By Clifford Akumu

Harassment, gender-based violence, and discrimination based on gender will negate efforts by the African Union (AU) to achieve the intended benefits of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), experts caution.

They were speaking at the Gender Is My Agenda Campaign in Addis Ababa ahead of the AU Summit of the Heads of State and Government where they noted that protecting and supporting women and girls is key to realizing the free trade agreement.

“When we talk about women’s roles in the AfCFTA space, we cannot truly say that women have the same rights, access, and capacity as their male counterparts. Women need to be dignified and the trading system must see women as equal players,” said Memory Kachambwa the Executive Director of the African women’s development and Communications Network (FEMNET).

“We need dignified trading regimes and systems for our women. AfCFTA should be able to protect our markets.”

Mercy Nnanna, Secretary General, Small scale Women’s Farmers Organization in Nigeria (SWOFON) questioned the extent to which free trade area will affect the grassroots, particularly women, who constitute Africa’s largest agricultural producers but are not aware of nor prepared for the cross-border free trade pact.

Nnana said women are victims of unequal access to information between border officials and cross-border traders, including around what taxes and fees are due, as well as knowledge of the ‘rules of the game’, linked to traders’ levels of literacy, and familiarity with the border.

According to Nnanna, for the African Union to successfully accelerate the free trade pact, individual governments must first educate their citizens on what the free trade pact entails.

The free trade pact, she adds, means that governments must increase investment in agriculture or else, the locals will lose out to foreign investors who will come in to take advantage.

“Governments must develop policies that would protect women businesses and level grounds for small-scale traders,” Nnanna said.

Malado Kaba, Director of the Gender, Women and Civil Society Department, Africa Development Bank said women not only make up 70% of food producers across Africa, but they also dominate informal trade across borders.

For example, she said, in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region where the informal trade contributes to 30-40% of the countries’ GDP, women control 70% of that informal trade.

As a testimony of the recognition of the input from women, Kaba said the African Development Bank has set up the Affirmative Finance Action for Women in Africa (AFAWA), a pan-African initiative to bridge the $42 billion financing gap facing women in Africa.

“The AFAWA initiative is born from the realization that women are the backbone of the African economy and has grown to make the continent one with the highest percentage of women entrepreneurs in the world,” Kaba said.

She however called for the AfCFTA to create synergy with other institutions and regulations to reduce gender inequalities across the board.

Dr. Nancy Gitonga, CEO, African Women’s Entrepreneurship Program (AWEP) said the AFCFTA should work to harmonize quality standards so that women can trade across borders without being stopped in any given country because of differences in standards.

The AfCFTA has committed to working with governors of central banks to close these gaps because they have a powerful tool needed for this, the budget.