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Policy considerations for gender equality and the AfCFTA

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Policy considerations for gender equality and the AfCFTA

Asmita Parshotam

01 Nov 2019

6min min read
  • Free trade
  • Women's rights

Recent months have borne witness to an explosion of women-led protests across the world. These include attempts from governments to restrict and regulate women’s reproductive and sexual rights, the #MeToo movement, and the ‘glass ceiling’ facing women’s right to equal opportunity and pay in the workplace. These events are playing out against a much larger backdrop of feminism movements that begun in the 1960s and which continue to play out in the 21st century.  

However, beyond these socio-economic concerns lies an equally important issue within the realm of trade agreements: the gendered impact that trade agreements have on women. Policymakers have only recently begun to account for the reality that trade agreements can often have unforeseen and unaccounted for impacts on women, compared to men, the effects of which can be further distilled to be sector-specific implications. Across Africa, women face high levels of marginalisation and discrimination: many women are employed in low-skilled and low-income generating sectors or are invisible given their role in unpaid domestic housework. Gender, informal work and poverty often co-exist, and the informal economy remains an important source of employment and income for women throughout the developing world.

For example, women typically comprise up to 70% of informal cross border traders across Africa and are frequently the primary breadwinners of their families, despite the precarious nature of informal trade and threats to their personal safety.In the agricultural sector, women are often lowly skilled or subsistence farmers that have little access to formal markets and quality inputs. They lack the opportunity to integrate into value chains and to improve their production levels and food quality standards. Similarly, low-skilled manufacturing is often characterised by women employees that face little opportunity to upskill and face the risk of job redundancy upon the factory’s relocation to cheaper production sites in other countries. 

Accounting for the economic backfooting many women face requires specific knowledge of their challenges and a gender-sensitive approach from policymakers. Therefore, in order to redress existing inequalities and to promote women’s further economic development, it is essential that future trade agreements ensure that no woman is left behind. For African countries currently negotiating the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) agreement, there are important gender-related concerns that should be incorporated into the text of the Agreement. 

The nod to gender in trade agreements

The AfCFTA is a continent-wide agreement launched on 7 July 2019 in Niger by the African Union (AU). It came into force on 30 May 2019, after having been ratified by 22 AU member states, the minimum number required to bring the agreement into effect. Based on current projections, trading under the AfCFTA will commence on 1 July 2020. The AfCFTA creates the world’s largest free trade area, accounting for 1.2 billion people and a combined GDP of between $2.2 trillion and $3.4 trillion. The AfCFTA is the first agreement of its kind to bring together all 55 African countries under a free trade area, with a focus on creating a common market for goods, services and investment and allowing the free movement of persons.

However, despite promises of widespread socio-economic growth and poverty alleviation that implementing the AfCFTA offers the African continent, there is real need to incorporate gender-specific considerations into the agreement and to understand the intersections between trade, labour and employment trends as they impact women. 

Thus far the AfCFTA does not incorporate a specific chapter on trade and gender, although the Preamble does reference the importance of gender equality in the context of international trade and economic cooperation. Article 3(e) further emphasises the promotion of gender equality as one of the general objectives of the AfCFTA. 

The AfCFTA’s nod to gender equality and the importance of gender for trade relations reflects a broader appreciation amongst Africa’s Regional Economic Communities of the importance that women play in domestic economies and the positive impact they can have on women’s development. For example:

  • Article 17(2) of the Southern African Development Community’s (SADC) Protocol on Gender and Development (2008) stipulates that SADC members should ‘review their national trade and entrepreneurship policies, to make them gender responsive.’ SADC has also created the SADC Protocol on Gender and Development, a tool that sets targets, timeframes and indicators for achieving gender equality and equity amongst SADC member states, and measures their progress on these indicators annually.  
  • Similarly, Article 122 of the East African Community (EAC) Treaty provides for the role of women in business, specifically (i) promotion of special programmes for women in small, medium and large-scale enterprises and (ii) recognising and supporting the national and regional associations of women in business to promote the effective participation of women in the trade and development activities of the EAC.  These gender-based provisions are further underscored by the EAC Gender Policy of 2018, which provides for gender mainstreaming and gender-based auditing across a wide range of issues.  

