There is no easy answer, as Beatrice and Mekia saw when they joined the secretariat of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) in 2014. Their job is ensuring that gender concerns and sensitivities are integrated into all COMESA policies, programmes, projects and systems. Soon, they began to understand the scale of the challenge that lay before them. The many countries under COMESA, headquartered in Lusaka, cover some 12 million km2 and are home to over 480 million people on the continent. More than half are least developed countries. But trade and economic policy in the COMESA regional economic community, as in much of the rest of the world, rarely includes specific provisions to address the potential effects of policy on women, and in particular poor women.
Such omissions, Beatrice and Mekia knew, allow the problems for women to continue. For example, the presence of children in the household in sub- Saharan Africa is associated with gender pay gaps, which are 31 per cent for women with children, compared to 4 per cent for women without children.
Up close, Beatrice and Mekia could see thousands of poor women crossing borders daily to bring food and basic goods to markets to earn a small living for their families. They quickly found out that those women often face corruption, verbal and physical abuse, have to cope with complex and opaque regulations, and have to deal with insufficient or dangerous infrastructure. And they learned of the unique challenges that female entrepreneurs face when they try to set up and run their businesses while also balancing demands in the home.
They also found it hard to introduce gender aspects into long-established COMESA programmes. So was getting good data disaggregated by gender to better study and understand policy impacts.
At the COMESA Gender and Social Affairs Division, Beatrice serves as Director and Mekia as Senior Gender Mainstreaming Officer. They recognized the difficulty of their task not long after arriving and the need to enhance their own understanding of the complex relationship between trade and gender. That led them to enrol in the UNCTAD online course on trade and gender held in early 2015. The course helped them to explore the factors that can influence the degree to which women may be helped or harmed by various policies. They learned how the various roles women play in the economy affect the impact of trade on their well-being and access to opportunity. And they developed strong arguments in favour of mainstreaming gender into policy and programmes. As Beatrice puts it, "the course can be of great benefit to all professionals in the COMESA secretariat".
Since participating in the course, Beatrice and Mekia have succeeded in applying what they learned to influence COMESA programmes and effectively support women's economic empowerment in the regional economic community. They worked with the COMESA Statistics Unit to build capacity at central statistics offices of member States on collecting gender-sensitive economic data and indicators. They supported the expansion of the Trade Information Desks programme at COMESA borders to provide information and support to traders. Internally, they worked hand in hand with other divisions to define critical gender components of a large project that will support trade facilitation for small-scale traders. They have also influenced the COMESA Industrialization Policy and Medium-Term Strategic Plan to ensure it includes strong and effective gender components.
With an eye towards truly mainstreaming gender at the secretariat and in its member States, the COMESA Division on Gender and Social Affairs is now working with UNCTAD to develop a course module specifically tailored to the particular circumstances, issues and challenges in the regional economic community's countries. The initiative will also develop a "mini-course" that can be adopted and administered by COMESA as required learning for all professionals at the secretariat. Ultimately, Beatrice believes the COMESA and UNCTAD partnership will "assist in creating a group of experts on trade and gender to offer technical support in their sectors." That, in turn, would result in significantly improved benefits for women, men, youth and children in COMESA countries.
Beatrice and Mekia still have a long road ahead of them. The challenges they face in promoting women's economic empowerment through trade and regional integration are many. Thanks to their determination and with the support of UNCTAD, they feel equipped and driven to tackle those challenges head on.
From left: Beatrice Hamusonde (Director) and Mekia Redi (Senior Gender Mainstreaming Officer)
of COMESA Gender and Social Affairs Division