Linking the women, peace and security agenda and the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA)

Jennifer A. Patterson / ILO
Jennifer A. Patterson / ILO

The dawn of 2020 heralded an auspicious beginning for four defining initiatives with particular significance for Africa: the historic agreement establishing the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA); the African Union (AU) theme on Silencing the Guns 2020: Creating conducive conditions for Africa’s development; and two notable anniversaries related to women, peace and security (WPS). These were the 25th anniversary of the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, and the 20th anniversary of United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 1325 (2000). It is worth recalling that the WPS agenda was established by UNSC Resolution 1325 and seeks to empower women in efforts aimed at preventing and ending conflict, and building and sustaining peace. Unfolding against this backdrop was one of the greatest threats to global health.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused unprecedented challenges, including the postponement of the highly anticipated start date of trade under the AfCFTA Agreement from 1 July 2020 to 1 January 2021. This postponement is one of the many casualties of the pandemic. Africa has been – and will continue to be – deeply impacted by the crisis that has exacerbated pre-existing inequalities, jeopardising progress made in many African countries on gender equality and women’s rights. One of the clearest lessons to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic has been the need for a holistic approach to the various intersectional challenges that arise under the key pillars of intra-African trade, peace and security and women’s economic empowerment, as an intrinsic component of gender equality and sustainable development. In the march towards the 1 January 2021 start of trading, AU member states should consider the role of the AfCFTA in linking these key pillars through the WPS agenda. At first glance, the nexus between the AfCFTA and the WPS agenda appears to be tenuous at best. In essence, both are about investing in an approach to development that will result in sustainable peace and inclusive societies.

The #AfCFTA has the potential to increase employment opportunities for women in various roles and across the key sectors of agriculture, manufacturing and services @NadiraBayat & @DavidLukeTrade

The AfCFTA has the potential to increase employment opportunities for women in their various roles and across the key sectors of agriculture, manufacturing and services. In particular, the AfCFTA expands entrepreneurship and economic opportunities for women-owned businesses that will benefit from economies of scale and increased access to new export markets. Boosting the demand for manufactured goods also creates the opportunity for larger export-oriented industries to source suppliers from smaller women-owned businesses across borders, while opening the borders to trade increases opportunities for women to participate in trade through reconfigured regional value chains. 

While the AfCFTA could expand women’s economic outcomes in the world of work, AfCFTA gains will not be automatic. The AfCFTA Agreement is a continental agreement, but implementation will take place at the national level. AfCFTA national strategies – and particularly the process of gender mainstreaming in national strategies – have been identified as a means through which to advance gender equality and women’s economic empowerment outcomes in AfCFTA implementation. A targeted strategy that addresses structural barriers to women’s economic participation and gender inequalities in access to assets, resources, capabilities and opportunities – all of which are important for real gains in women’s economic empowerment – promotes economic security and independence for all women, especially for women in post-conflict environments. 

COVID-19 has brought into sharp focus the need for full implementation of the WPS agenda. Notwithstanding progress, a number of gaps have been identified across all areas of this agenda. Implementation by UN member states has not been consistent, and women continue to be excluded from peace and other decision-making processes. Ensuring meaningful implementation of the WPS agenda requires a number of wide-ranging interventions, including gender-responsive policies and other complementary measures that expand women’s access to economic opportunities and support sustainable peace. 

Shaping Africa’s peace, security and socio-economic development agenda in the shadow of #COVID19 requires AU member states to empower women in the design of inclusive economic empowerment interventions @NadiraBayat & @DavidLukeTrade

For countries emerging from conflicts, post-conflict reconstruction and development and peacebuilding are critical challenges that must be prioritised.Economic empowerment forms a critical component of post-conflict peacebuilding, and women’s economic empowerment, in particular, is vital for sustainable development. As part of economic recovery efforts, the UN Peacebuilding Commission underscores the importance of assisting post-conflict countries to create favourable conditions that can generate “decent jobs for women, nurture their business skills, encourage them to join the workforce, and deliver the financial services that these women need, both in the formal and informal sectors”.It should be noted that several of the world’s fastest-growing economies, which have only recently emerged from conflict, owe their success, in part, to the increased role of women in production, trade and entrepreneurship. Central to the full implementation of the WPS agenda are UNSC Resolution 1325 national action plans (NAPs), which enable national stakeholders to identify priorities, determine responsibilities, allocate resources and initiate strategic actions within a defined time frame.

One way for African countries to integrate the pillars of intra-African trade, peace and security and women’s economic empowerment is through linking the AfCFTA to the WPS agenda, and to gender equality goals more broadly. A harmonised approach, which effectively links opportunities for income security, livelihoods and entrepreneurship identified through gender mainstreaming in AfCFTA national strategies to economic empowerment interventions identified in NAPs for the implementation of UNSC Resolution 1325, supports a holistic approach to the various intersectional challenges that arise under these key pillars. As part of innovative efforts to promote inclusive AfCFTA implementation and the full implementation of the WPS agenda, there are considerable opportunities to involve women peacebuilders, particularly in post-conflict economic recovery efforts.

Economic recovery programmes for women, in general, are limited to micro-credit and micro-enterprises, while large-scale reconstruction is dominated by men and overwhelmingly benefits men. In the context of the AfCFTA, women peacebuilders could assist in identifying livelihood opportunities for women that extend to traditionally male-dominated sectors, while drawing attention to gender-specific barriers that must be addressed to release the economic potential of informal cross-border trade. Likewise, women peacebuilders could highlight skills development and other economic empowerment training required to build women’s technical expertise and trading capacity to exploit new opportunities in AfCFTA implementation. 

In conclusion, shaping Africa’s peace, security and socio-economic development agenda in the shadow of COVID-19 and beyond requires AU member states to empower African women in the design of inclusive economic empowerment interventions. Linking targeted interventions in AfCFTA national strategies and UNSC Resolution 1325 NAPs that seek to increase women’s participation in the labour market and expand opportunities for decent work reinforces the intra-African trade, peace and security and gender equality nexus. In so doing, this bold step responds to the call for urgent action to place women’s economic empowerment goals at the heart of the African agenda.

Nadira Bayat is a gender and trade expert at the UN Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), and David Luke is the coordinator of the African Trade Policy Centre at UNECA.

Article by:

Nadira Bayat
Gender and Trade Expert with the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (ECA)
David Luke
Coordinator of the African Trade Policy Centre at the Economic Commission for Africa

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