Despite these provisions, many African countries continue to struggle with gender mainstreaming in their policy design and implementation. Gender mainstreaming is defined as ‘a process of assessing the implications for women and men of any planned actions, including legislation, policies or programmes in all areas and at all levels.’ This involves implementing strategies that account for women and men’s concerns and experiences so that women and men benefit equally and inequality is not perpetuated.  Consequently, gender awareness in policy design / gender mainstreaming of polices requires attention from policymakers as to the sector-industry specific impact that policy and regulation can have on women participants in these industries, and accounting for trade activities that include women as fundamental players in the formal economy. 

"Policymakers have only recently begun to account for the reality that trade agreements can often have unforeseen and unaccounted for impacts on women, compared to men."

While gender mainstreaming does not yet necessarily feature in the AfCFTA negotiating process there is significant uptake of gender related issues in countries’ AfCFTA National Implementation Strategies. Upon request from AU Member States, the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) is supporting the development of these strategies,  which have incorporated a gender mainstreaming approach in the design. 

According to an interview with Nadira Bayat, AfCFTA gender mainstreaming expert and consultant, central to this approach is the identification of priority sectors and industries that advance the growth and participation of women in increased intra-African trade. The AfCFTA National Implementation Strategies further highlight existing barriers to entry, challenges and other factors that contribute to reducing women’s participation in the formal and informal sector, and propose context-specific interventions that respond to existing inequalities. 

It is worth highlighting that a gender mainstreaming approach towards trade and development already exists in many African countries’ national development strategies and there is already broad support and willingness to advance gender economic empowerment. Therefore, domestication of the AfCFTA provides an important opportunity for African countries to draw on their existing national development strategies, align them to the AfCFTA’s provisions, and to implement them from a gender mainstreaming perspective. According to Bayat, it also requires a ‘whole of government’ approach that brings together the Ministry of Trade, supporting government agencies, the private sector and other relevant actors in a series of consultations.  Ownership of the process by African governments is essential for driving political support for a gender-sensitive approach to the AfCFTA’s national implementation. Similarly, the real implementors of the AfCFTA will be the private sector and other civil society organisations; accordingly, their buy-in and support of AfCFTA national implementation strategies are essential.  

Policy recommendations

Thus far, UNECA is supporting over 10 countries in the design and implementation of AfCFTA National Strategies.  Domesticating the AfCFTA affords AU members an important opportunity to redress existing gender economic empowerment challenges. These include expanding markets for priority exports and including guidelines at a national level that can work towards addressing trade policy imbalances that have traditionally not accounted for the various socio-economic disadvantages (such as lack of skills, education, inability to access finance and other similar constraints) that have typically stultified women’s participation in the formal economy. AfCFTA National Implementation strategies should consider incorporating the following policy interventions at sector-specific levels:

  1. Enabling women (as smallholder producers or via cooperatives) to be integrated into agricultural regional value chains by simple value-added agro-processing and partnering with larger companies. These business to business linkages enables smallholder women farmers to form cooperatives that can work with larger companies in accessing an outlet/market for their products, but also exposes them to quality inputs and technology, skills development and capacity building that will ultimately facilitate their long-term competitiveness and integration to agricultural value chains.
  2. Implementing industrialisation strategies that account for women moving into medium and higher-skilled manufacturing jobs, and not to be trapped in lowly skilled factory work only.
  3. Policies for informal cross border traders that enables them to formalise and ultimately expand their businesses. This includes enabling their access to finance through simpler banking requirements / via cooperatives, border infrastructure that is gender sensitive (for example, sex-disaggregated rest-rooms and overnight accommodation, and all-night lighting at border crossings) as well as technical assistance and capacity building in understanding cross-border trade regulations. This will not only promote women’s agency, but further their ability to engage confidently, on an equal footing with trading requirements and border officials.
  4. Mechanisms that enables women to successfully operate SMEs through access to finance and appropriate business development support based on their respective needs and industry-specific requirements.
  5. Measures that address wage inequality and precarious employment activities can further stimulate women’s participation in the formal economy on equal footing. This has to be done on a sectoral/industry basis with the requisite buy-in and support from private sector enterprises, which are ultimately responsible for creating equal employment opportunities for women, and reducing the gender wage gap.

(Main image: Female worker picking figs at plantation - Getty Images)

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA or CIGI.