No decent work for African cross-border traders

A couple weeks ago while crossing the Tanzania-Kenya border, I overheard a man teasing a cross-border trader that she was not likely to get married because of the nature of her work.

This statement was not really a joke, regardless of the innocent manner in which it was made. It was a manifestation of deep-rooted stereotypes about women who engage in cross-border trade.

This week marks 100 years of International Women’s Day with a theme that mentions the need for a pathway to decent work for women. Despite the fact women cross-border traders make huge contributions to African economies, their path to decent work is still strewn with difficulty and danger.

Throughout Africa these women are not respected and there is a perception that because they cover long-distances and spend nights away from their families, they are prostitutes or of base character.

Others see them as divorcees, dangerous, or users of witchcraft. All these perceptions reinforce the belief that someone engaging in such trade does not fit the “good woman” stereotype.

This perception is not just an East African phenomenon. In most African countries, these stereotypes seem to give a licence to members of society to subject cross-border traders to gender-based violence with impunity. Sexual harassment, rape and abuse of women cross-border traders by police and customs officials go unpunished on many regional borders, including Kenya-Tanzania, Zimbabwe-South Africa, Zambia-Zimbabwe and Malawi-Mozambique.

A recent United Nations Development Fund for Women report surveyed 700 cross-border traders in Southern Africa and found that most women traders had reported sexual abuse and harassment. This exposes women traders to HIV infection and other sexually transmitted diseases, yet nobody seems to take action.

And although there is little data on this subject, what is known is that women cross-border traders play a huge role in the economies of Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries. Some estimates put their contribution to intra-SADC trade as high as 40% — about $17,6-billion per year. This doesn’t include the other massive contribution they make to national coffers through taxes, licence fees and duties.

What is disturbing is that many of the above attitudes have percolated through government institutions directly responsible for ensuring the well-being of these women. Rarely do these institutions integrate women traders in programmes geared towards improving regional trade, although as many as 80% of those involved in informal trade in Africa are women.

National governments, regional bodies and most civil society organisations rarely educate or empower these women with knowledge on how they can participate meaningfully in regional trade.

Likewise, the contribution of these women in rearing educated and healthy children — a large ingredient for achieving the Millennium Development Goals — is never accounted for.

Failure to recognise these efforts and these women as key players has major implications.

As African countries — either in SADC, the East Africa community or elsewhere — make huge strides through regional trade policies, these women have no voice or stake in something so important to their lives.

This is confirmed in Masheti Masinjila’s 2009 study, “Gender Dimensions of Cross Border Trade in the East Africa Community”. She found that women who were interviewed showed little knowledge of the East African community customs protocol, and those who did had little motivation to use it to facilitate trading activities.

Proximity to power
Meetings to sensitise the business communities in these countries have rarely benefited women traders. The main players are men who enjoy greater proximity to power and have the capital to access unlimited resources, which gives them a major competitive edge.

With this, men are able to take advantage of economies of scale and sell their products at lower prices, undercutting small-scale women traders who lack such resources.

It is because of this exclusion that many women traders see the opening of borders as a threat rather than a development opportunity. Programmes to educate and reassure these women are non-existent.

There are also few specific programmes designed to help transform these women from petty traders to major players in regional trade. Most banks avoid them, arguing that they lack collateral and engage in risky business.

Yet the majority of these women, by virtue of their outstanding experience in the difficult business terrain, could likely produce better results if enabled to take advantages of such trade.

Masinjila established that 44% of the women in her study had completed secondary education. If properly educated and sensitised on regional trade instruments, they would surely have the ability to appreciate the implications of better trade.

Without such interventions, these women will continue to live anything but decent lives. As victims of societal stereotyping, institutional sexual harassment and governmental neglect, their current plight is certainly not a story to celebrate this International Women’s Day.

Arthur Okwemba is a journalist with the African Women and Child Feature Service in Kenya. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service special series for 100 years of International Women’s Day.

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories

Malaicha trade goes digital

A new app lets users in South Africa buy goods that are dispatched from warehouses in Zimbabwean cities

Zuma throws spanner in SA’s financial works

Not signing the Financial Intelligence Centre Amendment Bill can result in sanctions against banks and cross-border illicit flows will continue.

Africa trade bloc mulls regional infrastructure bond

The regional trade bloc Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa is considering issuing a regional infrastructure bond and is seeking advisers.

Focus on the tricks of trade, hears SADC

Southern Africa has moved forward with regional economic integration, but challenges remain, say trade experts.

Subscribers only

SAA bailout raises more questions

As the government continues to grapple with the troubles facing the airline, it would do well to keep on eye on the impending Denel implosion

ANC’s rogue deployees revealed

Despite 6 300 ANC cadres working in government, the party’s integrity committee has done little to deal with its accused members

More top stories

Eastern Cape universities concerned by rising Covid cases

Fort Hare says 26 more students have tested positive while Walter Sisulu University says some of its students have been admitted to hospital.

SAA in talks to recoup R350-million in blocked funds...

The cash-strapped national carrier is in the process of recouping its blocked funds from Zimbabwe, which could go towards financing the airline’s business rescue plan

NSFAS’s woes do not help its mandate

Nehawu wants the scheme’s administrator, Randall Carolissen, to be removed

Unions cry foul over SABC dismissal costs and retrenchments

Broadcaster bodies say claims that a recent skills audit is unrelated to retrenchments are ‘irrational’

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday