Women Empowerment and Gender Inequality: A Critical Reflection of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement.

The month of August in South Africa is known to be a time when South Africans proudly unite to celebrate women and their central role and importance within the South African society. On August 29, 2018  the Thabo Mbeki Foundation and Brand South Africa held a national dialogue at the Gordon’s Institute of Business Science. The dialogue critically analysed the African Continent Freed Trade Agreement recently adopted by the African Union and the extent to which it promotes the empowerment of women and address the challenge of gender inequality on the continent.

The dialogue was facilitated by Professor Lulama Makhubela and led by four esteemed panellists: Faith Tigere (from Tutwa Consulting), Elizabeth Van Renen (Chief Director in International Trade and Economic Development Division of the Department of Trade and Industry), Mamongai Mahlare (Managing Director of Illovo SA) and Lebogang Chaka (former Chair of the Thabo Mbeki African Leadership Institute Alumni and CEO of Afro Visionary Legacy).

The focus of the Dialogue was to identify, unpack and devise measures necessary to ensure that the African Continental Free Trade Area Agreement (AfCFTA) also serves women. In this regard, Ms Tigere highlighted the fact that the reality within most African countries is that, 70% informal cross boarder traders are women. This, according to United Nations Inter-Agency Network on Women and Gender Equality, provides an estimated 20% – 75% of total employment in most countries.

The AfCFTA aims to create a single market for goods and services by eventually removing tariffs on 90% of goods and facilitating the free movement of people and investments on the continent. The success of the Agreement would result in the trade regulation over one of the largest economic zones globally; as the agreement will cover 1.2 billion people across 54 governments which is estimated to already encompass $4 trillion in investment and consumer spending. The agreement appears to hold an unlimited amount of possibilities. However, as Ms Tigere pointed out, unlike other trade agreements, the AfCFTA does not have a separate or specific section on the pertinent issue of the role of women within Trade and the empowerment and transformation of the trade sector for African women.

Ms Mamogai made the call for women to be knowledgeable about the continent, the regulations and increase their specialisation within a specific sector, if they are to succeed and benefit from this AfCFTA. However, she also pointed out that for the ordinary African woman trader. The ordinary African woman trader lacks the requisite knowledge about her rights, protections and opportunities under trade treaties and protocols. The solution offered in this regard, is what is referred as “cumulative knowledge through collaboration” i.e. women must organise themselves and leverage their already existing social networks for business success and many other opportunities.

Among the key insights established at the dialogue were the following: firstly, the need for the gender mainstreaming of policy in trade and beyond as well as the inclusion of women at every stage of implementation of the AfCFTA; secondly, the South African government and all stakeholders need to play their part in ensuring that women are prepared to capitalize on the agreement once it becomes operational.

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