschel the leading German disciple of Darwin derived the new label 'oecologies' from the same root oikos, to refer to the science of the relations of living organisms to the external world, their habitat, customs, energies, etc.

Before the emergence of modern patriarchal paradigm of economics, it was assumed that national economic affairs could be conceived of as merely extensions of the housekeeper's budget. Similarly, 'oecologie' suggested that the living organisms of the earth constitute a single economic unit resembling a household or a family dwelling intimately together.

With 'home' as the metaphor for both ecology and economics, there was no hierarchical divide between domestic production and commodity production for exchange and the production boundary. All women who produce for their families, children and nature are thus all treated as non-productive, as economically inactive. Self-sufficiency in the economic domain is therefore seen as economic deficiency when economies are confined to the market place.

The devaluation of women's work, and of work done in subsistence economies in the Third World, is the natural outcome of a production boundary constructed by capitalist patriarchy. Restricting itself to the market economic value, as defined by capitalist patriarchy, ignores economic value in two vital economies necessary to ecological and human survival ' the domain of nature's economy, and the domain of the sustenance economy. In nature's economy and the sustenance economy, economic value is a measure of the protection of the earth's life and human life. Its currency is life giving processes, not cash or market price.


At the level of gender impact, this paradigm of economic value in one fell swoop made womenþs work and all domestic production disappear. The exclusive focus on incomes and cash-flows as measured in GNP has meant that the web of life around women, and the environment is excluded from central concern. The status of women and children and the state of the environment have never functioned as 'indicators' of development. This exclusion is achieved by rendering invisible two kinds of processes. Firstly, the contribution of nature and women to the growth of the market economy is neglected and denied. Dominant economic theories assign no value to tasks carried out at subsistence and domestic levels. These theories are unable to encompass the majority in the world - women and Third World people who are statistically 'invisible'. Secondly, the negative impact of economic development and growth on women, children and the environment goes largely unrecognised and unrecorded. Both these factors lead to impoverishment.

Among the hidden costs generated by destructive development are the new burdens created by ecological devastation, costs that are invariably heavier on women, in both the North and South. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that a rising GNP or global trade figures does not necessarily mean that either wealth or welfare increase proportionately. In fact GNP and growth in international trade are becoming increasingly a measure of how real wealth ' the wealth of nature and the life sustaining wealth produced by women ' is rapidly decreasing.


When trade in commodities is treated as the only economic activity, it destroys the potential of nature and women to produce life, goods and services for basic needs. More trade and more cash mean less life in nature through ecological destruction and in society through denial of basic needs. Women are devalued, first, because their work co-operates with nature's processes, and second, because work that satisfies needs and ensures sustenance is devalued in general.

More growth in what is maldevelopment has meant less nurturing of life and life support systems. Natureþs economy (through which environmental regeneration takes place) and the people's sustenance economy (within which women produce the sustenance for society through þinvisibleþ unpaid work called non- work) are being systematically destroyed to create growth in the 'global market economy'. Closely related to the concept of people's economy is Hilkka Pietila's categorisation of the free economy in industrialised societies which consists of the non-monetary core of the economy and society, unpaid work for one's own and family needs, community activities, mutual help and co-operation within the neighbourhood and so on. In addition, there is the protected sector which consists of production, protected and guided by official means for domestic markets; food, constructions, services, administration, health, schools and culture and so on. Finally, Pietila describes the'free-trade' economy as the fettered economy -consisting of large-scale production for export and to compete with imports. The terms in this economy are dictated by the world market, dependency, vulnerability, compulsive competitiveness and so forth

. For example, in 1980, the proportions of time and money value that went into running the informal or free economy were 54% and 35% respectively. The time and money value in the protected sector was 36% and 46% respectively while that in the 'fettered economy'was 10% and 19% respectively.

