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.
For example, the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) is a significant regional policy which has been touted as a crucial driver for economic growth, industrialization, foreign direct investment, increased efficiency and sustainable development in Africa. However, the current gender barriers to equal access to market resources, restrictions to trade negotiations, laws and institution have not being considered by the AfCFTA, as it does not outline any way to combat how women will be affected by this new policy. This might only be countered by participating countries strengthening their own national policies to ensure marginalized groups are not left behind.
A policy which centred women and recorded significant success in follow-on gender parity, is Lesotho’s trade liberalization policy. A 2012 UNCTAD Report ranked Lesotho, 9th out of 135 countries of World Economic Forum global gender gap index with a 95% literacy rate, 58% professional and technical workers, 24% of women parliamentarians, 52% of women legislators, senior officials and managers. A 2011 BBC News report suggested Lesotho’s success in closing its gender gap could be attributed to the governments pro-women policies and in other instances, the migration of men to the South Africa mines in search of jobs.
The conversation should therefore not be just about how we need to include women in regional trade, we need to also focus on how to support the existing women within this structure. And the way this can be done is to give them access to funding, building their trade capacity through training, providing access to information by including them in every regional conversation to be had, including them in already established regional trade networks and providing skills training (grant application etc).
I was very glad to see the African Development Bank had taken steps to invite local women entrepreneurs to the Forum, as we heard from several informal traders on the issues they were currently tackling. This renewed practice of engaging civil society will ensure that regional integration will not have be top-down driven or elitist, and engagement will begin from the ground up.
Women don’t need to be shown how to participate in regional integration, they’re already light years ahead of the rest of the continent. They should be teaching us instead and policies should be created as a result of that intelligence gathering, that is the only way African borders can stay open successfully.
Adaku Ufere is an award-winning Thought Leader in the Energy & Gender space. She is committed to working towards finding solutions that address and lead to the eradication of energy poverty, experienced by women in developing countries.