Digital trade facilitation for women cross-border traders

10 November 2020

Written by Sijia Sun and Alexandre Larouche-Maltais, Article No. 66 [UNCTAD Transport and Trade Facilitation Newsletter N°88 - Fourth Quarter 2020]


Digital trade facilitation refers to making full use of information and communications technologies (ICTs) and going paperless for all steps of the cross-border trade process. Facilitating trade using digital solutions particularly benefits to micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) including small cross-border traders – many of them women or women-led businesses – which tend to be overly impacted by cumbersome and lengthy import, export or transit procedures. Additionally, digital trade facilitation can help to mitigate the negative impacts of crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic on them.

This article firstly discusses the increasing importance of digital trade facilitation in times of global pandemic. The second section explores key challenges faced by women traders in moving forward with digital trade facilitation. The third section provides recommendations to address these challenges.

Digital trade facilitation in times of global pandemic

Digital trade facilitation means higher efficiency and cost savings for cross-border trade operations. It also implies that procedures can be completed with significantly less or even without any in-person physical contact, which is crucial during the pandemic.

The implementation of ICT solutions has been facilitated through international agreements. The World Customs Organization Revised Kyoto Convention Chapter 7 provides that customs shall apply ICTs to support customs operations, where it is cost-effective and efficient for customs and trade. The World Trade Organization Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA) foresees ICT tools as means to make cross-border trade regulations more transparent and predictable and to expedite the movement, release and clearance of goods.

During the COVID-19 crisis, the role of ICTs in promoting trade facilitation has become increasingly prominent in a very short period. In Rwanda, for example, national authorities have been actively facilitating cross-border trade with ICT solutions during the pandemic.


Box 1: Case study of Rwanda’s facilitating cross-border trade with ICT solutions

Technology has played a big role in managing COVID-19 crisis in Rwanda. Procedures related to cross-border goods, including declaration, assessment, payment of duties, and release and clearance are all being done through Rwanda Electronic Single Window, which is based on the UNCTAD Automated System for Customs Data (ASYCUDA), and it helps to avoid physical contacts. The Trade Information Portal also facilitates transparency and communication of regulations and information related to the export, import and transit procedures with the national and foreign trade community.

Besides, the National Trade Facilitation Committee (NTFC) of Rwanda contributes to the nation’s progress on digital trade facilitation by advising government agencies on how to further simplify and automate the procedures, as well as through promoting the implementation of relevant provisions of the TFA.

Source: UNCTAD adapted based on the communications with the Rwanda Revenue Authority.


Digital trade facilitation has been also widely recognized as a necessary action to mitigate negative economic impact of the global pandemic by the international community. The G20 Ministerial Statement on Actions to Support World Trade and Investment in Response to COVID-19 calls for accelerating the implementation of trade facilitation reforms and recommends to speed up and streamline customs procedures and to encourage the use of electronic documentation and processes.

Meanwhile, digital readiness inequalities – both amongst countries and between men and women – must be recognized and addressed. Providing ICT tools and electronic options has proved to be insufficient to ensure that they can benefit all, especially female cross-border traders.

Main challenges faced by women traders in moving forward with digital trade facilitation

Unfortunately, there is still low gender-specific attention and support at the national policy level. An UNCTAD study on the NTFCs shows that 58% of NTFCs considered gender mainstreaming “not relevant at this stage,” and 21% believed that it is “not a priority.” Without gender-specific considerations, national policy cannot adequately address gender-specific risks, vulnerabilities and needs, let alone contribute to the economic empowerment of women, including utilizing efficient and affordable ICT services to promote cross-border trade. Five barriers affect women traders:

  • Affordability of ICTs. Costs of implementing digital trade facilitation vary across countries and regions and partly depends on the level of development of a country. Affordability is a challenge for all but affects disproportionally more women traders than men. The cost of smart phones was the most significant consideration overall. Another major factor is high cost to connect for Internet consumers. According to a survey conducted by the GSM Association, in 11 out of 17 countries surveyed (all in Asia, Africa and Latin America), there is higher percentage of women non-mobile owners than that of men who identified affordability as the single most important barrier to owning a mobile. In Algeria and Pakistan, this percentage of women is 12% higher than that of men.
  • Illiteracy and digital illiteracy further hinder women’s ability to access online services. About 83% of women worldwide are literate, compared to 90% of men. It is difficult for some women to develop necessary skills to read, write, type, and use a keyboard – necessary for using a computer and applying smart phone applications. Moreover, women traders may lack confidence in accessing the Internet.
  • Socio-cultural barriers and factors. Family may not always support, outright, discourage or even prohibit women from using the Internet and relevant devices. This is particularly prevalent in countries where the gender gap is widest. For instance, in some countries, certain socio-cultural norms consider smart phones as a risk to women’s reputation, and perceives their use as threatening females’ purity. The prolonged use of smartphones can be incompatible with the perspective of married women’s expected role “as caregivers”, and thus send a signal that a female user cannot properly be caring for their family.
  • Misperception or misinformation regarding ICTs. On the one hand, some individuals regard ICT and related devices as unnecessary or even unhelpful for import and export processes. This misconception prevents women traders from seeing the value for money in buying a mobile, even if they can afford one. On the other hand, policymakers may also disregard the relevance of ICTs as a trade facilitation tool, and thus fail to implement them. Although women traders may be willing to take advantage of ICTs to acquire trade-related information, to complete electronic submissions and paperless transactions, these tools may not have been put in place.
  • Online safety and smartphone security. Women using the Internet can be more exposed to new gender-based risks, including cyberstalking, online harassment or even sexual trafficking. The European Institute for Gender Equality estimates that one in ten women have already experienced a form of cyber violence since the age of 15. Recent UNCTAD research found that African informal cross-border traders, among which women is the majority, utilize smart-phone-enabled solutions to expand their access to financial services, and meanwhile, they should also consider potential risks including insufficient data protection procedures when taking advantage of innovative technologies.

