The African Continental Free Trade Area Agreement (AfCFTA) entered into force on May 30 2019, marking another milestone in the pan-African imperative of an economically integrated Africa. In establishing a market of 1.2-billion people, with a combined GDP of $2.5-trillion, the AfCFTA has been hailed as an economic game-changer, with the potential to drive African industrialisation and economic development.

Lifting the barriers that have long divided the continent is accompanied by significant expectations that can only be fulfilled if the benefits from trade expansion are inclusive and the process leaves no one behind.

Across the continent, women and girls are disproportionately among those left behind. Recognising the centrality of gender equality to sustainable inclusive development, has led to a decision by African Union (AU) member states to identify full gender equality in all spheres of life as a priority goal, while the UN sustainable development goal 5 reinforces the existing human rights obligations of states to advance gender equality and women’s empowerment.

The AfCFTA does not incorporate a separate chapter on gender and trade. The preamble of the agreement, however, contains explicit reference to the importance of gender equality for the development of international trade and economic co-operation, and article 3(e) emphasises the promotion of gender equality as one of the general objectives of the AfCFTA.

AU members will need to take deliberate steps in the design and implementation of gender-sensitive policies and targeted complementary measures, to ensure that women and men benefit equally from trade opportunities under the AfCFTA

Women are not a homogeneous group and are differentially impacted by trade depending on a number of factors, including age, income, educational level and race, as well as on their position in the economy.

Recognising the gender-differentiated effects of trade liberalisation and the accompanying impact on gender equality has led to a decision by the African Trade Policy Centre (ATPC) of the UN Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) to support the process of gender mainstreaming in the development of national AfCFTA strategies, towards the realisation of gender equality enshrined in the agreement.

The AfCFTA will produce new opportunities in economic sectors where women are concentrated, including in agriculture, manufacturing and services trade, but the benefits for women are not automatic. For women to be able to leverage these opportunities, AU members will need to take deliberate steps in the design and implementation of gender-sensitive policies and targeted complementary measures, to ensure that women and men benefit equally from trade opportunities under the AfCFTA.

The creation of a single market under the AfCFTA will enable significant economies of scale, which can support the expansion of agro-manufacturing — as a sector with enormous potential to add value to agricultural products and expand employment opportunities. Sectoral initiatives that empower the participation of women in agricultural regional value chains and employment-creating sectors, including in agro-packing and processing, should be considered alongside targeted programmes that meet the priority needs of female farmers.

Gender-sensitive frameworks

As African countries proceed to develop their manufacturing base and shift to the production of higher value-added goods, particular attention must be paid to promoting women’s manufacturing employment as part of this process. Increasing women’s participation in industries, particularly in export-oriented manufacturing industries that are likely to benefit most from external trade, could promote female empowerment at various levels.

Likewise, when embarking on negotiations to open up trade in services in the five priority sectors, AU members should give due consideration to gender-sensitive regulatory and policy frameworks that enable women to take advantage of higher-skilled service jobs in the services sector. Improved working conditions are an important component of inclusive and sustainable growth. It will therefore be important to ensure that the creation of employment opportunities under the AfCFTA is not accompanied by new patterns of inequality and vulnerability, including poor working conditions and wages for women.

AU members can further ensure that women, who represent the majority of informal cross-border traders, benefit from AfCFTA trade opportunities through the implementation of gender-sensitive trade facilitation measures, which include the introduction of a continental simplified trade regime. In addition, an effectively designed AfCFTA non-tariff barrier mechanism can provide female-led businesses in the formal and informal sector with a voice through which to report and resolve trade barriers.

Empowering women’s participation in trade under the AfCFTA requires the implementation of interventions that go beyond protecting traditionally female industries, to include measures that support the building of trade-related and physical infrastructure that impact on the care-burden of women and consequent labour supply, as well as ICT and other capacity-building, technical and vocational skills training programmes. These interventions and other themes of importance will be the focus of discussion at the Women’s Business Roundtable. The Roundtable is part of the upcoming Southern Africa Regional Africa Trade Forum on the AfCFTA, to be convened by ECA and the government, with the AU Commission and EU as collaborating partners.

Investing in women’s economic empowerment sets a direct path towards the realisation of gender equality under the AfCFTA. Coupled with strong political commitment, the process of gender mainstreaming in AfCFTA national strategies can support the implementation of the AfCFTA in a manner that enhances the capabilities, choices and opportunities for women on the continent, particularly for vulnerable women. In so doing, Africa’s transformative initiative can fulfil both pan-African aspirations, and drive lasting change for African women.

• Bayat is a gender and trade consultant at the African Trade Policy Centre of the UN Economic Commission for Africa.