In patriarchal economies, the protected and fettered economy are perceived as the primary economy, and the informal economy as the secondary economy. In fact as Marilyn Waring (1988) has documented, national accounts and GNP actually exclude the free economy as lying outside the production boundary. What most economists and politicians call the 'free' or 'open' economy is seen by women as the þfetteredþ economy. When the fettered economy becomes'poor' - i.e., runs into deficit þ it is the free economy that pays to restore it to health. In times of structural adjustment and austerity programmes, cuts in public expenditure generally fall most heavily on the poor. In many cases reduction of the fiscal deficit has been effected by making substantial cuts in social and economic development expenditure, and real wages and consumption decrease considerably.

As the 'trade' metaphor replaces the metaphor of 'home', economic value itself undergoes a shift. Value which means 'worth', derived from valere, was redefined as exchange and trade. Unless something is traded it has no economic value. "Home" as the root and metaphor for the economy was substituted by trade as a metaphor for the economy and as a source of economic value.

The trade metaphor for the economy has also rendered natureþs economy valueless. Thus both the marginalisation of womenþs work and nature's work are linked to how the metaphor of 'home' was reconstituted as the domain where no economic value is produced.

This shift in economic value is central to the ecological crisis. It is reflected in the change in the meaning of the term 'resource'. With its origins in the Latin proverb 'surgere', evoking the image of a spring that continually rises from the ground, it originally implied life. Like a spring, a 'resource' rises again and again, even if it has repeatedly been used and consumed.


The concept thus highlighted nature's power of self-regeneration and called attention to her prodigious creativity. Moreover, it implied an ancient idea about the relationship between humans and nature that the earth bestows gifts on humans who, in turn, are well advised to show diligence in order not to suffocate her generosity. In early modern times,'resources' therefore suggested reciprocity along with regeneration. With the advent of industrialism and colonialism, however, a conceptual break occurred.'Natural resources' became those parts of nature which were required as inputs for industrial production and colonial trade. In 1870, John Yeates in his Natural History of Commerce, offered the first definition of the new meaning: 'In speaking of the natural resources of any country, we refer to the ore in the mine, the stone unquarried, the timber unfelled (etc).' In this view, nature has been clearly stripped of her creative power; she has turned into a container for raw materials waiting to be transformed into inputs for commodity production. Resources are now merely any material or conditions existing in nature which may be capable of 'economic exploitation'. With the capacity of regeneration gone, the attitude of reciprocity has also lost its ground: it is now simply human inventiveness and industry which impart value to nature, for natural resources require to be 'developed'. Only once capital and technology have been brought in, will nature find her destiny. From now on, it will become common sense that:'natural resources cannot develop themselves; it is only through the application of human knowledge and skill that anything can be made of them, and most of the necessary work requires skill of a very high order'. Nature, whose real nature it is to rise again, was transformed by this western worldview into dead and manipulable matter. Its capacity to renew and grow had been denied.

Intellectual Property Rights

The Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights Agreement in the WTO has, for the first time, brought into global trade, the domain of ideas, knowledge and innovation. Of particular interest are its provisions that refer to Intellectual Property Rights (IPRs) in the'farmer's seed'

The assumption that only industrial production is truly creative because it produces from nothing hides the ecological destruction that goes with it. The patriarchal creation boundary allows ecological destruction to be perceived as creation, and ecological regeneration and creation to be perceived as non-creation. This devaluing of regeneration underlies the breakdown of ecological cycles and the crisis of sustainability. To sustain life means above all, to regenerate life; but according to the patriarchal view, to regenerate is not to create, it is merely to 'repeat' which is the same as passivity. IPRs, especially patents on life, are the ultimate denial of natureþs creativity and womenþs creativity. According to the TRIPs agreement, the subject matter for patents has been enlarged to cover both products and processes.