Overcoming ICT challenges faced by women traders

1. Consulting with female traders and women’s associations

To identify and address gender-based barriers, countries must make sure that women traders’ voices are being heard and taken into consideration in the decision- and policy-making processes. Countries should conduct inclusive consultations to ensure balanced participation of both genders. UNCTAD’s eTrade for Women initiative is contributing to this objective by creating networks of women engaged in eCommerce, and fostering their active contribution to policy dialogue at the national and regional level.

As NTFCs have a key consultation role both internally and externally – by collecting views of institutional members and by conducting larger private sector consultations – they must make gender-specific considerations a priority. NTFCs should maintain a gender-balanced membership to fully listen to opinions of female members and to maximize women’s contribution to the design and coordination of trade facilitation reforms at the national level.

Besides, female cross-border traders should be encouraged to come together in cooperatives, associations and networks of women traders. By pooling their resources and strengths, women can make a stronger voice for their interests. These associations should be invited to take part in the NTFC meetings, as guests or actual members, like in many NTFCs around the world.

2. Making ICT tools more accessible for women traders

Government agencies shall implement initiatives to help reduce the price of devices and services, as well as consider partnering with financial institutions to provide risk capital for smart phone loans for women traders at lower interest rates. Mobile network operators should develop clear and transparent pricing and partner with manufacturers to offer entry-level smart phones to women traders at a reduced cost.

Furthermore, countries must build the digital infrastructure that speaks to women so as to make ICT tools more accessible and friendly for them. For instance, for enabling the electronic submission of documents and promoting e-payment, countries must build up corresponding channels and services, and the focus should be given to sectors most likely to impact women traders and MSMEs.

3. Delivering training and capacity-building on ICT tools and solutions

For dealing with the barrier of illiteracy and digital illiteracy, government agencies should invest in public education initiatives as well as in specific capacity building training for women across-border traders and relevant parties such as customs officers, designers and creators of trade portal and electronic single window. Mobile network operators should be invited to provide knowledge, skills and experiences, as well as to conduct communications and interactions with women traders to answer questions and solve problems more pertinently. Besides, new trade facilitation measures involving the use of ICTs should be accompanied with support dedicated to women traders. For instance, when establishing an electronic single window, special training and capacity building should be made available for women traders. As the ability of utilizing ICTs improves, their confidence and comfort in using the Internet will also increase.

4.Raising awareness on gender equality and digital trade facilitation

Taking measures to raise awareness is important for addressing social-cultural norms barriers, in addition to designing gender-specific national policies to gradually reverse restrictive and harmful social norms. National authorities should firstly fully recognize the importance of ICT tools for facilitating trade, and then general public must be targeted so that women can get more support from their family and the society. When it comes to deal with the doubt of the relevance of using ICTs, countries should implement the TFA together with awareness raising campaigns to reach out to women traders. By showing how information platforms and services can enable women traders to acquire trade-related information online, and to easily complete electronic submissions and paperless transactions, governments can convince women traders to become ICT tools users.

5. Ensuring a safe ICT environment for women

Measures to protect safety when using the Internet and smartphones involve privacy protection, personal safety, and property security. Developing such measures is crucial. Government agencies should develop legal frameworks for ensuring this. Carrying out initiatives to raise awareness on safety issues and on how to avoid or reduce risks for women traders will also be helpful. In this respect, stakeholders from the mobile network operators, cyber security experts and women traders’ associations should be involved to share knowledge and experience in the safe use of Internet and relevant devices.

6. Asking for international technical assistance and support

Some developing and least developed countries may not have sufficient capacity to address gender-based barriers. In this context, cooperating with international development partners will be a good solution. UNCTAD, for instance, has been supporting countries on all continents with its ASYCUDA Programme. Some countries such as St. Kitts and Nevis has adopted 100% paperless trade processes through ASYCUDA, allowing for the continuity of business during the COVID-19. The system can also be adjusted according to country’s specific needs, such as dealing with some gender-based barriers. For instance, based on Seychelles' needs of promoting women empowerment, the ASYCUDA local team involves a majority of female staffs and has delivered technical trainings for female staffs of Seychelles Revenue Commission. Undoubtedly, this will also help cross-border traders especially women traders to fully enjoy the benefits of the automation to promote their cross-border trade.


Mainstreaming gender-specific trade facilitation in national trade policies should be a priority to ensure that women can fully benefit from ICT tools and solutions. It is time for NTFCs to fully play their leading and coordinating role in designing gender-sensitive policies to empower women traders with efficient and affordable ICT services to promote the cross-border trade.

Much more attention and coordinated multilateral response are needed to effectively deal with the challenges and to empower more women cross-border traders’ through digitalization. This calls for public-private cooperation, as well as the collaboration and support from local communities, and regional and international development partners.

Contact the authors:

Sijia Sun | Junior Professional Officer | UNCTAD Trade Facilitation Section |

Alexandre Larouche-Maltais | Economic Affairs Officer | UNCTAD Trade Facilitation Section |

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