Africa: AfCFTA – Upcoming Protocol On Women and Youth in Trade a Chance to Empower Women

Policies must ensure benefits of economic growth are equitably distributed, with a particular focus on gender inclusivity.

As we navigate the complex web of global challenges, the empowerment of women stands as a beacon of progress, reflecting not only a commitment to human rights but also a strategic imperative for sustainable development.

The foundation of women’s empowerment is deeply rooted in the principles of human rights.

We recently celebrated the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and as we embark upon the 20th anniversary of the adoption of the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (commonly referred to as “the Maputo Protocol”), it is crucial to acknowledge the strides made and persist on our commitment to fostering a world where every individual, regardless of gender, is afforded equal rights and opportunities.

The African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) aims to consolidate a market of 1.3 billion people with a combined GDP of $3.4 trillion, and lift 30 million Africans out of extreme poverty and boost the incomes of nearly 68 million others who live on less than $5.50 a day. It will also boost Africa’s income by $450 billion by 2035 while adding $76 billion to the income of the rest of the world, according to the World Bank.

By promoting regional economic integration, the AfCFTA, sets the stage for a collective commitment to human rights, acting as a powerful vehicle for change.

Women rights

Human rights, including women’s rights, are at the core of the AfCFTA’s vision. The free trade agreement explicitly recognizes the importance of gender equality and the empowerment of women as key drivers for sustainable development.

Against this backdrop, the AfCFTA and the forthcoming Protocol on Women and Youth in Trade, emerges as a catalyst for change, offering a unique opportunity to advance women’s rights, entrepreneurship, labour rights, and equal pay within the context of a broader framework for equitable and inclusive growth.

Dr. Maxime Houinato, Regional Director for East and Southern Africa, UN Women. The protocol provides an innovative approach to inclusivity of trade agreements by providing specific provisions towards enhancing women’s participation in trade to fulfil the core objectives of the trade agreement.

This complements previous approaches that focus primarily on socio-economic concerns as a goal.

Once adopted, the protocol will offer an innovative and sustainable approach of improving the competitiveness of women in their various trade roles while serving to advance the global discourse on addressing gender considerations in trade agreements.

The Beijing Platform for Action, adopted in 1995 at the Fourth World Conference on Women, remains the main framework in the global effort to advance gender equality. Its focus on crucial areas such as the role of women in the economy and their participation in leadership and decision-making aligns seamlessly with the objectives of the AfCFTA.

In this quest, the Maputo Protocol–a groundbreaking legal instrument aimed at promoting and protecting women’s rights in Africa–serves as a complementary force to the AfCFTA.

Together, they form a formidable set of frameworks that can address the unique challenges faced by women on the continent.

As the AfCFTA works towards the endorsement of the Protocol on Women and Youth in Trade, it is imperative to integrate the principles of the Beijing Platform for Action and the Maputo Protocol, leveraging this comprehensive approach to empower women across all sectors.

Women shaping their own destinies

One of the cornerstones of women’s empowerment is the assurance of their rights as entrepreneurs.

The AfCFTA provides a platform for nurturing a new generation of female entrepreneurs. A survey conducted by UN Women, UNDP and the AfCFTA Secretariat in 2021, highlights that over 31.9 percent of women small business owners reported having encountered violence or aggression particularly when engaging in informal cross border trade, 70 percent, of which is carried out by women.

By removing not only the tariff but also the non-tariff barriers to trade and fostering a conducive environment for business, the agreement empowers women to take charge of their economic destinies, thereby contributing to the overall development of their communities and nations.

However, the path to empowerment must be paved with the protection of labour rights and the eradication of exploitation. The AfCFTA must actively guard against the risks of labor exploitation and elite capture.

Labour exploitation, often disproportionately affecting women, leads to violation of women’s rights, amounts to a lifetime of income inequality, and undermines the very essence of empowerment. For instance, a 2023 report by UN Women found that women only earn about $.81 US cents for every 1 US dollar earned by men on an hourly basis in East and Southern Africa. Thus, it is imperative that the agreement includes robust mechanisms to ensure decent work and fair wages, creating an environment where women can thrive without fear of exploitation.

As we navigate the future, it is critical to address the specter of elite capture that threatens to undermine the egalitarian promise of AfCFTA.

Policies must be crafted to ensure that the benefits of economic growth are equitably distributed, dismantling barriers that impede the progress of marginalized communities, with a particular focus on gender inclusivity.

Support for care work and social safety nets

Equitable and inclusive growth demands a re-evaluation of care responsibilities. Women in Africa, who often bear the brunt of caregiving duties, where they spend 3.4 times more on unpaid care work compared to their male counterparts, must be supported through policies that enable them to balance work and family life. Equal pay for equal work is not just a slogan but a fundamental principle that must be enshrined in the economic policies emerging from the AfCFTA framework.

Furthermore, the issue of income redistribution should be tackled head-on. Policies should be designed to bridge the income gap, ensuring that the dividends of economic growth reach the grassroots and uplift the most disadvantaged.

The AfCFTA, by fostering economic integration, can serve as a vehicle for meaningful income redistribution that empowers women and redresses historical inequities. For instance, implementation of the AfCFTA could increase wages for women by 10.5 per cent according to a UN and AfCFTA Secretariat report.

With careful and deliberate policy actions, it is possible to ensure that the increase in wages is not concentrated in particular sectors and that those in the lowest economic strata also see significant increases.

Moreover, in pursuit of a fair and just society, social protection mechanisms are paramount. The AfCFTA and indeed its accompanying Protocol on Women and Youth in Trade should prioritize the creation and enhancement of safety nets to shield vulnerable populations, particularly women, from economic shocks. This approach is not just morally right but also economically savvy, as empowered women contribute significantly to sustainable development.