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Africa’s free trade area can benefit women equally through targeted measures, says UNECA director

29 May, 2021

Addis Ababa, 29 May 2021 (ECA) - Targeted measures are needed to ensure opportunities arising from the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) benefit women and men equally across the region.

Ms. Thokozile Ruzvidzo, Director of the Gender, Poverty and Social Policy Division at the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), made this plea to African countries at a roundtable on ‘human capital: culture and heritage’, hosted during the 2021 Africa Dialogue Series.

She said trade alone cannot change the fact women, who although play a significant role in Africa’s economy, remain underpaid and underemployed compared to men.

Beyond the inherit economic disadvantage, Ms. Ruzvidzo added that women remain vulnerable to high levies, bribes, harassment, confiscation of goods and violence, especially in Africa’s informal cross-border trade where they make up 70 per cent of merchants.

She said: “Women are not a homogenous group. AfCFTA will affect them differently based on their education, economic status and location. Understanding the gender impacts of trade under AfCFTA is critical in ensuring equality of opportunity for women and men. 

“We know that trade can be a powerful driver of gender equality but that can only happen if we implement measures which stamp out inequalities across the whole system.”

AfCFTA is the world’s biggest free trade area, with a market of 1.3 billion people and a combined GDP of $3.2 trillion. The agreement creates new jobs and business opportunities across Africa. 

However, similar to global trends, women are not benefiting from international trade as much as men. According to the International Trade Centre, only one per cent of the global government procurement market is currently offered to women-owned businesses. Research shows that this imbalance reduces GDP and perpetuates poverty, unproductivity and inequality.

To address this gap, Ms. Ruzvidzo shared three recommendations with the roundtable participants. First, countries need to adopt a gender-sensitive approach to the national implementation of AfCFTA, especially in areas that directly affect women.

Specific measures could range from customs cooperation to trade facilitation, legal protection from discrimination, sanitary services and administrative support, which will offer women a better, fairer and safer trading environment. 

Second, specific continental frameworks are needed to address gender-based barriers which will guarantee that trade opportunities reach and benefit every African. 

Ms. Thokozile  Ruzvidzo said: “For instance, introducing a continent-wide ‘Simplified Trade Regime’ that is sensitive to needs of small-scale female traders can bring those traders into the formal trading system, enabling them to grow and thrive.”

She added that similar interventions that address obstacles women face could, for instance, improve the productivity and competitiveness of women-owned businesses and enable female farmers to access regional markets.

Recognizing the digital uptake in the COVID-19 pandemic, the final recommendation focuses on scaling up digitalization efforts to help industrialize and diversify the African economy. 

The overarching principle in Ms. Ruzvidzo’s recommendations is to ensure women’s interests and concerns inform the policy, legislative and procedural frameworks which will facilitate trade under AfCFTA. She said this would make sure no one is left behind and the full potential of the trade liberalization is positively harnessed for a healthy African economy.

On the roundtable, Ms. Ruzvidzo was joined by leading academics, development experts and civil society representatives. 

Hosted by the UN’s Office of the Special Adviser on Africa on 28 May, the roundtable discussion aimed to examine the role of culture and heritage in unlocking the full potential of African people and the economy. 


Issued by:
Communications Section
Economic Commission for Africa
PO Box 3001
Addis Ababa
Tel: +251 11 551 5826