Raw deal for African women traders

Un­friendly trade poli­cies crip­ple progress

Africa Renewal - - Contents - By Nirit Ben-Ari

Daily, mil­lions of women in Africa are en­gaged in one form of trade or an­other, ei­ther within their coun­tries or across na­tional bor­ders. They buy and sell ev­ery­thing, from agri­cul­tural pro­duce to man­u­fac­tured prod­ucts. It is mostly women who con­duct cross-bor­der trade, de­liv­er­ing goods and ser­vices, re­ports the World Bank. They also run the ma­jor­ity of agri­cul­tural small land­hold­ings. In­deed, women traders’ con­tri­bu­tion to na­tional economies has be­come es­sen­tial in boost­ing trade in Africa.

How­ever, trade poli­cies in the re­gion are not nec­es­sar­ily favourable to women, be­cause men have bet­ter ac­cess to re­sources. If any­thing, the con­straints women face un­der­mine Africa’s ef­forts to re­al­ize its full trade po­ten­tial. Th­ese con­straints in­clude non-tar­iff bar­ri­ers that im­pinge on trad­ing, notes a World Bank 2013 study ti­tled Women and Trade in Africa. For ex­am­ple, lack of ac­cess to fi­nance, in­for­ma­tion and for­mal net­works of­ten pushes women into the in­for­mal econ­omy, where their ca­pac­ity for growth is limited.

Cross-bor­der trade and the in­for­mal sec­tor

Women’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in in­for­mal trade is of­ten not fully ap­pre­ci­ated. Their in­volve­ment in in­for­mal cross-bor­der trade hardly draws at­ten­tion in in­ter­na­tional trade cir­cles, says a pa­per by the United Na­tions In­ter-Agency Net­work on Women and Gen­der Equal­ity, an ad­vo­cacy group. In­for­mal trade, which women dom­i­nate, is a ma­jor source of job cre­ation in Africa, pro­vid­ing between 20% and 75% of to­tal em­ploy­ment in most coun­tries, ac­cord­ing to the in­ter­a­gency net­work. For ex­am­ple, within the South­ern African Devel­op­ment Com­mu­nity re­gion, in­for­mal cross-bor­der trade, mostly in pro­cessed and un­pro­cessed food, con­sti­tutes between 30% and 40% of the to­tal trade vol­ume an­nu­ally.

Trade­Mark East Africa ( TMEA), an or­ga­ni­za­tion that pro­motes cross-bor­der trade in the sub­re­gion, re­ports that women con­duct up to 74% of the in­for­mal trade along Rwanda’s bor­ders with its neigh­bours—Bu­rundi, the Demo­cratic Repub­lic of the Congo, Tan­za­nia and Uganda. Cross-bor­der trad­ing is the only source of in­come for the ma­jor­ity of th­ese women. How­ever, TMEA is con­cerned that this form of trade is pre­dom­i­nately in low-value and low-profit prod­ucts, such as fruits and veg­eta­bles, live­stock, meat and dairy prod­ucts.

Women’s lack of knowl­edge about their rights un­der trade treaties and pro­to­cols ex­ac­er­bates the prob­lems they face in cross-bor­der trad­ing. In some cases women are forced to pay bribes or sub­jected to ha­rass­ment by cus­toms and immigration of­fi­cials. To help them deal with th­ese prob­lems, TMEA started a project in 2012 that fa­cil­i­tates women’s cross-bor­der trad­ing ac­tiv­i­ties in East Africa. It pro­vides free le­gal ser­vices to small-scale traders, mostly women, who, of­ten un­aware of their rights, use il­le­gal routes to cross bor­ders to avoid ha­rass­ment by cus­toms of­fi­cials. TMEA teaches them to ex­er­cise their rights in cases of ar­bi­trary ar­rest or il­le­gal ap­pli­ca­tion of rules by of­fi­cials. As a re­sult, many women traders in the re­gion now spend less time at the bor­ders fig­ur­ing out the right pro­ce­dures to fol­low. In ad­di­tion, TMEA has helped or­ga­nize

them into co­op­er­a­tives to strengthen their col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing pow­ers.

But more poli­cies are required to en­cour­age in­for­mal trad­ing by women, ex­perts say. They are more than likely to ben­e­fit from poli­cies that ad­dress prob­lems as­so­ci­ated with ac­cess to credit, so­cial safety nets, trans­port, for­eign cur­rency ex­change, stor­age fa­cil­i­ties, health care and san­i­ta­tion.

Women and trade lib­er­al­iza­tion

Al­though trade lib­er­al­iza­tion be­gan in the 1990s and in some cases has in­creased the com­pet­i­tive­ness of African traders, when it comes to women, the UN In­ter-Agency Net­work on Women and Gen­der Equal­ity says it has had the op­po­site ef­fect. The net­work says women have been badly af­fected by th­ese poli­cies be­cause of gen­der bi­ases in ed­u­ca­tion and train­ing, in­equal­i­ties in the dis­tri­bu­tion of in­come and re­sources, and un­equal ac­cess to credit, land and tech­nol­ogy. In Africa, “women re­ceive 7% of the agri­cul­tural ex­ten­sion ser­vices and less than 10% of the credit of­fered to small-scale farm­ers,” ac­cord­ing to the net­work.

