African women and girls are discussing the harassment and discrimination challenges they face trying to conduct cross-border business under the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA).
The meeting in Addis Ababa, called "Gender is My Agenda," is taking place ahead of the African Union heads of state summit, which is set to begin Saturday and is expected to address progress of the African trade agreement.
Elizabeth Ajok, a South Sudanese national, said women often face problems at border crossings that men don't have to experience.
"They are facing a lot of challenges like violence at the border, they are being intimidated, and sometimes some of their items are being confiscated or their goods are taken because of clearance," Ajok said. "And they will also overcharge you because you are a woman. You will be taxed. Sometimes they just look at us. They see that you are just a woman, so you don't deserve to do business."
Zaithwa Milzanzi said she encounters similar treatment when she crosses the border from her native Malawi.
"You find yourself with required fees, the papers are in order, everything is in order and yet you find some officers at the border asking you for sexual things and you are thinking, 'Why?'" Milzanzi said. "It really hinders your progress and your ability to trade as a young woman. So, this needs to be addressed if young women are to be considered and fully protected under this regime."
The African Continental Free Trade Agreement went into effect in May 2019 with the goal of lowering tariffs between African countries and boosting economies.
African countries trading among themselves, the World Bank says, could boost Africa's income by $450 billion by 2035.
Memory Kachambwa, head of the African Women's Development and Communication Network, an organization that promotes women's development in the continent, talked of the questions that need to be addressed.
"When we talk of AfCFTA, we are looking at [a] Pan-African instrument and within the vision of it is to ensure that even the trade that we do is dignified," Kachambwa said. "We talk a lot about women cross-border traders, but are they doing it in a dignified way? Are we really ensuring that they have the service, the harassment with the customs union? Are we having those conversations?"
Even within their own countries, female entrepreneurs in Africa often face funding barriers, gender bias, and a lack of training.
Mercy Chukwuma, who advocates and supports women farmers in Nigeria, said some cultural norms have prevented women from owning land, making them unable to produce food.
"Lack of training and retraining of rural women farmers to enable them to stand up in the competitive market. We talk about land as a factor. You will agree with me that women have limited access to land. We do not have access and control over the land, which is a major factor of production," she said. "If we, who occupy over 70% of the agricultural workforce, do not have access and control over the land, how then do we produce and produce well?"
Women own 20% of Africa's land but produce more than two-thirds of the continent's food.
The pre-summit meeting concludes on Tuesday. Participants hope their leaders will address the challenges of doing business in Africa and ending unfriendly business practices along African borders.
Source: Voice of America