PhD Student Sreelakshmi Sreekala Kurup

Q&A: Get to know UOW PhD Student Sreelakshmi Sreekala Kurup

Q&A: Get to know UOW PhD Student Sreelakshmi Sreekala Kurup

Sreelakshmi is one of our recent arrivals at the Transnational Law and Policy Centre. We hope you enjoy getting to know her and her inspiring ambitions!

Tell us about your journey to study a PhD?

I come from the state of Kerala, in the southern part of India. Being the daughter of a school faculty couple, my parents highly valued my education since my kindergarten days. Even though I completed my entire schooling at my hometown, their constant support encouraged me to travel beyond the boundaries of my state to the northern part of India to undergo a five-year integrated B.A LL.B (Hons.) course from Jindal Global Law School during the period of 2012-2017. Whilst most of my law school subjects were of interest to me, I was particularly passionate about gender laws as well as international trade law. First of all, my inclination towards gender-based laws increased as I delved deeper into the debates in the area and began to explore the gender hierarchies in society, for instance, the role of women in development; the contribution of women in a conflict zone, etc. In the case of international trade law, I was captured by the idea of how the world economies negotiate for their respective trade benefits and how it impacts the markets. Therefore, I decided to pursue my LL.M in International Trade Law in 2018 from the National University of Advanced Legal Studies, Kerala. Fortunately, as soon as I completed my course, I got selected as a Research Fellow at the Centre for Trade and Investment Law, an initiative of the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, Government of India. My two-and-a-half years of professional life as a Research Fellow exposed me to several practical experiences in the field of international trade. For instance, I was selected as a Member for the Rules of Origin track to represent India for the trade negotiations for India – UAE Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement in the year 2021. 

I strongly believe that one should aim towards self-actualisation, and this motivated me to apply for a PhD programme. Having heard and read about the popularity of UOW, not only in terms of its faculty and infrastructure, but also the fact that an international student like myself would be provided with umpteen opportunities in career, I did not have to think twice about making a decision to apply to UOW. Furthermore, I got blessed with expert supervisors in the field of international trade law, Dr. Colin Picker and Prof. Markus Wagner, who could guide me with my PhD thesis on the topic gender mainstreaming in international trade agreements.

Why did you want to pursue a PhD? 

I strongly believe that having an in-depth knowledge in a particular topic is crucial in today’s highly competitive world. And I am also aware that being a jack of all trades and master of none is futile in the long run. Being a legal professional who is very passionate about gender debates, I always wanted to delve deep into the controversies of gender and identify as well as respond to such issues and challenges. To enable me to achieve this end, I consider a doctoral degree (PhD) a stepping stone towards it.

Apart from a mere academic commitment, I perceive PhD as an effective mode to voice out my observations and concerns in the sensitive linkage between international law and gender. In particular, my area of research interest is gender mainstreaming in the context of international trade agreements and an evaluation of it from the lens of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal on Gender equality. When backed up with concrete research, I equate my PhD as a tool for social reformation beyond its academic contribution. In other words, the following are the major purposes which I aim to achieve using my PhD in the chosen area of law:

  • update on the existing framework of trade and gender in the international legal spectrum;
  • conduct an extensive examination on the reflection of gender-based provisions in international trade agreements;
  • expose the vacuum existing in the trade-gender debate from the perspective of United Nations Sustainable Development Goal on Gender Equality and;
  • To suggest a concrete mechanism within the provisions of international trade agreements to effectively address the challenges faced by women.

What is the specific area of interest that you would like to do your doctoral research on? 

In simple terms, my focus area of doctoral research is gender mainstreaming in international trade agreements and the extent to which the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal on Gender Equality is implemented during this process. Here, trade agreements, by virtue of their provisions and form, are used as symbols which provides an understanding on the degree of implementation. In this context, however, I would like to exclusively engage with the concept of gender mainstreaming and the health aspects of women as incorporated in the international trade agreements. Considering the diversities in gender – based commitments across the nations, I would like to restrict my research on the international trade agreements of Europe, Africa and Asia, ranging from the country with the highest degree of commitments to the lowest.

