As southern Africa progresses in dealing with the corona virus pandemic, cross border trade will be essential in alleviating the negative impact of the pandemic on the livelihoods of citizens, particularly women. Women in cross border trading constitute an estimated 70 percent and the value of trade in the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) region is approximately US$20 billion annually. Most women traders are engaged in trade as a means to survival and need to be assisted in growing their businesses. Women traders play a key role in food security, bringing basic food products from areas where they are relatively cheap to areas where they are in short supply.
During this pandemic, no trade will mean citizens will have limited access to food, farmers will be unable to access necessary inputs, and health facilities unable to access medical goods and services; this limited economic activity will lead to job losses. The lockdown measures implemented by African countries, including the closure of borders, has affected our region’s participation in global and regional trade. This disruption has affected cross border trading. The region will have to start implementing measures that will facilitate continued trade whilst reducing the spread of the virus.
With high levels of unemployment in southern Africa, small-scale cross border trading is one of the main economic activities and sources of income for the poor and vulnerable. It has become the only alternative source of income generation for many as it does not require one to have any particular skills or training. Small-scale cross border trading is estimated to represent over a third of Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) intra-regional trade at a value of almost $18 billion per year and 30-40% of SADC trade is undertaken by informal traders. In a large-scale survey done by the Southern African Migration Programme, findings showed that 50.1% of those crossing the Beit Bridge border are informal traders.
Before this pandemic, women traders experienced several challenges which increased their trade transaction costs. In research commissioned by the Southern Africa Truston the experiences and challenges of women in the trade sector, the findings show that women are still subjected to harassment by customs officials on either side of the border, sexual abuse, and confiscation of goods. The forms of abuse and harassment include indecent searching by male security officers and requests for transactional sex. Also, officials solicit bribes to allow smuggling of goods due to high taxes and other fees that traders are unable to pay. The charges are not only arbitrary and inconsistent but are very high,leaving businesses with very little or no profit at all.
The infrastructure at the borders is limited, with inadequate health facilities, particularly for traders that cannot cross on a particular day. There are usually no safe storage facilities for their merchandise. In some cases, women traders opt to use ungazetted crossing points to avoid, in particular, the charges they are made to pay at the border which remain remarkably high.
There are also security concerns for women traders in cases where they have travelled with their children and there are no amenities available to accommodate them.There is an immediate urgent need for the development of border infrastructure for security. This will help women traders to better organise their trading activities around family objectives.
The access to markets remains a challenge for women – southern Africa still has limited market facilities or infrastructure that supports cross border trade at border posts. Because of this challenge, women face many problems when attempting to sell goods across borders.
We need to answer the question of how we can make trade facilitation work for women. Trade facilitation remains an effective tool for women empowerment and can facilitate increased trade, improving the economic status of women. Women and men experience trade facilitation differently and in some cases, policymakers do not have an appreciation of women’s contribution to trade and the challenges they face.
Some of the challenges facing women concerning trade facilitation include the limited understanding of the customs policies and procedures, even though there have been attempts to simplify them for small informal traders. This reduces the incentive for women to use formal routes. They opt to pay bribes because they have limited access to knowledge compared to men about the rules and their rights. In such situations, women traders are forced to make payments to officials.
At the regional level, SADC has adopted guidelines on harmonization and facilitation of cross border transport operations across the region during the COVID-19 pandemic. We will need to engage member states on how the gender dimensions have been integrated into these guidelines. How they will best support women traders? The adopted guidelines are intended to facilitate and ease the process of transporting essential goods and services within the region. The National Transport and Trade Facilitation Committee has been appointed to coordinate the implementation of guidelines and resolve operational issues at borders or roadblocks.
Four ways to make trade facilitation to work for women during the COVID-19 Pandemic
1. Digitizing customs procedures
We need to bring women cross border traders on board! As countries are moving to the electronic filing of documents for clearance of goods, there is a need for the introduction of a designated desk to help women cross border traders with all the digital regulatory and customs requirements. To facilitate this process, there must be consideration for the extension of border operating hours.
2. Market infrastructure
The border posts in southern Africa need market infrastructure to be constructed, as well as in cities to help women trade.
3. Support for women to undertake cross border during the pandemic
The role of cross border trader associations will be critical in assisting women traders during the pandemic. The Southern Africa Trust partners with Southern Africa Cross Border Traders Association – traders need to be assisted in coordinating their activities, so that they do not need to travel in large numbers to purchase commodities for sale. Women traders can nominate a representative amongst themselves – in that way they are protecting themselves and others from contracting the COVID-19.
4. Access to credit
Women have no access to credit or financing and very few traders even have a bank account. National governments need to explore a partnership with financial institutions to identify financial products that could allow women traders meet the criteria for accessing credit.