Trade and Gender Equality: Insights from Honduras

Bama Athreya
4 min readJul 15, 2023


In early June, I had the opportunity to see how the United States has used trade to advance gender equality while on an interagency delegation with senior officials from the Department of State, Department of Labor, and U.S. Trade Representative’s Office (USTR). Our goal was to advance the United States’ Central America Forward Initiative and promote private sector engagement to create decent work for women and for all those who may be excluded from labor markets. What we learned in Honduras amplifies our understanding of how employers and workers benefit from workplace gender equality.

One lesson comes from the Honduran Maquila Association, an industry association representing over 300 manufacturers in the country’s apparel sector, which is a major source of employment for women. Trade with the United States is critical to the sector as the clothes they manufacture are retailed to U.S. consumers-in 2019, the U.S. was reported to have imported nearly $3 billion in apparel products. The United States- Honduras trade relationship has created an incentive for unions and employers to work together to improve conditions for working women in this sector. U.S. trade agreements embed labor and environmental standards to support countries and industries to improve workers lives and communities.

This is true of the Central America-Dominican Republic Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR) signed in the mid-2000s. Yet groups like the International Gender and Trade Network have pointed out that trade rules may disproportionately disadvantage women and underrepresented communities. Now, USTR has put a new emphasis not only on worker-centered trade, but for the first time, on equity and inclusion through all aspects of trade.

USAID’s trade capacity building programs have, for many years, been paired with our ongoing investments in labor and environmental programming. This helps USAID support relevant provisions, such as the labor and environmental chapters of CAFTA-DR, and to get the resources needed for governments and other stakeholders to develop or implement protections for workers and natural resources, consistent with the language in these agreements.

This capacity building programming has led directly to improvements in working conditions for apparel sector workers in Swaziland and Lesotho, to name just two examples. Both countries are part of another trade agreement, the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). When Swaziland was suspended from AGOA in 2015 due to violations of worker rights, USAID support enabled trade unions and civil society to stand up to the curtailment of rights, win gains, and assist the country to be reinstated into the agreement.

In Lesotho, widespread and rampant gender-based violence in factories was exposed. USAID, through its women’s economic empowerment programming, supported a dynamic new partnership between employers, civil society organizations, and unions to develop in-factory agreements to ensure accountability for perpetrators of sexual harassment. To continue making progress on the agreements, USAID’s Global Labor Program is supporting partners to expand to additional garment factories in Lesotho.

This brings me back to Honduras. In our meetings with unions, employers, and the Honduran Maquila Association, we heard about specific changes that were making women’s lives better. Over several years, the association and the unions supported factory-level negotiations to create collective bargaining agreements and processes to resolve complaints.

Some of these agreements contain language that strengthens accountability at the workplace level to address gender-based violence and harassment. Union representatives told us about how they had been able to assist women workers who brought forward complaints, and described how these agreements have also strengthened maternity and family leave. These changes create workplaces that, while far from perfect, are more sensitive to the needs of women workers, contributing to a more equitable economy.

To be sure, conditions in Honduras remain challenging for the industry, for workers, and for women. Unfortunately, agreements such as these are not a magic bullet to end rights abuses. In June, four union leaders were tragically killed in an attack that claimed the lives of 13 people in the city of Choloma, Cortes, Honduras. This tragedy highlights the importance of continued engagement with the Government of Honduras to strengthen citizen security and rule of law.

Nevertheless, we need to stimulate and support more high road examples by working with partners like the Honduran Maquila Association. Showcasing how employers and unions work together can help us meet our Central America Forward objectives by encouraging other sectors in the region to adopt similar practices. Critically, we must build outward from this progress to ensure that trade relationships always advance gender equity, and bring more equitable benefits to all people.

Development organizations have a unique and unprecedented opportunity to bring new ideas forward to advance this ambitious goal! We encourage gender and development practitioners to take advantage of USTR’s open call for comments prior to the August 11, 2023, deadline to further inform U.S. trade and investment policies and ensure that we are using trade and aid together for equitable economies.

About the author: Bama Athreya is the Deputy Assistant Administrator for the Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment Hub and the Inclusive Development Hub in USAID’s Bureau for Development, Democracy, and Innovation.

Originally published at



Bama Athreya

Expert on labor, gender equity and workplace social inclusion, labor migration and trafficking. Interested in the intersection of tech and social movements.