As is the case every year, Pan African Women’s Day will be observed on July 31. This year, the occasion marks the fifty-ninth anniversary of the Pan-African Women’s Organization, a continental body of the African Union dedicated to gender equality and women’s empowerment. It’s a day that should demand serious reflection and consideration of Africa’s progress in achieving those twin goals. This year in particular, it’s worth reflecting on the biggest unrealized opportunity for many of the sisters, mothers, and daughters on the continent—the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), which came into effect in January.
The AfCFTA agreement was a historic milestone for a continent that needs regional integration to develop but has failed to ever really attain it. Creating the world’s largest free trade area, the AfCFTA offers an unprecedented opportunity to boost economies—and accelerate transformation—across the continent. Among its many goals, it aims to reduce tariff and non-tariff barriers, facilitate the free movement of people across borders, and give easy access to residency rights.
For the AfCFTA to be successful, however, all segments of Africa’s economy need to be recognized and incorporated into the objectives of the agreement. Unfortunately, this is not yet the case. Women make up 50 percent of the continent’s population and represent 70 percent of all informal cross-border traders in Africa, yet as a group they have been largely marginalized in the push for free trade.
In the 77-page agreement establishing the AfCFTA, the word gender shows up only twice—first, in the preamble (“…recognizing the importance of international security, democracy, human rights, gender equality and the rule of law, for the development of international trade and economic cooperation”); and second, in one of the general objectives (“…to promote and attain sustainable and inclusive socio-economic development, gender equality, and structural transformation”).
Although AfCFTA recognizes the importance of gender equality, a deeper and more effective form of gender mainstreaming needs to occur if trade in Africa is to successfully advance women’s rights and equality. In other words, as long as there is an objective in the AfCFTA to promote gender equality, then a gender protocol needs to be established for this objective to be realized.
A gender protocol in the AfCFTA agreement would establish clear ground rules on how gender and trade-related issues in Africa should be addressed. It would be a tool to fully protect, empower, and galvanize resources for women. In turn, it would allow the AfCFTA to become more equitable, diverse, and fair for all those participating in the growth of the continent’s economies.
Africa’s ambition to realize true economic and financial inclusion means that gender neutral policies that are intended to create gender equity should no longer be considered good enough. Women head about 18–21 percent of African households. They are often large contributors to the family budget. Extensive evidence supports the correlation between women’s access to education and income and household poverty reduction. Without a gender protocol, the seven other protocols in the AfCFTA—trade in goods, trade in services, dispute settlement mechanism, intellectual property, completion policy, investment and e-commerce—will be incomplete.
Some organizations, such as the the UN Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), have stated that the agreement’s reference to the “importance” of gender equality will enable them to provide opportunities for women to develop in both the formal and informal sector over time. This is a worthy goal but it’s not good enough. Serious considerations, actionable strategies, and implementation plans need to be developed and put in place if women are to benefit from and thrive under the AfCFTA.
What would such a protocol entail? Addressing some of the unique challenges women face in cross-border trade and the informal cross-border cash economy could be a start. For example, the protocol could cover harmonizing digital payment systems and interoperability across countries and refining Know Your Customer (KYC) requirements for digital banking to make it easier for women to open accounts and make day-to-day transactions. Such steps would help promote their financial inclusion, particularly their access to credit, ability to save, and use of mobile banking.
Women are woven into the fabric of Africa’s socio-economic development, and that includes trade. A gender protocol will better enable the continent to tap into its large informal trading sector that is the source of income for many women on the continent, for example. According to the ECA, “[T]rade liberalization can increase or decrease gender inequality, and gender inequality can prevent trade liberalization from achieving the desired results. As such, trade and trade liberalization policies are not gender neutral.”
Without formally and uniquely recognizing the power of women to promote or deter growth, and without treating women as key stakeholders in the pursuit of free and fair continental trade, the AfCFTA will contain critical gaps that can—and should—be prevented. And it runs the risk of undermining its own ambitions by exacerbating existing issues for women such as low literacy rates, limited property rights, and sexual violence, among others.
For far too long, African women have been ignored in policies through the gender-neutral approach. However, it is increasingly evident that gender mainstreaming is a more useful tool in policy development and implementation. Developing a gender protocol must be a priority for the AfCFTA secretariat. Without one, the continent is in danger of exacerbating the many inequalities women already face and losing out on the opportunities equitable development can afford it.
About the author
Mavis Owusu-Gyamfi is the Executive Vice President of ACET and has built a distinguished career over 25 years in international development. Born in Ghana, she is a political economist by training and a private sector development specialist.