Harassment and sexual exploitation by border officials seeking bribes constitute the biggest obstacles for female informal cross-border traders in Africa, according to a United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) research study launched on Sep 21.
The study, which surveyed over 700 informal traders at their homes, workplaces and markets in Zimbabwe and Swaziland, as well as at border posts with South Africa, describes harassment of traders by South African police, soldiers and customs officials if traders should refuse to pay bribes.
"Women are more likely to be sexually abused by officials. The major challenge is harassment at borders by customs officials, and the fact that the traders cannot access needed information," stated Nomcebo Manzini, regional director of UNIFEM Southern Africa, at the launch in Tshwane (formerly Pretoria).
The study characterises South Africa as a "green pastures" country, with many people coming from neighbouring countries to sell their wares in the country or to purchase goods to sell in their home countries.
The study estimates that almost three quarters of informal cross border traders contribute to governments' revenues through the payment of duty and licence fees.
Despite the lack of formal statistical data, some estimates have put informal cross-border trade contributions at between 30 to 40 percent of intra- Southern African Development Community (SADC) trade.
Many of the traders surveyed were educated, with 90 percent of those surveyed with secondary or higher education, partly a consequence of the low levels of formal employment in the declining Zimbabwean economy.
Unemployment is identified as a structural driver of informal cross-border trade, with many engaging in such activities to generate income and ensure food security.
Ottilia Chikosha from the Harare-based Regional Export Promotion Women's Trust estimates that in Zimbabwe around 70 percent of women of productive age are involved in cross-border trade.
Chikosha describes the "vicious cycle of poverty" as fuelling on-going cross- border trade activities. "We need money for school, we need money for food, and we need money for rent. We cannot sit there and do nothing if there is no solution."
Participating in cross-border trade activities carries serious risk at times.
"There is the whole issue around safety. Once traders reach their country of destination, they really struggle to find accommodation and in many cases find themselves sleeping on the streets," Manzini explains.
The UNIFEM study describes the effects of the traders' operating environment on their health. A reliance on public transportation, poor maintenance, high costs and incidences of theft and sexual harassment mean that women traders face serious threats.
The difficulty of obtaining loans and start-up capital for small businesses forces many women traders to borrow money from "loan sharks" to pay for transport and purchase goods.
Corrupt border officials who take advantage of traders' sometimes limited level of understanding of the customs process may also confiscate some their goods illegally.
Many are forced to engage in transactional sex along trade corridors to obtain accommodation, transport or get through borders - as Chikosha puts it, "simply to get by and make a living".
Upon returning home, female traders - who may be gone for weeks at a time - may be accused of prostitution and stigmatised.
Chikosha says the major challenge is how to help women informal traders to enter the formal economy. "Women have limited options in terms of access to markets. They look for markets, but the challenge is that governments are not willing to put in place structures to help access," she says.
The Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa's (COMESA) simplified trade regime, for example, has assisted trade within the regional bloc, but benefits mostly small and medium enterprises and not individual informal traders.
The regime allows for tariff relief and improved ease of customs handling but only applies to goods that originate from member countries. Most women informal traders deal mainly in low-cost imported goods such as clothing, household items and food purchased in South Africa and imported from Asia.
Thus the COMESA regime has little positive impact on their lives.
"In the context of South Africa as a receiving country for traders, there is a critical need to understand issues such as the provision of support services and guidance that is given to them.
Currently no methodology exists for documenting and recording benefits that informal traders bring to a country.
A consultative workshop held during the third week of September 2010, organised by UNIFEM and the South African government, is a step towards involving all the relevant stakeholders in the discussion.