How Mexico is Using NAFTA to Promote Women's Rights

How Mexico is Using NAFTA to Promote Women's Rights Nicole Figot

In the past, few people would have expected a trade agreement to take human rights into consideration. Today, the NAFTA renegotiations present an opportunity to include such issues with an agreement that has had deep economic, political and social impact on its three member states. However, it does not take into consideration the impacts for individuals involved. Twenty-three years after the agreement first came into effect, human rights, particularly women’s rights, are increasingly becoming a mainstream issue. When talk of renegotiations started in early 2017, discussion of matters such as labor protections and equal pay promptly began with Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister, taking the lead (Porter, 2017).

A feminist NAFTA would include provisions to prevent damaging effects to any sector of society while promoting a more fair distribution of wealth. Even though a true feminist trade agreement is currently far from reality, some steps can be taken in that direction, such as including clauses on non-discrimination and paid maternity and paternity leave - an essential step towards equality at work by sharing household responsibilities. Canada and Mexico have already stated their support for including gender concerns in the negotiations (Villamil, 2017). However, there are many challenges to make this come true. So far, discussions on the subject have not progressed beyond whether or not the topic would even be part of the agreement (Anonymous Interview, 2017).

At the outset, Mexico was not concerned with discussing gender in the context of NAFTA. Before negotiations began in August, Mexico’s Economy Secretary, Ildefonso Guajardo, sent Congress a document outlining the guiding principles for the negotiations, amongst which was included an aim to “incorporate a gender perspective in some of the Treaty’s provisions” (Senado de la República, 2017a). This was the only official mention of gender equality made by the Mexican Government before negotiations began. The main Mexican NAFTA negotiation team, made up of four men, made no public comments.

Yet, the situation is improving. The Mexican Government now appears to be convinced that gender should be included in NAFTA and legislators have made public statements expressing their support (Gastélum, 2017). Mexico added a gender working group to the national advising groups it convened for negotiations. However, this group shows the lack of women's representation at the negotiation table since the rest of the NAFTA's advising groups are overwhelmingly male (Anonymous Interview, 2017). This imbalance also reveals a lack of political will to promote women's participation.

Moreover, a person close to the negotiations reported that Canada almost removed gender from the list of issues, yielding to U.S. pressure. However, it ultimately held its place as Mexico pushed to keep it on the list. A few days later, Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, proposed adding a chapter on gender and trade during a speech to the Mexican Senate (Senado de la República, 2017b).

Now that Mexico is advocating to include gender-based considerations in NAFTA, it faces three key challenges:

The first is convincing U.S. to accept gender as a component of NAFTA. American negotiators have said they do not believe it should be included in the agreement, even after Mexico and Canada made arguments for it (Anonymous Interview, 2017).

Mexico’s efforts may not be enough to counteract the weight of President Trump’s isolationist and anti-woman agenda. The U.S. government’s push against any external oversight is a large obstacle for the ratification of most human rights treaties and for the elimination of NAFTA’s dispute-resolution mechanism, which is a deal breaker for Mexico and Canada (Fournier, 2017; Rueda, 2017). The latter is Mexico’s priority over convincing the U.S. that gender equality is important.

If the U.S. does not accede to discussing gender, the alternative would be to incorporate gender into other chapters. However, this is not a priority for members of other working groups and may be sidelined or neglected.

Including gender equality is a laudable objective, but protecting the billions of dollars in trade under risk of being lost with the renegotiations is Mexico’s utmost priority.

The second challenge for Mexico is developing substantive content that would constitute the gender-related portions of the agreement. The basis for a NAFTA chapter on gender would mirror the recent gender chapter added to the Canada-Chile FTA, the first of its kind in the world, in which the parties agree to cooperate in designing activities “to improve the capacity and conditions for women”. That chapter, however, remains far from ideal as it has no mechanism to enforce its implementation beyond recommendations by a binational Trade and Gender Committee (Government of Canada).

