Women in Africa participate in trade in many ways. They are informal cross-border traders. They produce traded goods and services. They are rural farmers and they are professionals, providing legal and accountancy services. Many are also entrepreneurs with dominant ownership of exporting companies. Women are—and will be—essential to the continent’s success in the global marketplace.
About "Notes From the Field": With this occasional feature, we let World Bank professionals who are conducting interesting trade-related projects around the globe explain some of the challenges and triumphs of their day-to-day work. The views expressed here are personal and should not be attributed to the World Bank. All interviews have been edited for clarity.
The interview below was conducted with Ian Gillson, a Senior Trade Economist in the World Bank’s Poverty Reduction and Economic Management (PREM) network. Before coming to the World Bank’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., Mr. Gillson worked in Malawi and the United Kingdom on issues surrounding preferential trade between developed and developing countries, trade-related taxation systems, trade in services and agricultural trade. He spoke with us about his work managing a World Bank trust fund that supports trade-related assistance to poor countries around the globe.
In many parts of the world, border-crossings are more than just an annoyance for women traders. Women can be subject to physical and sexual abuse from border officials, or charged illegal fees because they cannot read a receipt. Yet women traders are vital to some of the poorest economies in the world.
In addition to – and perhaps related to – the heightened risks women take in cross-border trade, they are underrepresented in the institutions that manage those borders. Men dominate the ranks of customs officials around the globe. One recent count estimated just 45 women in leadership positions in customs administration worldwide.
The World Customs Organization (WCO) is trying to change that statistic. On July 1, the WCO, with support from the World Bank, will hold a conference in Brussels to stimulate a conversation about women in customs - about their empowerment through both trade and public administration. Called the Women in Customs, Trade and Leadership Conference, the day-long agenda will address the hurdles faced by women in a wide range of roles, from informal traders to customs officials.
Maria knows she is good at selecting ripe tomatoes, but she doesn’t know any women who own nurseries like the one where she works in Honduras. Susan does housekeeping for a hotel in Kenya, but there is little chance that she would ever lead a safari. Salma, at a call center in Egypt, can calm down angry customers, but she has never seen a female manager in her office.
Global value chains (GVCs) are essential to modern trade, and women’s labor is essential to many products and services that are traded across countries. But many limitations hold women back from participating more fully and equally to men in this important and growing global labor force, as we show in a collaborative project by the International Trade Department and the Gender Division at the World Bank. Though the names above are fictional, the situations are representative of what we found in case studies in the horticulture sector in Honduras, the tourism sector in Kenya and the call center sector in the Arab Republic of Egypt.