To elaborate, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal on Gender Equality highlights several targets, including health-related targets like elimination of all harmful practices, such as child, early and forced marriage and female genital mutilation as well as providing universal access to sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights as agreed in accordance with the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development and the Beijing Platform for Action and the outcome documents of their review conferences. Within this setting, it is interesting to observe the language and content of health-related commitments made by the identified nations in their trade agreements. Here, for the purpose of my study, the trade agreements of the specific nations are considered as markers for examining their level of health-related commitments for women.

The following are the research questions which this study seeks to answer:

  • What is the concept of gender mainstreaming in the context of international trade agreements?
  • Does gender mainstreaming from the perspective of women’s health as provided in the trade agreements reflect the targets of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal on Gender Equality?
  • How does international trade agreements act as symbols for implementation of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal on Gender Equality?
  • What are the challenges to the existing framework of international trade agreements which adversely affect the implementation of United Nations Sustainable Development Goal on Gender Equality?
  • How can the present structure of international trade agreements be developed to effectively address the challenges to women’s health rights via gender mainstreaming?

To what extent does your educational and professional background prepare you for the work that lies ahead in your doctoral thesis? 

 I hold a graduation in law from my home country India where the degree conferred upon me is officially titled B.A LL.B (Hons.)). Being an integrated five-year long course from 2012 to 2017, the programme offered a mix of Arts subjects like English, History, Political Science and Sociology in the first two years and subsequently the later years were dedicated to law subjects alone. While at the law school, having an inclination towards gender and feminism, I took specific elective subjects, namely, Gender and Governance; Feminist Legal Theory; War, Conflict and Gender; and Law, Caste and Gender to broaden my understanding on feminist jurisprudence and gender discourse.

Further, to boost my research skills I also provided undergraduate research assistance for on-campus research centres, namely Centre for Environment and Climate Change (CECC), Centre for International Trade and Economic Laws (CITEL), and the Centre for Public International Law (CPIL). I was tasked with unique assignments in these different research centres. For instance, at CECC, I conducted background research (using case law databases, compiled and summarized Supreme Court cases in the areas of regulation of mining, forests and technology) for a book project titled “Environmental Risk Regulation and the Supreme Court: Implications for the democratic discourse in India” authored by Dr. Nupur Chowdhury; while at CITEL, I conducted research for a Working Paper on the relevance of Export Credits in International Trade. On the other hand, for CPIL, I conducted extensive research to trace back the origin of the word ‘developing’ to understand the notion of development in Third World Approaches to International Law (TWAIL).

As soon as I graduated in 2017, I completed my enrolment procedures as a lawyer with the State Bar Council of New Delhi. In the very same year, I appeared for and successfully qualified the All - India Bar Examination (AIBE) which enables me to practice law across the courts in India. Additionally, I also utilized the period to prepare for entrance examinations for LL.M (Master in Laws) for law schools in India. Thereafter, in 2018, I got selected to pursue an LL.M in International Trade Law at the National University of Advanced Legal Studies in Cochin, Kerala. Apart from the coursework, I was required to submit a dissertation too. My topic was ‘Commercialization of Indian Legal Education: An Evaluation of the Access Aspect Using the GATS Framework’. 

Finally, right after I completed my LL.M in the year 2019, I got recruited as a Research Fellow at the Centre for Trade and Investment Law (CTIL) in New Delhi. CTIL is an initiative of the Indian Institute of Foreign Trade, established by the Department of Commerce, Ministry of Commerce and Industry, Government of India. My two-and-a-half years at the research institute provided me with several excellent opportunities. I was able to understand the method of conducting legal research and writing quality legal opinions. Some of the major opinions and studies which I was a part of include the following: India’s position in entering into the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) Agreement; the possibility of a Partial Scope or Preferential Trade Agreement in services; the compatibility of the EU-ESA Interim Economic Partnership Agreement with Article XXIV of the GATT, 1994; analysis of the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement; inconsistency(s) in the scheduling practices of various WTO members in their GATS Mode 3 and Mode 4 commitments; review of the ASEAN-India Agreement on Trade in Goods; inputs on diverse issues including De Minimis provision (India – Chile Draft proposal on the Rule of Origin Chapter); India-Chile PTA second expansion (Rules of Origin Chapter – Annex C); key differences in proposals for Rules of Origin Chapter of India-Canada CEPA; inputs on scope of “balanced trade” as objective of ASEAN Scoping Paper concerning the AITIGA review;  incorporation of Canada’s framework for services in India’s Scoping Paper; clarification regarding the applicability of the Art. XXIV of the GATT 1994 or the Enabling Clause to the review of the ASEAN-India Agreement on Trade in Goods; comments on the response by DCPC addressing the grievance of Formosa Plastics Corporation regarding denial of BIS license under FMCS scheme; and on possible asks, concerns, and red-lines in India-UK ETP on trade and sustainability.