But some ex­perts urge op­po­nents of trade lib­er­al­iza­tion to con­sider the other side of the coin, which is that th­ese poli­cies en­cour­age elim­i­nat­ing tar­iffs and con­se­quently re­duce the price of goods. Trade lib­er­al­iza­tion crit­ics counter by say­ing that if women have no ac­cess to credit, tech­ni­cal knowl­edge or in­ter­na­tional mar­kets, they have trou­ble com­pet­ing in­ter­na­tion­ally even if the mar­kets are opened up.

A ma­jor as­pect of trade lib­er­al­iza­tion is the open­ing up of labour mar­kets to in­ter­na­tional manufacturing and ap­parel jobs, as was the case in the tiny South­ern African na­tion of Le­sotho. A 2012 study on Le­sotho by the UN Con­fer­ence on Trade and Devel­op­ment ( UNCTAD), Who Is Ben­e­fit­ting from Trade Lib­er­al­iza­tion in Le­sotho? A Gen­der Per­spec­tive, found that lib­er­al­iza­tion has ex­panded trade in that coun­try over the last 30 years, es­pe­cially in labour-in­ten­sive ex­ports such as cloth­ing. It also led to an in­crease in the num­ber of women em­ployed in the for­mal sec­tor.

Le­sotho’s ex­am­ple

How did Le­sotho do it? First, it im­posed im­port quo­tas on cloth­ing orig­i­nat­ing from mar­kets in Asia, the US and the Euro­pean Union; sec­ond, Le­sotho’s tex­tile prod­ucts are a ma­jor ben­e­fi­ciary of the Africa Growth and Op­por­tu­nity Act (AGOA) of 2000, a law that al­lows African ex­ports into the US duty-free; and third, Le­sotho in­creased its ex­ports to the US by tak­ing ad­van­tage of a clause that per­mits AGOA-el­i­gi­ble coun­tries to source fab­rics from third-party coun­tries such as China. Th­ese poli­cies have had a ma­jor pos­i­tive im­pact on Le­sotho’s women traders.

The cloth­ing in­dus­try is Le­sotho’s big­gest em­ployer, with women mak­ing up the bulk of the work force. “Trade-led de­vel­op­ments have cre­ated a large num­ber of new jobs for un­der­priv­i­leged, rel­a­tively un­skilled women who would oth­er­wise have lit­tle chance of be­ing for­mally em­ployed,” says UNCTAD. Ba­sotho women hold­ing for­mal jobs have ac­cess to health pro­grammes, and those liv­ing with HIV re­ceive free care and treat­ment.

Yet while Le­sotho’s gar­ment sec­tor is pro­vid­ing jobs for women, it is also con­tribut­ing to new pat­terns of in­equal­ity and vul­ner­a­bil­ity. Wages in the tex­tile and ap­parel sec­tors are low. Work­ers earn only between $5 and $100 per month, de­spite having ac­cess to med­i­cal ben­e­fits. In the face of the high cost of liv­ing, th­ese wages are enough to cover only the ba­sic ne­ces­si­ties, and do not en­able work­ers to save for small busi­ness ac­tiv­i­ties.

Also, Ba­sotho women are par­tic­u­larly vul­ner­a­ble to ex­ter­nal shocks and changes in the in­ter­na­tional trade sys­tem. If the ap­parel fac­to­ries were to shut down, it would be dis­pro­por­tion­ately dif­fi­cult for women work­ers to re­lo­cate. This is be­cause women tend to face more ob­sta­cles in labour mo­bil­ity due to dis­crim­i­na­tory so­cial and cul­tural prac­tices such as limited ac­cess to ed­u­ca­tion, tech­nol­ogy and fi­nan­cial re­sources, ac­cord­ing to UNCTAD.

To­wards a gen­der-sen­si­tive trade pol­icy

Economies that de­pend on a sin­gle com­mod­ity are vul­ner­a­ble to ex­ter­nal shocks, which in turn af­fect women. UNCTAD says oil-pro­duc­ing coun­tries have not di­ver­si­fied their economies. For in­stance, An­gola’s econ­omy, which is pri­mar­ily ex­trac­tive, has not cre­ated enough jobs to ab­sorb the fe­male work force. Ac­cord­ing to the UN trade agency, a lack of progress in di­ver­si­fy­ing the An­golan econ­omy has con­fined women to low-pro­duc­tiv­ity jobs.

Un­like in Le­sotho, trade lib­er­al­iza­tion in An­gola has not pro­duced ex­por­to­ri­ented manufacturing jobs, and hence few women have joined the manufacturing sec­tor, where they make up only 17% of the to­tal work force.

To im­prove the plight of women, African gov­ern­ments must en­act poli­cies that re­move the con­straints they face as traders, ex­perts ad­vise. The UN In­ter-Agency Net­work on Women and Gen­der Equal­ity pro­poses three such poli­cies. First, gov­ern­ments must pro­vide fe­male work­ers with the nec­es­sary skills and ac­cess to in­for­ma­tion. Sec­ond, they must pass leg­is­la­tion on labour stan­dards and work­ing con­di­tions to elim­i­nate the ex­ploita­tion of fe­male work­ers. And third, they must for­mu­late so­cial and labour poli­cies that sup­port equal house­hold re­spon­si­bil­i­ties.

There is no doubt that sig­nif­i­cant gen­der gaps ex­ist in many sec­tors. UNCTAD rec­om­mends us­ing trade as an “en­abler” for future devel­op­ment. With the right poli­cies, women traders could be mo­ti­vated to con­trib­ute even more to­wards Africa’s devel­op­ment.

Africa Me­dia On­line/Karin Duthie

A woman sell­ing agri­cul­tural pro­duce in Kenya.

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