Leonor Aida Concha (left) and Marceline A. White

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–Poverty for Mexico’s female-headed households increased 50 percent after the 1994 enactment of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which lowered trade barriers among the United States, Canada and Mexico.

The type of information found in a study by the Washington-based Women’s Edge Coalitionpublished last month isn’t always high on theminds of trade negotiators looking to lower global trade barriers.

But as developed nations, led by the United States, continue to push for open markets, women’s organizations are trying to persuade negotiators to think about whether they might, in the process, be worsening the poverty of many people. They are taking up the cause, the say, because so many low-wage workers are women.

The Women’s Edge Coalition, including such groups as the London-based Amnesty International and the Center for Reproductive Rights in Washington, is asking U.S. officials to formally assess how future trade agreements, many modeled after NAFTA, will affect workers.

“We need to move in a more cautious and careful way,” says Marceline A. White, director of the Global Trade Program at Women’s Edge. She hopes the findings of such a study will pave the way for job-training and other programs for workers who might lose their jobs. The assessments also would give members of Congress more information before they vote on the pacts.

Women’s Edge is using the Mexico study, which cost $150,000 and took six months to produce, as an example of the kind of assessment government officials could quickly do. While the U.S. government already studies potential job loss from trade pacts, it does not break down the statistics by gender.

The pact that could most immediately be affected is the U.S.-Central American Free Trade Agreement. The Bush administration hopes to complete talks on the pact by the end of the year.

With those negotiations in mind, Women’s Edge is now studying how a NAFTA-like agreement would impact El Salvadoran women. Its study of Mexican agriculture from 1991 to 2003 showed that women’s lifestyles change more than men’s when trade agreements shift a developing country’s focus from traditional sectors, such as agriculture, to manufacturing. The main reason for the disparity: Women with basic education are segregated in lower paying jobs in the more traditional sectors.

More Jobs, More Poverty

Women’s Edge found that even though NAFTA created 5.3 million new jobs overall in Mexico, women have been working longer hours with little to show for it since the pact took effect. With incomes falling more than 80 percent for the country’s small farmers, many Mexican farm women have been left to care for their families and survive on remittances from husbands who migrated to the United States in search of work.

Mexican farmers have seen their incomes drop about $20 a month from 1991 to 2003 because NAFTA greatly increased the amount of U.S. grain allowed into Mexican markets, the study said. Among these farmers are women who grow nopal, an edible cactus.

The study describes the typical day of a nopal grower and seller: “By 4 a.m., they are already in the central market . . . Most will get home by 9 p.m. at night . . . Only on Sundays do they rest a little, but then they go to church and make dinner for the family.”

Women with more education have moved to the Mexican North to take jobs in the maquiladoras–the multi-national factories that line the country’s border with the United States.

With an average wage of $2.50 to $3.50 an hour, most were still not able to earn themselves and their families out of poverty, the study found. In addition, the preponderance of women going to and from work in the dark may have created easy targets for criminals, White says. Close to 400 women have been murdered or have disappeared in Ciudad Juarez, a Mexican factory and tourism city on the Texas border, since 1993.

Women often attempt to supplement their incomes or create a better life for themselves by starting their own business, such as a tamale stand. Women’s Edge estimates that 36 percent of the country’s new jobs since NAFTA are in such informal work.

Because competition among the new businesses–particularly food sellers–is fierce, most of these tamale entrepreneurs make little profit, says Leonor Aida Concha of the Mexico City group “Mujeres Para el Dialogo,” meaning Women for Dialogue, which contributed to the Women’s Edge study. Still, new start-ups come constantly.

“The need to survive gets women out of the house,” she said.

In Search of Solutions

In the search for solutions to the negative effects of rising global trade, organizations, such as Baltimore-based Lutheran World Relief, argue for the creations of a panel of nongovernmental groups, including women’s groups, to advise the U.S. Representative on Trade Policy. Some United Nations economists based in India have proposed labeling textiles and other goods made mostly by women “Gender Sensitive Products.” They suggest amending global trade laws to prevent developed countries from limiting the amount of such products that can enter their markets, according to The Hindu Business Line, an English language Indian newspaper.

Supporters of NAFTA and the Free Trade Area of the Americas– a U.S.-led effort to break down trade barriers from the polar North to Argentina’s Tierra del Fuego–say developed countries should help poorer countries by reducing their own trade tariffs on imported rice, cotton, sugar and textiles, allowing developing nations to profitably export an increased amount of their chief products.

“The best thing they could do for women in poor countries is to urge the U.S. government to reduce its scandalously high trade barriers on products that are of most export interest to poor countries. We are keeping millions of women in poverty through our rich-country trade barriers,” says Daniel Griswold, associate director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Trade Policy Studies, based in Washington.

In addition, Griswold says, trade barriers hurt poor women in this country. The Progressive Policy Institute, a Washington think tank claiming go beyond the usual left-right divides, found in a 2002 study that U.S. tariffs impact low-income single mothers twice as much as higher income Americans because single mothers have lower incomes and buy more of the household goods, such as shoes and kitchenware, still subject to trade barriers.

Lori Nitschke is a freelance journalist living in Washington, D.C.

For more information:

Women’s Edge Coalition–“NAFTA and the FTAA:
Impact on Mexico’s Agriculture Sector”:

United States Trade Representative/World Regions–
North American Free Trade Agreement:

Free Trade Area of the Americas: