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Promoting Women’s Participation in the AfCFTA

By Treasure Maphanga
29 Aug 2018
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Promoting Women’s Participation in the AfCFTA

The recent signing of the African Continental Free Trade Area in Kigali on 21 March 2018 marked a momentous occasion in trade policy discourse in Africa. The Agreement seeks to create a single market for goods, services, facilitated by the movement of persons in order to deepen the economic integration of the African continent, in accordance with the Pan African Vision of “An integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa” as enshrined in Agenda 2063. It is not by error that both Preamble and the General Objectives of Agreement of the AfCFTA recognize the importance of gender equality. Such high-level continental development frameworks present greater opportunities for accelerating progress in the implementation of gender equality commitments.

Both the Protocol of Trade in Goods and Protocol on Trade in Services recognize the importance of building capacity in women in order to trade better. This is a conscious realization that Africa has made remarkable progress in implementing global and regional gender equality and women’s empowerment commitments. Gender equality and women’s empowerment have been defined as priority goals in the new discourse and narrative for Africa’s structural transformation and sustainable development.

The Pan-African CFTA endeavours to formalize trade within Africa, and a common spectre of Africa’s cross-border trade is the sight of women crossing the borders with their heads and backs laden and arms overloaded with goods for sale. Of the 2000 women informal cross border traders surveyed by UNIFEM (now UN Women) in 2007-2009 in Cameroon, Liberia, Mali, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, a great majority stated that: the proceeds from their trading activities is the main source of income for the family; women traders use their income to buy food and other items for the household, pay for school fees, health care services and rent, save in susu clubs and banks and reinvest in their businesses.

There is no doubt that continental integration is pivotal to the economic transformation of Africa. However, a plethora of Non-Tariff Barriers has affected the smooth participation of women in trade, and the potential for inclusive growth. According to a recent study by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in 2017[1], 70 per cent of the informal traders in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region are women. In West and Central Africa, informal cross-border trade among women represents more than 60% and generates about 40 to 60%[2] of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of the countries concerned.[3] This cross-border trade, which is driven by increasing population, growing urbanization and agriculture, provides the foundation for a diversified and globally competitive economy.

Women informal cross border traders still suffer from invisibility, stigmatization, violence, harassment, poor working conditions and lack of recognition of their economic contribution. By ignoring women’s informal trading activities, African countries are neglecting a significant proportion of their trade. There is need to address the issue of informality in mainstream trade policy making and to strengthen the notion that women informal traders are also an important client of Ministries of trade and regional economic communities.

Data related challenges compound the adequate reflection of women’s trading activities in national accounting systems and statistical databases of the Regional Economic Communities (REC). All the economic transactions taking place at the borders are not systematically documented in terms of data and statistics, making it difficult to capture and understand the different dynamics at play to inform trade policies and processes. Trade-related institutions, services and resources in support of women’s trading activities remain weak as evidenced by the limited access of women traders to credit facilities, foreign currency exchange, transport services, information on market opportunities and trade rules and Protocols, child care facilities in cross border markets, and lack of infrastructure for storage of agricultural commodities in cross border markets.

A quick scan across the eight African RECs gives a varying picture of the projects and programmes to improve women’s participation in cross-border trade. In light of the diversity of policies across the African landscape with respect women in trade, the African Union Commission has designed a Work Programme for 2019 under the Boosting Intra-Africa Trade (BIAT) initiative with respect to “Easing Cross Border Trade for Women and Youth” within the framework of the AfCFTA. The main idea is to mainstream gender in cross-border trade, especially women cross-border entrepreneurship, identification of barriers, access to finance, capture statistics, sensitization on prevailing trade agreements, among others. This Work Programme will be implemented in collaboration with the RECs and REC institutions, international cooperating partners, member states, among others.

As we progress with the implementation of women in this historical agreement, we must continue to advocate for the equal representation of women in all aspects of the African Continental Free Trade Area, including the technical committees that will be responsible for monitoring the implementation of the Agreement. Indeed, in the private sector, being the key beneficiaries of the African Continental Free Trade Area, we wish to see a broader representation on women in large, medium and small-scale enterprises across all sectors. There is an opportunity with the establishment of national AfCFTA committees to ensure that the gender dimension is taken into account so as to ensure inclusive policymaking where it matters most.


[1] Download the paper:  pdf Formalization of informal trade in Africa: Trends, experiences and socio-economic impacts (1.21 MB)

[2] See http://www.unwomen.org/en/digital-library/publications/2010/3/unleashing-the-potential-of-women-informal-cross-border-traders-to-transform-intra-african-trade

[3] See https://www.tralac.org/news/article/541-shift-from-traditional-approach-to-integration-to-a-developmental-regionalisma-report-urges.html

About the Author(s)

Treasure Maphanga

Treasure Maphanga

Ms Treasure Thembisile Maphanga is Director for Trade and Industry at the African Union Commission (AUC) in Addis Ababa. She joined the AUC in April 2012 and is engaged in trade policy and industrial development at the Pan-African level under the auspices of the policy organs of the African Union. She is a guest author on the tralacBlog, writing in her personal capacity.

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