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With a Visit to West Africa, Renewed Commitment to Women Traders

Cecile Fruman's picture

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 World Bank Group.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.

A report published last year, “Women and Trade in Africa: Realizing the Potential,” and a short video, “Mind the Gap,” show that women play a key role in trade in Africa – as farmers and producers, as cross-border traders of goods and services, and as managers and owners of firms that trade. They will be at the heart of Africa's success in expanding trade. The report laid out some of the specific hurdles women face at borders and beyond, and called on governments to take heed and develop trade in ways that benefit women. It found that governments and donors are making concerted efforts to facilitate trade, increase productivity in export-oriented sectors, and improve competitiveness, but these need to be better targeted to ensure that not only men benefit. It called on governments to help women address risks like physical harassment at the border and confiscation of goods, lack of access to stable trade networks and buyer relationships, risks to business arising from the need to provide family care, and constraints on access to finance.

In the Great Lakes region, the World Bank’s ongoing work includes trade facilitation measures specifically targeted at women traders. This policy note, “Risky Business: Poor Women Cross-Border Traders in the Great Lakes Region of Africa,” based on the results of a study of cross-border trade in DRC, Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda, finds that the livelihoods of women traders are undermined by high levels of harassment and physical violence at the border, as well as the prevalence of unofficial payments and bribes. This video, “Les Petites Barrieres,” produced at the border between the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Rwanda, brings to life the dilemmas faced by women who simply want to get their meager goods to market. And the work is ongoing, including this Great Lakes Trade Facilitation project, which is designed to improve the environment for traders, especially women, in the region.

In West Africa, this report, “Unshackling Women Traders: Cross-border Trade of Eru from Cameroon to Nigeria,” centers on the role of women in the trade of a specific commodity: a nutritious, leafy wild vine called eru, which is commonly used in soups, stews, porridges, and fish and meat dishes. Not only is eru an important source of protein, but its trade is also an important source of income for women, who do most of the harvesting and trading of the vine. The report found, however, that women face barriers in profiting from this sector: their access to the best harvesting areas is restricted, and they face harassment, lack of access to credit and training, and restrictions on their mobility and capacity to exploit market opportunities. The report recommended that governments enact policies to guarantee equal access rights for men and women in the sector and help women traders to organize and improve their market power.

One of our newest projects takes a novel approach to helping traders who engage in informal trade in Africa. These are poor, small-scale traders from remote communities in the border areas, and the majority of them are women. This cross-border trade is often their main, if not only, source of income. This trade is informal, in the sense that it is not measured, but the traders typically cross at formal border posts; the risks and costs of crossing elsewhere can be very high. In many cases the formal crossing is the nearest point between markets on either side of the border. This is the case for Goma in the DRC and Gisenyi in Rwanda where more than 3,000 traders –mainly women – cross the border every day.

The approach of this project, which is being piloted at select border posts in East and Southern Africa, is captured in a simple document that lays out traders’ and officials’ mutual rights and obligations – the beginning steps of broader behavioral change. Called the Charter for Cross- Border Traders in Goods and Services, the document is designed to reduce harassment of traders and increase transparency, integrity, and efficiency of transactions at the border. It is also designed to build trust between (women) traders and officials. It states, for example, that whenever a physical check is requested, female traders have the right to be inspected by female officials in a private, but regulated and accountable environment. Similarly, traders are obligated to treat the officials with respect and to avoid offering bribes or other favors in exchange for preferential treatment. The project makes regular training available for officials, and offers traders toll-free phone lines to report abuses. Ultimately, the goal is to enhance processing times, facilitate trade, and make the border a friendly environment where traders can cross safely and officials can work efficiently.

But while these efforts respond to the dynamic I witnessed on my visit to Benin and Nigeria, the work is not yet finished. There are many women traders to protect and many borders yet to improve. At the World Bank Group, we are invested. We will continue to use our country-based knowledge and our technical expertise to find locally appropriate, effective solutions for women traders in Africa. We know that economies depend on it.

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