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Strengthening women-led organisations in trade facilitation in Africa

Exclusion has a face – and it is female

Governments in Africa have shown commitment to the promotion of women empowerment by the ratification of the convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women. Many have also ratified the African Union’s Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa.

The role of women in Africa has been largely that of keeping the home i.e. house managers. The AfCFTA in 2021 promised to unlock the potential for African women to move from micro to macro businesses and the Declaration 2020 – 2030 as the new decade of women’s Financial and Economic inclusion. African leaders are committed to scaling up actions for progressive gender inclusion towards sustainable development.

It must be noted that though the AfCFTA is a continental agreement, the implementation is primarily at the national level and based on domestic context and realities. Therefore, this domestication must have women leading in the negotiation in fulfilment of gender equality and inclusion.

Furthermore, the African Union Fund for African Women (FAW) is being converted into a Trust Fund for African Women (TFAW) and this will be part of the concrete solutions that will be available for women to achieve economic justice as well as financial inclusion. This effort is aligned to the African Union strategy for Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment (GEWE) and the African Charter on the Rights of Women in Africa.

This Charter pushed for the inclusion of women in Africa’s development agenda, which recognises that gender equality is a fundamental human right and therefore an integral part of regional integration, economic growth, and social development.

Challenges

Africa’s trade potential is grossly undermined by the constraints that women face because of the specific non-tariff barriers that impinge heavily on the trading activities of women and women-owned enterprises. These barriers push them into an informal economy where lack of access to finance, information, and networks jeopardise their capacity to show and develop their businesses.

This condition prevents women from taking full advantage of the opportunities created by trade as well as undermines the African countries from using trade as a driver of growth, employment, and poverty reduction.

Africa needs to give attention to addressing these barriers.

Lack of data: This leads to an under representation of small traders and rural producers, the constraints they face, and specific challenges.

Informal cross-border traders: Women who participate in the production of traded goods and services e.g. cotton farmers to professionals such as legal services, accountants, teachers, etc., and women entrepreneurs.

How to help

Recognition by government: Government needs to recognise the vital role of women in trade and ensure it is communicated to officials at all levels.

Transparency and openness: This ensures that rules and guidelines governing trade are clear, transparent, and widely available at the borders. Clarity on documentation, fees, and taxes payable, rules governing competition for goods and services and people crossing the borders.

Allowing documents to be obtained and submitted close to where women traders reside is of particular importance; design interventions that ensure women participate and benefit, and assist women in addressing the risks they face in their trade-related activities.

Women traders cross the borders throughout Africa daily making a major economic contribution to the continent. It is estimated that informal cross-border trading is a source of income for about 43 percent of the total African population.

Read also: AfCFTA: Nigerian exporters drilled on coping with supply issues to conquer the African market

In South Africa for example, it amounts to as much as 30 – 40 percent of total recorded formal trade between countries in the region entailing about $20 billion per year. (SARDC 2008)

At the border post between Malawi and Zambia, informal trade amounts to $3 million per month (Njiwa et al 2011).

Studies throughout the continent confirm that majority of cross-border traders are women. These traders play a key role in food, security, bringing in income to critical household needs, and often making the difference in whether the children go to school or not.

The following comment was from the minister for East African Community Affairs of Burundi and makes the topic clearer: “Women traders are the ones who face every day the problems of not knowing what their rights and obligations are in today’s East African Community (EAC). Most of them have no clue about their rights and obligations.”

Women traders often face harassment and poor conditions when crossing the border. Although most of their business is informal and not formally registered as a business, they cross the borders through official processes and processes by customs, immigration, and other agencies.

In a recent survey in the Great Lake region, more than 80% of traders reported having to pay a bribe to cross the border. More than half had suffered from physical harassment and abuse, beatings, verbal insults, stripping, sexual harassment, and even rape. Most of these are unreported.

Women must be sensitized to know the Charter for cross-border traders, basic rights and obligations for traders and officials at their fingertips, and report violations to the authorities.

Government should streamline the system of import and export registration and ensure all traders are able to do so with minimal time and cost. Simplify procedures at the border.

Assess whether import/export permits are essential for meeting public policy objectives or whether they can be removed and compliance made simple.

Trade facilitation measures should be aimed at reducing the complexities, time, and cost of formal trade procedures example (the single customs documentation COMESA) or the Pilot (One-stop border post between Zambia and Zimbabwe Chirundu).

COMESA has addressed the issue of small-scale cross-border traders by the introduction of the Simplified Trading Regime (STR). This scheme is designed to overcome the problems associated with small traders for goods below $1,000 (One Thousand Dollars). Simple Customs documents are filled and accepted by customs rather than the full documentation by clearing agents.

No data for informal trade and cultural barriers for women retards the collation of data in this respect.

Women should be encouraged to be involved in all sequences of trade which is exclusively in the domain of men today. Finance has seen a major strain in the sustainability of women in trade and this should be addressed by making access to women’s finance corporative loans, advances, and other support values available in the financial establishments including unilateral, bilateral, and government support.

NGOs should also provide simple digit loans and finances in the facilitation of women in trading activities.

Trade chain: The trading chain momentum should be emphasized and analysed. This should start from manufacturing to distribution and to retail if the benefit of trade facilitation for women will be gainful and sustainable.

Ezeoke, president, Women in Shipping International, writes from Lagos