What’s it like for women to trade across borders?

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The ability to move goods across borders rapidly, cheaply and above all, predictably, can be a make-or-break factor in the success of a business. In many countries, retail shipments of goods are held up in customs clearance processes, sometimes for days or even weeks.

Trade facilitation reforms—such as automation, streamlining of procedures, and process-oriented improvements at the border—can make trade less expensive and faster. When trade is more efficient, countries can do more of it. This in turn helps drive economic growth and creates jobs.

Aerial view of the container harbor in Tan Thuan Export Processing Zone, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Photo credit: Hien Phung Thu/Shutterstock

This seems simple enough. But trade facilitation efforts focus too often on the experience of large companies that trade in large quantities. The reality is that at many borders, smaller-scale firms conduct a significant share of total trade but are not always accurately represented in official statistics. 

Many of these smaller-scale trading firms are run by women who often face more severe impediments to trade than their male counterparts. For example, in Africa’s Great Lakes region, women traders report feeling threatened by or pressured to bribe the mostly male customs agents. At the crossing of Lao PDR and Cambodia, data show that female traders pay higher taxes than their male counterparts, are delayed longer than men by quarantine at border crossings, and spend more on transportation just to get through the border crossing.

These are not isolated cases. We have heard from women business owners in many countries that complying with mandatory processes and procedures is difficult. Corruption is pervasive. While it impacts both men and women, it can expose women to harassment or abuse—both physical and financial. Further, cultural and legal barriers that women face in many societies—not specific to trade—can limit their access to price and market information, as well as the amount of time they have overall to devote to their business.

To optimize the benefits of trade, trade facilitation efforts should aim to reduce the cost of trading across borders for everyone, not just large corporations . Significant data gaps, however, still exist on the exact nature of barriers that women face in trading across borders and on the gendered impact of improved procedures and processes. 

To better quantify these challenges, our Trade Facilitation Support Program (TFSP) is conducting a global survey of women-owned, -managed, and -operated firms that engage in cross-border trade. The goal is to identify gender-specific constraints. Our team intends to conduct the survey across many of the 47 countries that TFSP works with, starting with seven pilot countries in East Asia and the Pacific. We have developed a survey methodology focusing on quota sampling of men and women traders across different sized firms, sectors, and regions. Ultimately, the survey results will be used to inform trade facilitation policies and projects in the surveyed countries.

To prepare for rollout of this survey in the East Asia and Pacific region, we recently traveled to Vietnam to conduct focus group sessions geared toward learning more about the obstacles traders face and how we can tailor our survey to capture these insights. We had earlier undertaken focus-group discussions in Zambia, Malawi, and Fiji.

In Vietnam, we met with both women and men traders to compare their trading experiences in the country. We met with traders from a diverse set of sectors and sizes, including importers of plastic pellets, food products, undergarments, and even coffee machines. Some participants have been trading for many years, while others were just getting started.

Women traders in Vietnam gathered at a TFSP focus group to share the challenges they face getting their products across borders.

The women traders that attended the focus group discussions were eager and enthusiastic to share their experiences as leaders and entrepreneurs in their industries. Some indicated that women traders face socio-cultural constraints. Yet the women traders emphasized that they are very confident in successfully operating their businesses. We left the conversations, which also involved government stakeholders and industry associations, with some interesting insights:

Stereotyping
Many women traders in the focus group discussions were successful entrepreneurs. Yet they still reported experiencing stereotyping related to their role as women in business. One female trader shared the difficulties she faced when she first started working in her industry. Because mainly men are engaged in the auto-parts industry, she had to work extra hard to prove that she was capable of working in the sector. “You don’t look like someone who works in this industry,” is a phrase she often still hears from her male counterparts.

“The Second Shift”

Female traders noted that managing a firm engaged in cross-border trade requires more effort than is demanded of their male counterparts, given that women are expected to also take care of their family. The business culture in Vietnam often necessitates social engagement after work hours—which is difficult for women to partake in because of family commitments. That causes them to miss out on networking and external relationship-building opportunities. “In Vietnam, women have to do double the work. We manage our business and we take care of our families. We have to arrange time to do cross-border trade,” one female trader reported.

Can’t Do it Alone

Cargo theft appears to be a cost of doing business for many traders in this area. Because of that and the physical labor required to get goods through clearance, women traders often send a male counterpart to execute their business on their behalf. Hiring porters or trusting a male business partner can eat into profits and prevent women from acting independently. One female trader stated that trading across borders often involves going to the border at odd hours, including in the middle of the night. “I can’t leave my house in the middle of the night to go to the border. I need to be with my kids, and it’s not safe for a woman to go alone to the border at night. So, I have to rely on my husband to go or we have to hire someone to do this for us.”

Many similar challenges for men and women

In the focus-group discussions and meetings with government ministries and industry associations, the common opinion is that female and male traders are not treated differently when it comes to the processes and procedures of cross-border trade. Both male and female traders confirmed that they indeed face many of the same types of challenges when trading, namely difficulties in accessing information and payments of unofficial fees. Our initial findings indicate that gender-specific challenges to trade in Vietnam are less related to cross-border specific processes and procedures than to hindrances that women face as business owners and traders. This includes lack of access to networks, time constraints due to obligations in the home, and access to finance.

Based on these insights from Vietnam, our team will be rolling out the survey in seven countries in East Asia and the Pacific, starting with Fiji, in the coming months. Once we understand what kind of unique bottlenecks women are facing, we can propose solutions to help promote gender parity in trade and economic participation.

The Trade Facilitation Support Program supports 47 countries worldwide in their efforts to align their border processes and procedures with the World Trade Organization’s Trade Facilitation Agreement. The program is funded by nine donor partners: Australia, Canada, the European Union, the Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States.

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