The provisions of the agreement requiring process and product patents, and the pipeline protection, and the economic rights conferred on a patent are exclusive marketing rights. They are heavily weighted in favour of the TNCs, who alone can use these to their advantage. And, because of global economic inequality and the devaluation of domestic currencies under IMF/World Bank structural adjustment programmes, the additional costs of TNCs filing applications in Third World countries are insignificant, whereas the additional costs for an Third World scientist or company filing a patent application in the US or Europe are exorbitant and will act as a barrier.

The TRIPs agreement militates against people's human right to food and health by conferring unrestricted monopoly rights to TNCs in the vital sectors of health and agriculture. It will undermine farmers' rights and people's rights to food as human right.

TRIPs is thus not about trade, but about the ethics of how we relate to other species and what the moral and cultural values of our civilisation. It is about how biodiversity is used and controlled ' by local communities who have protected it, or by TNCs which have found new ways to exploit and own it.

In Indian and other cultures, and current patent laws reflecting them, life cannot be patented because it cannot be owned and it is not manufactured. But the WTO-TRIPs forces such countries to give up moral and ethical values, economic priorities and sovereignty. TRIPs forces such countries to make all living organisms the property of a handful of TNCs.

On first reading the relevant articles of the TRIPs appears to be about the exclusion of plants and animals from patentability. However, this phrase also exists in US patent law, has not prevented the US from granting patents for plants and animals. This is because the phrase 'plants and animals other than microorganisms' has been interpreted as not covering parts of animals and plants, or altered plants and animals. It therefore allows the patenting of biological organisms.

Further the words þother than microorganismsþ excludes the exclusion of microorganisms from patentability, and makes patenting of microorganisms compulsory. Since microorganisms are living organisms, making their patenting compulsory is the beginning of a journey down what has been called the slippery slope that leads to the patenting of all life.

Under the impact of the TRIPs agreement, Third World women farmers will stop being the custodians and owners of seed. Even the sui generis option is pushing governments to give monopoly rights to the seed industry through introducing breedersþ rights legislation.

The International Convention of the Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV) had maintained farmers' rights to save seed, but in a March 1991 amendment this clause was removed. The new clause in UPOV (and TRIPs) can be used to enforce royalty payments on farmers if they save seed of their own crop. With the stronger IPR regime under WTO, the transfer of extra funds as royalty payments from the poor to the rich countries would exacerbate the current Third World debt crisis tenfold.

Monopoly profits

This is ironical, since most plant diversity originates in the Third World, and seeds and plant materials that today are under the control of the industrialised world, were originally taken freely from the farmers to whom they will now be sold back as patented material. As a result, seed companies will reap monopoly profits, while the genius of Third World farmers will not only go unrewarded, but they will be banned from saving and using their own seeds.

IPRs in the area of seeds and plant material are in any case not easy to demarcate, since the genetic resources used by TNCs for claiming patents are the product of centuries of innovation and selection by Third World farmers, especially women. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has recognised these contributions in the form of'Farmersþ Rights'; and the Biodiversity Convention signed at the 1992 Earth Summit also recognises them, and accepts the need to make IPRs subservient to the objectives of biodiversity conservation.

However, the TRIPs text, biased as it is in favour of acknowledging only the innovation by TNCs, goes against these agreements reached on other international platforms. The negative impact on farmers and other Third World citizens will be increased due to the extension of the working and the terms of the patent, and the reversal of the burden of proof. In normal law, the accused is innocent unless proven guilty. Under the WTO regime, however, it is the accused who must demonstrate their innocence; if they cannot do so, then they are deemed guilty of having infringed upon the right of the patent holder.

In the area of agriculture, this can have absurd and highly unjust consequences. TNCs are now taking out broad patents on plant varieties, covering ownership of traits and characteristics. With the reversal of the burden of proof clauses, it becomes legally possible for a TNC to pirate and appropriate what Third World women have so far controlled and conserved, and shift on to these women the burden of proof of'non- piracy'. - (Third World Resurgence No. 61/62, Sept/Oct 1995)