I recently returned from a trip to West Africa during which I crossed the Benin-Nigeria border by car at the Seme border post. While waiting for our passports to go through lengthy controls and stamping, I observed the intense activity of the numerous cars, motorbikes and pedestrians passing through.
Sure enough, most of the women were on foot, and they were the ones who were submitted to the most intense scrutiny. While the men on motorbikes were able to ram their way through by refusing to slow down, the women all had to go through a narrow passage where they were subject to questioning and document requirements. It was quite apparent that women were being asked for bribes that men were able to waive by driving right though! I had been reading about how women are subject to more intense harassment at border crossings – this experience brought this to life very vividly.
It made me thankful for all the work we at the World Bank Group are doing to help women traders on the African continent.
Editor's Note: "Notes From the Field" is an occasional feature where we let World Bank Group professionals 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 Group. All interviews have been edited for clarity.
The interview below was conducted with Mariam Diop, a Senior Economist with the World Bank Group. Mariam is based in the country office in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, where she carries out work in the WBG’s new Macro and Fiscal Management Global Practice. Mariam has been deeply involved with the country’s Diagnostic Trade Integration Studies (DTIS), which has helped to identify a number of key restraints on economic growth and shared prosperity in Burkina Faso. The Trade Post spoke with Mariam about what brought her to the country, where she sees opportunities, and how the DTIS has helped on the ground.
If you are woman in Sub-Saharan Africa and you live and work in a rural area, you are probably a trader. You are likely to be carrying a variety of goods across the border several times per day or week, and to rely on that as a major source of income to your household. You’re probably facing high duties, complex procedures, and corrupted officials at the border – the latter, in some cases, might want to harass you before they let you go through. You may not be able to read or understand what duties apply to the goods you are trading. In this scenario, what is your incentive to go through the formal border post?
It’s probably easier, cheaper, and faster to cross the border informally.
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.