Regional Integration in Africa, and its Gender Implications in Cross-Border Trade
This past week, I attended the African Development Bank — Civil Society Forum in Abidjan, as a guest of the West African Civil Society Institute, sponsored by the Mandela Washington Fellowship and the International Research & Exchanges Board. The theme of the Forum was Engaging Civil Society in Regional Integration for Africa’s Economic Prosperity.
I was invited to speak on a panel titled Moving Regional Integration Beyond Rhetoric in West Africa: Leveraging on the strength of engaged civil society, my role being to examine regional integration through a gender lens, assess the policies which may prove to be potentially harmful or economically disenfranchise women, and come up with gender-sensitive caveats to ensure women maintained active participation in regional integration.
The irony of the above however, is that women have always been involved in regional integration. One of the core economic components of open borders is the lowering of barriers to trade, and African women have been important figures in intra-Africa trade for centuries. Women in Africa are essential in the trade value chain (food and non-food) and contribute significantly to the regional economy through this. They encompass all aspects, from border traders, to producers of traded goods and services, to large-scale import and export entrepreneurs.
In a 2012 AFDB Economic Brief, it is stated that womens’ informal cross-border trade is a source of income to 43% of the African population and informal cross-border trade contributes about 30 to 40 % in revenue between countries in the Southern Africa region. Yet despite being so vital to the trade economy of the continent, women face barriers to finance, networks, lack access to information, trade education, and empowerment skills; all of which jeopardizes growth and trade development capacity.
This shows us that though African women are the essential cog in the wheel of informal cross-border trade, they are yet to receive the dividends of the growth they have pioneered and maintained. We therefore cannot have a discussion on regional trade, without including local African women, both urban and rural, small-scale and large-scale entrepreneurs, in policy discussions.