Furthermore, during my employment days at CTIL, I was also a part of several extensive studies which was submitted to the Government of India. They comprise of a detailed scoping exercise on India – UK ETP negotiations and prepared a report titled ‘India-UK ETP Negotiations: Scoping Assessment [for the tracks – Dispute Settlement, Trade Remedies, Sustainability, and Intellectual Property (excluding GIs)’; a comparative analysis for a comprehensive research report titled ‘Study on International Best Practices in Industrial Relations’ which primarily deals with the laws and regulations on Anti-dumping and Countervailing duty measures of 17 major WTO Members; the laws and regulations on Tariff Rate Quota of 8 major WTO Members; the schemes pertaining to Free Trade Zones in certain major economies; the trade and investment facilitative framework which focuses on current trends, and finally, a study on the issue of Sustainable Development under India-European Union Bilateral Trade Investment Agreement (BTIA) and helped in preparing a Report on it having two parts I and II.

Therefore, I am confident that my educational and professional background has a significant contribution towards moulding me to prepare for the entire tenure of my doctoral candidature. Be it the choice of topic, or the rudimentary research skills mandated for pursuing a PhD, I am certain about the specific role played by my universities as well as my former employer towards making it a reality. For instance, my days at the law schools and the specific subjects I chose to study gave me a thorough understanding on gender dynamics in society and the various challenges and how law comes into play there. On the other hand, they also inculcated in me the habit of reading, researching and making an argument. Thanks to the umpteen research papers which I had to submit as part of the coursework at the law schools! However, my specific focus on the practical side of international trade law began only after I joined CITEL as a Research Fellow. Amongst many things, I was exposed to the texts of international trade agreements, and was able to take part in negotiations as well.  In particular, I was a Member of India’s Working Group (Track: Rules of Origin) for India – UAE trade agreement (India – UAE Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA)) in the period of 2021-2022.

What do you hope to add to the existing debate around trade and gender? 

The intricate relation between trade and gender is very complex specifically in the context of international trade agreements. While some countries like the Europe are pro-gender in this area, others like Asia substantially lack any major commitments. Additionally, under the ambit of gender, there are several specific issues which deserve pressing attention, namely, women and health; reproductive rights of women; women and labor; women in leadership roles; and so on. Through my PhD thesis I would like to examine and argue primarily the following two aspects:

 International trade agreements should dedicate specific and comprehensive chapters on gender as a stepping stone towards realizing the goals of United Nations Sustainable Development Goal on Gender Equality from the perspective of international trade;

The health issues encountered by women do not receive adequate significance in the contemporary structure of international trade agreements, and therefore the content and form of such trade agreements ought to be modified to cover this vacuum.

What are some of your long-term goals? 

My long-term goal is to work with the World Trade Organization in its Trade and Gender unit. I believe that once I finish my PhD thesis, WTO will be full-fledged with its gender-based initiatives. For instance, on 23 September 2020, the WTO established its Informal Working Group on Trade and Gender. Further, even the WTO Secretariat has set up several action plans on trade and gender since the year 2017 and going up to 2026. Furthermore, the WTO Secretariat in 2021 launched a Gender Research Hub as a platform for updated research on gender. Hence, I am certain that WTO will be a wonderful platform for me to kick-start my career after PhD.

Alternatively, I also enjoy teaching. If given an opportunity, I would prefer to return to India and join as a full-time faculty member for international trade law in any of the premier law schools of the country.