Africa: AU Urged to Recognise Women's Role in Trade

1 February 2012

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia — Delegates who recently attended a gender summit in Addis Ababa hope the African Union Summit on Intra-African Trade that was also held there will take their recommendations into account to benefit the continent's women.

Delegates to the 19th Gender is My Agenda (GIMAC) Pre-Summit Consultation on Gender Mainstreaming urged member states to identify the scope of the informal sector in Africa and to recognise women's active role in cross-border trade when calculating national GDP.

At a press conference after their pre-summit meeting last week, women leaders raised the concern that although women traders play a significant role in intra-African trade, they receive little recognition, support or protection.

One problem, delegates said, is the lack of knowledge about the number of women currently engaged in such activity.

"I am sure you all know who drives the intra trade in Africa - it is African women," said Thokozile Rudvidzo, director of the African Centre for Gender and Social Development in the United National Economic Commission for Africa. "But we do not have enough data on what these women are doing: the cost, the benefits."

Litha Musyimi-Ogana, director of the African Union Women, Gender and Development Directorate, agreed that most informal traders across the continent are women and that their interests must be included in any conversation about trade.

Musyimi-Ogana said it was women who crossed borders "at great risk to themselves" and who were "selling heavy bulky goods, cereal crops, ferrying heavy African handicrafts, ferrying textile and making money to educate their children."

South African Minister of Home Affairs Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who challenged Jean Ping of Gabon for the position of chairperson of the AU at the summit, was adamant that women should be viewed not only as informal traders but also as businesswomen.

Dlamini-Zuma noted that the Solemn Declaration on Gender Equality in Africa, which was adopted by the AU in 2004, calls for parity in all sectors, including business. She said that governments could potentially encourage businesses to involve women as directors and CEOs by using a variety of mechanisms and incentives. Governments, as substantial consumers of goods and services, have the ability to attach conditions to procurement as a means of advancing women, she said.

The majority of Africa's trading partners are not in Africa, so its leaders need to look at ways to facilitate intra-African trade, in particular by improving infrastructure and removing tariff and non-tariff barriers to trade, GIMAC delegates said. They said gender mainstreaming must be incorporated in this process.

Mary Robinson, head of the Mary Robinson Foundation and former president of Ireland, agreed that more intra-African trade is needed and that the gender dimension of that trade is critical to the continent's future.

"Intra-Africa trade is not gender neutral so the gender dimension must come out," said Robinson. She said she was waiting to see if this would be reflected in document produced by the heads of state at the end of the AU summit.

Other recommendations put forward by the 19th GIMAC session to AU member states included:

- improving women's access to resources, credit and other financial services, technology and market information to strengthen their opportunities to fully contribute to intra-African trade;

- providing adequate and timely financing for women to develop entrepreneurial skills for economic empowerment and independence;

- developing early warning, monitoring and evaluation mechanisms to eliminate violence against women and girls and end militarisation and the proliferation of small arms, to create a stable, enabling environment for intra-African trade;

- equipping women with the knowledge and tools to develop their businesses and job effectiveness through training in financial management, operations management, rights, advocacy, networking and policy dialogue skills;

- providing adequate social and labour laws and policies for women's paid and unpaid work, including improved transportation and access to market opportunities, provision and access to health and social services for women, and protection at the borders for women engaged in cross-border trade; and

- addressing the gender imbalance in the leadership of private and public institutions engaged in influencing policy on trade and trade-related issues in Africa, and build capacity of policymakers and implementers to ensure that gender considerations are mainstreamed into all policy dialogues.

GIMAC, a network of more than 55 civil society organizations that advocate for women's rights across Africa, is organized by Femmes Africa Solidarité, chaired by Bineta Diop. She was named one of the world's 100 most influential women by Time magazine last November for her work on women's inclusion. Since June 2006, GIMAC has held biannual consultative meetings immediately prior to AU summits to monitor and evaluate the implementation of the Solemn Declaration on Gender Equality in Africa.

The next GIMAC pre-summit consultative meeting in June will celebrate its 10th anniversary and will be a time for reflecting on whether GIMAC's voice has been heard within the AU.

In Mary Robinson's view it has not. She says this is not due to a failure by GIMAC to raise the issues, but rather a case of "benign neglect" by the AU, caused in part by the fact that there is only one woman head of state on the continent - Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

This year has been dubbed the year of agriculture and food security in the African Women's Decade (2010 to 2020). As GIMAC members await the final declarations to come out of the 18th AU summit, they will soon know whether they need to shout louder.

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