Gender inequality faced in the design and implementation of trade policy

08 Mar 2021
08 Mar 2021

By Vuyiswa Mkhabela

International Women’s Day is a global day celebrating women’s social, economic, cultural, and political achievements. This year’s International Women’s Day theme is Choose to Challenge – a challenged world is an alert world, and from challenge comes change. So, let us all #ChooseToChallenge.

The day marks a call to action to challenge constraints to accelerate gender parity. Three months into the implementation of the AfCFTA, this call is particularly an important one for governments, the private sector, civil society, and policymakers to heed and rise to the challenge of promoting women’s participation in the ongoing development and implementation of the AfCFTA. 

The call to rise to the challenge of promoting women’s participation in trade is essential as women play a significant role in trade on the African continent and will be essential to the continent’s success in leveraging the full potential of the AfCFTA. Most entrepreneurs in Africa are women; however, women continue to face challenges and obstacles that limit their competitiveness and make their businesses less productive than those owned by men (Bayat,2020). Trade policy is not gender-neutral, and it is inadvertently biased against women, resulting in lower levels of employment and higher prices for consumer goods (WB & WTO, 2020). Furthermore, women also make up the most informal cross-border traders in Africa. These female traders are disproportionately affected by non-tariff barriers, including corruption, harassment, misinformation about customs procedures and regulations, and confiscation of goods (Bayat,2020). They continue to suffer from invisibility, stigmatisation, violence, poor working conditions, and a lack of recognition for their economic contribution (Maphanga, 2018).

The challenges hindering women’s participation in trade on the Africa continent are vast and complex; however, provisions under Article 3(e) and Article 27.2(d) of the AfCFTA agreement demonstrate African countries’ commitment to gender equality, women empowerment, and youth development. One of the objectives under Article 3(e) aims to “promote and attain sustainable and inclusive socio-economic development, gender equality and structural transformation". Article 27.2(d) of the Protocol on Trade in Services also makes explicit reference to improving the export capacity of formal and informal service suppliers, with particular attention to micro-, small- and medium-sized operators and women and youth service suppliers (African Union, 2018).  

The AfCTFA and Transformative Industrialisation Webinar Series hosted by the University of Cape Town’s Nelson Mandela School of Public Governance provided a platform to encourage a conversation firstly on how African states should adopt a developmental regionalism approach to trade integration under the AfCFTA, to ensure that the AfCFTA promotes inclusive economic growth and development and benefits all African countries. Secondly, to encourage a conversation on how the AfCFTA can advance transformative industrialisation in Africa and the building of Regional Value Chains (RVCs), each webinar focused on one of the following RVCs: Pharmaceuticals and Healthcare, Cotton, Textiles and Clothing and Agriculture and food processing RVCs.

Speakers participating in the webinar series included representatives from manufacturing associations, trade unions, think tanks, policymakers, and the AfCFTA Secretariat. Conversations across all webinars emphasised the opportunities that continental trade through the AfCFTA offers in enhancing the efficiency and international competitiveness of African pharmaceutical, cotton, textile, and clothing, and agricultural sectors. The webinars also highlighted the importance of developing RVCs and promoting transformative industrialisation across Africa, which can create jobs, especially for youth and women, and promote export-orientated production that results in technology transfer and structural transformations to upgrade to higher value-added production. 

Supported by recent global trade trends such as the importance of RVCs, AfCFTA is expected to create new trading and entrepreneurial opportunities for women in the formal and informal economy across various sectors, including agriculture, manufacturing, and services sectors. Accompanied by targeted policies, these trends can help women maximise the benefits of trade. These policies include removing trade barriers that impede women’s access to international markets and improving women’s access to education, financial services, and digital technologies (WB & WTO, 2020). The World Bank and World Trade Organization have emphasised how trade is a critical component to achieving gender parity as it creates more job opportunities for women with higher wages and better working conditions. Even though trade can catalyse to foster greater gender equality, women’s benefits under the AfCFTA are not automatic. There must be a better understanding of what policy reforms and implementation strategies are required at the national and regional levels to enhance women’s economic opportunities and participation in trade. 

The AfCFTA is a long-term developmental plan, and the implementation of and the benefits that will come from it will take years to be realised. International Women’s Day and the call for all to ‘Choose to Challenge’, should serve as a reminder to governments, the private sector, civil society, and policymakers involved in the development and implementation of the AfCFTA – that women’s participation in trade under the AfCFTA will not happen automatically. It will require sturdy long-term commitments and actions to be put into place, which allows all to rise to the challenge of creating inclusive trade. The time is therefore now to promote women’s effective participation in trade policy deliberations, negotiations, and facilitation at national and regional levels. The time is now to engage in meaningful gender-sensitive trade policy and strategies. The time is now to adopt reforms in trade policy that reduces discrimination against women while building the significant human capital that women represent. 

The transformative potential represented by the AfCFTA should not pass women because they were not intentionally and deliberately included in the AfCFTA agenda, development, and implementation. Today on International Women’s Day, may those that have the power to foster change - Choose to Challenge areas hindering women’s participation in trade under the context of the AfCFTA

As a reminder that in some way, shape, or form, we all have the power to create change, and it is the minor incremental changes that adds up. 

What do you choose to challenge and change today and moving forward?

I, Vuyiswa Mkhabela, Choose to Challenge and bring forward through academia and the practical application of research the constraints faced by women operating in manufacturing, trade, and regional value chains in Africa and to focus on collaborating with others in identify actionable solutions to constraints identified.  

Vuyiswa Mkhabela is a full-time master’s student at the University of Cape Town’s School of Economics, specialising in Economic Development. In addition to her studies, Vuyiswa is a Research Fellow at the Mandela School, working as part of the AfCFTA and Transformative Industrialisation research team. Before leaping to further her studies full time during Covid-19, Vuyiswa worked at a management consulting firm as an Industrial Policy and Strategy Development Researcher. Additional work experience includes working as a Junior Project Manager and Development Economist in Cape Town and Durban. Her main research interests are focused on understanding the economic and social upgrading aspect of Global and Regional Value Chains, specifically related to gender dynamics and gender-sensitive approach to Global and Regional Value Chains analysis, trade policy, and industrial policy.



African Union (2018). Agreement establishing the African Continental Free Trade Area

Bayat, N (2020). A ‘business unusual’ approach for gender equality under the AfCFTA. Great Insights. Volume 9 - Issue 1 2020

Maphanga, T (2018). Promoting women’s participation in the AfCFTA, 29 August

UNDP, (2019). Futures Report: Making the AfCFTA Work for Women and Youth  

World Bank and World Trade Organization. (2020). Women and Trade: The Role of Trade in Promoting Gender Equality. Washington, DC: World Bank. doi:10.1596/978-1-4648-1541-6.