Another challenge is including a broad scope of issues that go beyond labor participation or equal wage. One such example would be addressing the discrimination women face in agriculture and manufacturing, which are two key areas for Mexico in NAFTA.

Furthermore, the discussion in Mexico about gender equality has been centered around women, with no mention of the LGBTTI community or men’s role in perpetuating current inequalities. This absence shows that gender is taken as a male/female binary in the scope of NAFTA. As such it would be more apt to call it a chapter on women, not gender.

A true success would be the full inclusion of all effects of the agreement on every part of the member countries’ populations, but that is unlikely to happen. Mexico will not bring LGBTTI issues to the table because of the backlash that current officials would face in upcoming elections, and because experts on these topics are not even at the table.

Even if the above challenges are overcome, the problem of implementation remains glaring. Without enforcement procedures, an excellent chapter on gender does not necessarily mean things will change. This is why accountability mechanisms such as a supervisory committee and periodic public reports are essential. However, Mexico is unlikely to advocate for such mechanisms given its track record of committing to progressive legislation but not following through. For example, requiring pregnancy tests from job applicants is illegal, yet many employers in Mexico continue to demand them (Conapred, 2013). The U.S. likely would not support them either because of its resistance to external oversight.

The next round of negotiations will be a turning point. As host for the upcoming round, Mexico will have the power to convene a working group on gender and create discussion points. A decision on whether or not gender will be included in the negotiations is expected by the end of the round.

It is unclear what has caused this sudden interest from Mexico in incorporating gender to NAFTA. Gender equality has not been a priority for the current Mexican administration and it was not Mexico’s idea for it to be a part of the agenda. Such initiative originally came from Canada, and although they are advocating for it, the issue is not a top priority for them either.

Perhaps Mexico’s support for the inclusion of gender is due to antagonism towards the U.S. - or maybe the Government finally read the data on the impact that higher women’s participation in the labor force can have on a country’s GDP. Maybe the Government even believes it is the right thing to do, or they think it’s a good story to tell during the 2018 election campaign.

Including gender equality is a laudable objective, but protecting the billions of dollars in trade under risk of being lost with the renegotiations is Mexico’s utmost priority. The Government is ready to fight for its interests during negotiations, but, at the end of the day, gender equality is unlikely to be one of them.


Nicole Figot works at Dalia Empower in Mexico City and promotes female leadership roles in business and public policy. 


Reference List:

Anonymous Interview. (2017). Interview with an advisor to a member of the NAFTA renegotiation working groups. Interviewed by Nicole Figot in Mexico City on October 31st, 2017.

Conapred. (2013). Embarazo, principal causa de discriminación laboral contra las mujeres. Consejo Nacional para Prevenir la Discriminación. Accessed on October 25th, 2017.

Fournier, C. (2017). This Obscure Nafta Chapter Could Be Canada’s Deal-Breaker Again. Bloomberg. Accessed on October 24th, 2017.

Gastélum, D. H. (2017). La modernización del Tratado de Libre Comercio. Crónica. Accessed on October 19th, 2017.

Government of Canada. Appendix II – Chapter N bis–Trade and Gender. Government of Canada. Accessed on October 25th, 2017.

Porter, C. (2017). Canada Wants a New Nafta to Include Gender and Indigenous Rights. The New York Times.  Accessed on October 2nd, 2017.

Rueda, R. (2017). México no aceptará seis puntos en la negociación del TLCAN. El Financiero. Accessed on October 27th, 2017.

Senado de la República. (2017a). Prioridades de México en las negociaciones para modernizar el Tratado de Libre Comercio de América del Norte. Senado de la República Mexicana. Accessed on September 31st, 2017.

Senado de la República. (2017b). Pública Solemne Celebrada en la Ciudad de México, el 13 de Octubre de 2017”, Diario de los Debates, Cámara de Senadores del Congreso de los Estados Unidos Mexicanos. Accessed on October 23rd, 2017.

Villamil, V. (2017). “Objetivos de México marcarían el ritmo en TLCAN 2.0”. El Financiero. Accessed on October 25th, 2017.