Trade and agriculture are important priorities for reducing poverty and facilitating regional integration. Although solutions to address the problems of women cross border traders and farmers in the SADC region have been articulated in national and regional policies, they are not yet having significant impact. A substantial number of women play key roles in trade and agriculture in the region yet remain the most disadvantaged participants within these sectors.
In an article published by The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), it was estimated that the value of trade conducted by women in the region amounts to approximately $20 billion USD annually. The SADC Food and Nutrition Security Strategy estimated that women contribute to at least 60% of total food production and provide the largest labour force within the agricultural sector.
Economic policies remain gender blind, due to the lack of meaningful participation of women in policy making.
Women traders face key challenges: they are subject to gender-based discrimination, as societies remain patriarchal, with men dominating indecision-making on behalf of their families. Another issue is the distinct lack of land ownership – the land reform programme in Malawi, by example, continues to exclude women, with only 10% of land acquired through the programme allocated to women. Women rarely identify and comprehend the very policies set to govern their fields of expertise, as a result of lateral dissemination of communication that is very often not culturally contextualised. There is also a lack of initiative and political will by government and non-state actors to develop policies and create open dialogue.
Limited access to finance poses further challenges
Financial institutions are focused on commercial lending and low-risk entities. Women often lack surety and maintain fluctuating incomes, making loans from institutions that require regular payment difficult to obtain. The Zimbabwe Cross Border Traders Association, COMESA and SADC Secretariat provide that at least 70-80% of cross border traders are women, making a living through buying goods from neighbouring countries and trading them in their region. However, high tax rates at borders - at least 90% of women cross border traders’ revenue is a contribution to government taxes – continue to reduce the potential of women operating profitable businesses.
Other challenges faced by women cross border traders include corruption, sexual harassment and abuse from customs officials and inconsistent and lengthy border procedures. A study into trade at a Harare flea market showed that it is more expensive to be a female trader: toilet facilities are charged for (therefore not used by men); storage fees are high (men opt to take their goods home); and market fees, while the same for men and women traders,represent a larger portion of women’s income, as they earn less than men.
How the Southern Africa Trust is addressing these challenges
The Trust has partnered with cross border traders’associations and facilitated dialogue between women traders and relevant policy institutions. They have also produced culturally contextual and translated information booklets on Simplified Trade Regime and the non-tariff barrier scheme. The Trust has and will continue to organise awareness campaigns, with the participation of customs authorities, immigration, police and ministries of trade. They also plan to:
· Provide access to capital and funding by sourcing alternative lending streams
· Expand the customer base for women traders, offering a wider market – with an ultimate goal of supplying larger retail stores
· Improve supportive public services, including border/custom controls, healthcare, home affairs and policing
· Assist with general trade issues, like the current COVID-19 restrictions, which affect the livehood of traders