Published on The Trade Post

Call to Action on Gender and Trade in South Asia

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Challenges and opportunities for women traders in SAR were at heart of discussions held at a workshop in Delhi on April 27-28, 2017. Organized by Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), in collaboration with ICRIER and The Asia Foundation and with support from the World Bank Group, the event brought together representatives from governments, private sector and civil society of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal (BBIN), along with donors, regional practitioners, members of traders’ associations and, above all, extraordinary women. Participants shared views and insights from their experiences as female entrepreneurs in the region, presented decision makers and experts with challenges and requests, and brainstormed together on ways to improve the business climate for women in the region.
Photo Credit: ICRIER

 The event was important because it served as a call to action to improve conditions for women workers and traders in South Asia - who do not have an easy road ahead. Their first obstacle is getting to work – female labor force participation in South Asia is just 32 percent, the world’s second lowest. They also face occupational segregation -  traditional norms and gender biases along with mobility constraints relegate women to lower-pay, lesser-skilled jobs. Further, working conditions for women remain poor – female employees make up more than 80 percent of informal and vulnerable workers, and they are almost three times less likely than men to be in full-time employment. Female entrepreneurs do emerge, out of necessity, but they tend to operate informally and in traditional, small-scale sectors. South Asia has the lowest proportion of women-owned businesses of any region in the world, with just 8-9 percent of the region’s formal SME’s owned by women.  Finally, a deeper look at trade in the region shows that trade bottlenecks are especially hard for women traders, who regularly face bribery, a lack of transparency, limited awareness of trade requirements, poor access to finance, and even harassment.
Despite current challenges, South Asia also presents unique opportunities for women.  At the Delhi workshop experts put forward several proposals to improve the environment for women following a very successful two-day discussion. These included plans to:
  • Build the capacity of women traders and their associations, and increase their awareness on trade requirements and border procedures;
  • Collect gender-disaggregated data on cross-border trade flows;
  • Enhance women’s use of ICT - especially to provide them with better networking opportunities and easier access to information, and
  • Improve security and introduce gender-friendly facilities at the border.
The latter point is especially relevant to border haats, which have proven to be an important vehicle for facilitating small-scale transactions conducted by women traders. Established at four designated locations along the India-Bangladesh border, haats are makeshift bazaars held once a week, allowing border residents to trade eligible products free of customs duties as long as consignments do not exceed an agreed-upon threshold. In certain cases, the initiative has contributed to significantly increasing women’s involvement in cross-border trade.  Yet again, discussions held at the Delhi workshop revealed that the current haat design typically does not contemplate toilets, childcare facilities, security cameras or other gender-sensitive infrastructure. Additional efforts would be also required to further promote participation of women in the haats (e.g. through gender quotas for vendor stalls), to increase market frequency (e.g. by making it bi-weekly), and to expand trade volumes by possibly raising the value threshold for authorized consignments. In short, the initiative is a good step in the right direction but much remains to be done.       
The World Bank Group is uniquely positioned to respond to the call for action put forward in Delhi, and more generally to play a key role in the trade & gender space in SAR. Through the South Asia Regional Trade Facilitation Program (SARTFP), generously funded by DFAT, the Bank Group is currently supporting several analytical and operational efforts to enhance trade and economic opportunities for men and women in the region, with special attention devoted to gender-sensitive interventions. It is also leading pioneer work on female cross-border trade facilitation in the Great Lakes Region of Africa, including through innovative tools for policy dialogue, extensive use of ICT, and state-of-the-art dissemination products. Finally, over the years it has accumulated a wealth of expertise on the subject, while also stepping up its institutional commitment to the theme as demonstrated by the recently approved new World Bank Group Gender Strategy.
Photo Credit: ICRIER
The stats may not look good for women in South Asia yet. But the time is ripe for action on gender & trade in the region.

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