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Women and Cross Border Trade in West Africa

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The importance of micro, Small and Medium Sized Enterprises (MSMEs) cannot be over emphasised. MSME’s are central to a country’s economy and play an increasingly strategic role in rebuilding and rebalancing the economy.

In recognition of the importance of these enterprises, the UN General Assembly declared June  27, the Micro-, Small and Medium-sized Enterprises Day to raise public awareness of their contribution to sustainable development.

According to the data provided by the International Council for Small Business (ICSB), micros: 1-9 employees, Small: 10-49 employees and Medium: 50-249 employees MSMEs; formal and informal MSMEs are responsible for significant employment and income generation opportunities across the world and have been identified as a major driver of poverty alleviation and development.

They make up over 90% of all firms and account on average for 60-70% of total employment and 50% of GDP. They also provide employment for the most vulnerable sectors of the workforce, such as women, youth, and people from poorer households and unskilled people.

Yet despite this recognition at the national, regional and global levels these businesses largely go unnoticed and unsupported. In spite of innumerable initiatives and campaigns extolling the importance of MSMEs there is still very little impact or improvement. These enterprises struggle to survive under very hostile environments and financial and competitive markets and urgently require long term and meaningful support from governments.

Going by the definition of MSMEs the Women Cross Border Traders of West Africa qualify to be categorised under the first two categories – micro and small.  The West African region is noted for the high volume of cross border trade that goes on daily within its borders.  This trade is both formal and informal trade.  According to the limited data available it is estimated that women comprise over sixty percent of the people involved in informal cross border trade in West Africa.

To address the data gap in relation to this very important but marginalised sector the ECOWAS Gender Centre (EGDC) carried out a study in 2009 in four ECOWAS member states, namely Gambia, Guinea Bissau, Senegal and Mali to find out the experiences of the Women Cross Border Tradersin carrying out their activities under the ECOWAS Trade Liberalisation scheme.  This was a follow up to a previous study undertaken in 2005 in Benin, Togo, Nigeria and Ghana.

The findings reveal that the Women Cross Border Traders are not a homogenous group. Some have working capital and engage in activities that are formal.  The majority of them are small scale traders with little working capital, infrastructure and rudimentary numeracy/literacy skills. They face a lot insecurities ranging from abusive border control officials-customs, immigration, the police and other law enforcement agents.  The women also fall victim to theft, armed robbery, delayed crossings at the border posts, and physical/sexual harassment among other things.

Things are further complicated by the fact that the majority of the women traders are not knowledgeable about the procedures that guide international trade. The core of the ECOWAS integration process is the promotion of regional trade, through market and monetary integration, and very close political cooperation, characterized by the free movement of goods and services, persons.

To this effect the ECOWAS trade liberalization scheme was launched in 1990, with the view to facilitate intra-community trade, through the creation of a free trade area (FTA) underscored, by the elimination of all forms of tariff and non-tariff barriers, on goods, originating from member-states. Most of the women do not know these tariffs and the officers at the borders refuse to comply with the ECOWAS guidelines.  In the words of one of the Cross Border Officials when challenged by applying tariffs to a non-taxable item during the Study, he said « ECOWAS is just on paper. »

It can be argued that there is a strong correlation between trade liberalization and gender. Studies show that « trade liberalization can increase or decrease gender inequality, and gender inequality can prevent trade liberalization from achieving the desired results.»  Other studies argue that trade liberalization improves the prospects of women, particularly those of unskilled female workers. They use the example of the women who sell fish and farm produce to buttress the argument that it is has been beneficial for women who have worked outside their households and earned income.

Some hold the view that trade liberalization worsens women’s livelihood prospects, as their losses sometimes exceed their gains. Increased incomes are often offset by high transaction costs and risks, increased workloads and time loss. Reduction in prices of agricultural products can lower farm-gate prices and increase competition with foreign imports due to the influx of foreign goods.  This can threaten women’s personal securities such as access to food, shelter and basic services as they are unable to compete with imported foods and goods from highly subsidized developed countries. Some perceive participation of women in cross border trade as unsustainable and blame the economic liberalization policies as contributing to its proliferation.

There are different perceptions of women’s participation in cross border trade and the impacts of trade liberalization on reducing or increasing gender inequalities, women’s incomes and their poverty depending on which side of the picture you are looking at.  It seems that much has not changed for Women and Cross Border Traders since the EGDC Study on (2009) according to the Raising Voices for Women Cross Border Traders in West Africa Project (2014).  While there is greater awareness on the part of policymakers and implementers both at the regional and national levels to the plight of the women cross border traders it is important that they are mainstreamed into the Regional Trade Policy Architecture in West Africa.

Adelaide Sosseh