The UK government has unveiled a new initiative to break down gender barriers in trade in Commonwealth countries. The SheTrades Commonwealth project aims to increase economic growth and job creation by enabling the participation of more women-owned businesses in international trade.

The project, which will be rolled out over the next two years, will be funded by the UK department for international development and implemented by the International Trade Centre (ITC), a multilateral agency, under an existing framework called the SheTrades Initiative, which has run on a global basis since 2015.

Through the SheTrades Initiative, which aims to connect 1 million women to markets by 2020, ITC provides support to women entrepreneurs through seven pillars: championing quality data; promoting fair policies; supporting women’s participation in government and corporate procurement; promoting access to financial services; and supporting women ownership rights. These form a guide for policymakers and businesses to achieve greater gender inclusiveness in trade.

The UK government is injecting £7mn into the SheTrades Commonwealth project and says the move will improve the competitiveness of a further 2,500 female entrepreneurs in these countries by providing training and connecting them to international markets and investment opportunities.

The project was revealed by UK prime minister Theresa May at last week’s Commonwealth Business Forum in London.

“It has been estimated that if women played the same role as men in labour markets, as much as US$28tn could be added to global GDP by 2025,” she told the audience and GTR, noting that boosting women’s participation in business is not just about doing what is right – there are real economic benefits. “Freer, easier trade means stronger economies, more jobs, more choice and lower prices – and that is true here in the UK, across the Commonwealth and around the world.”

“If Commonwealth members are not giving women an equal opportunity to succeed in business and in trade, they are trying to take on some of the biggest economies in the world with one hand tied behind their backs,” May said, adding that it “will not change overnight”.

The programme will provide a forum for member states to work collectively and share best practice. It will offer the tools, information and data needed to help the Commonwealth develop “an innovative global outlook on trade and gender”, explained Harriett Baldwin, the UK’s minister of state for international development and minister of state for Africa at the foreign and Commonwealth office, speaking at a Commonwealth Women’s Forum the day after the project was launched.

This, Baldwin said, would include compiling data needed for member governments to understand how to improve opportunities for women, which will be tracked over time.

“SheTrades Commonwealth will work with both women entrepreneurs and the business organisations that they look to for help to ensure lasting and sustainable change,” she said.

She added that the initiative will offer targeted support to countries where women still face “disproportionate barriers to trade” and where there is “significant unrealised potential for women-owned businesses, which tend to be smaller in terms of sales, assets and profits than their male-owned equivalents”.

The commitment will then be translated into gender-responsive future trade policy, Baldwin said.

One country with an already progressive approach to gender trade policy is Canada. The updated Canada-Chile free trade agreement that was signed last year includes a gender chapter – the first of its kind for a G20 country – which provides a framework for Canada and Chile to co-operate on issues related to trade and gender, including women’s entrepreneurship and the development of gender-focused indicators. Canada envisages this being a standard ask going forward.

“Our objective is to always add a gender chapter in all our commercial agreements. This is one way that we want to push the agenda,” said Marie-Claude Bibeau, Canadian minister of international development and la Francophonie, speaking at the same event.

It is hoped that other Commonwealth countries will replicate Canada’s success in this regard and move issues related to gender equality from the sidelines to the negotiating table.