Women in jeopardy at every post
Most informal cross-border traders are women, but the challenges they face are many. Harassment, soliciting of bribes and sexual exploitation by border officials constitute the biggest obstacles for female informal cross-border traders in Africa, according to research by UN Women, the United Nations organisation dedicated to gender equality and the empowerment of women.
Onerous procedures, health risks and long periods away from home are other problems these breadwinners face.
Small-scale traders form the backbone of many African economies, alleviating poverty, encouraging entrepreneurship and saving lives in times of regional food deficiencies.
Some studies estimate that the average value of informal cross-border trade in the Southern African Development Community is $17.6-billion a year.
According to the World Bank, 40% of a $7.7-million monthly value of trade at the Mwami-Mchinji, Chirundu and Livingstone-Victoria Falls borders, is informal.
Conservative estimates say that 70% of those traders are women, and a 2009 UN-driven survey conducted in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Burundi puts the female portion of informal cross-border traders as high as 86%.
Veronica Chirume uses a Zimbabwe United Passenger Company (Zupco) bus that crosses the small Kariba border post between Zimbabwe and Zambia every month to import and export her goods.
According to Zupco bus drivers, 90% of their passengers are female and most of them are traders.
"I do it for my children," says Chirume.
She has brought in bags of soya to sell at the market in Zambia's capital Lusaka, and returns with a suitcase full of nappies, shoes, blouses and handbags, which she will sell at the Chikurubi Trading Depo in Harare.
"If I use $200 to order for each trip, I get about $400 when I sell it back in Zimbabwe," she explains.
According to research by UN Women, which is headed by South Africa's former deputy president Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, traders use their income "to buy food and other household items, pay for school fees, healthcare services and rent, and save and reinvest in their businesses".
Despite this, the attitude of Africa's governments has been fairly negative, branding the traders as smugglers and creating a culture in which the women are vulnerable to abuse by customs and immigrations officials.
According to the International Organisation for Migration in Zimbabwe, traders "can be robbed, harassed by customs officials, and women in particular can be raped, beaten or sexually exploited if they are not adequately protected".
Other health risks include staying in overcrowded accommodation, the risk of accidents because of the cheap forms of transport they use and poor nutrition in an effort to minimise costs in the country of destination.
Xenophobia is another problem many of the women have to deal with. The UN Women study, which surveyed more than 700 informal traders in Zimbabwe and Swaziland, also describes harassment of traders by South African police, soldiers and customs officials if they refuse to pay bribes.
Corrupt border officials take advantage of traders' sometimes limited level of understanding of the customs process and often confiscate goods illegally.
"Many are forced to engage in transactional sex along trade corridors to obtain accommodation, transport or get through borders.
Upon returning home, female traders – who may be gone for weeks at a time – may be accused of prostitution and stigmatised," the study says.
That means women such as Chirume are vulnerable every time they cross a border.
Letty Chiwara, chief of the Africa division at UN Women, says female informal cross-border traders "still suffer from invisibility, stigmatisation, violence, harassment, poor working conditions and lack of recognition of their economic contribution".
In the UN Women position paper, Unleashing the Potential of Women Informal Cross-Border Traders to Transform Intra-African Trade, Chiwara calls on Africa's governments to take the women seriously because they "are also an important client of ministries of trade and regional economic communities".
According to Chiwara, trade-related institutions, services and resources in support of women's trading activities are weak.
"That is 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," Chiwara says.
The difficulty of obtaining loans and start-up capital for small businesses forces many female traders to borrow money from loan sharks to pay for transport and purchase goods.
This feature was produced with the assistance of the Southern Africa Trust