New bank, new report: women's empowerment crucial to trade & development worldwide

Wednesday, 20 November, 2013

After International Men's Day yesterday reduced various corners of the internet to apoplexy, the more clearly explicable gender messaging is back today with a piece from the World Bank on why women are key to trade in Africa.  Women have rightly been central to African development messaging of various kinds over the years (with this HIV campaign a decade ago being a particularly memorable example) and this is more of the (welcome) same. Elsewhere, India opens its first state-owned bank for women; and in an informative interview, Head of UN Women and former Deputy President of South Africa Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka talks about how women's economic empowerment can help stamp out hunger and poverty (video).

Africa first: while Ms Mlambo-Ngcuka talks about how economic empowerment can help women find their voice, gain independence and take on leadership roles (thereby gaining greater autonomy over their lives, helping eradicate hunger and poverty), the World Bank sets about figuring out how to make it happen.   A new report from their Africa Trade Practice entitled Women and Trade in Africa: Realizing the Potential demonstrates how women will be essential to the continent’s trading success. The key points are simple: women make a major contribution to trade in most African countries; women are key to realising Africa's full trade potential; and this report outlines simple steps to help increase and ease women’s participation in trade.

As the accompanying press release points out, “Africa’s [current] trade potential is undermined by constraints that women face… because of nontariff barriers that impinge particularly heavily on the trade activities of women and women-owned enterprises. These barriers often push women traders and producers into the informal economy where a lack of access to finance, information, and networks jeopardizes their capacity to grow and develop businesses.” Not to mention more mundane concerns like a continent- (world-?) wide massive power imbalance between men and women.

The aim of the report is to raise the profile of the issue, propose action by policymakers who typically overlook women’s contribution to trade and the challenges they face, and encourage further research and analysis. It also calls for government recognition of the problem and action across the continent. 

Director of Economic Policy and Poverty Reduction Programs in the World Bank’s Africa Region, Marcelo M. Giugale, says: “Removing the obstacles to regional trade integration in Africa would be particularly beneficial for poor women, as they literally carry most of the small-scale, cross-border commerce that happens within the Region. The potential benefits are huge and obvious: better food security, faster job creation, more poverty reduction, and less gender discrimination. This is a win-win-win-win reform agenda that is ready for action.”

Meanwhile, earlier this week in India the prime minister inaugurated the country's first state-owned bank aimed at empowering women and strengthening their financial security. India’s gender relations profile has been poor in recent months as a succession of sex crimes, some with horrific outcomes, have made even the international press, greatly highlighting gender inequality.

The bank focuses on lending to women and the majority of its workforce will be women, although accounts will also be open to men. Currently only 26% of Indian women have bank accounts.

President Singh spoke at the launch. “The sad reality,” he said, “is that women in India face discrimination and hardship at home, at school, at their place of work and in public places. Their social, economic and political empowerment remains a distant goal. The setting up of the Bharatiya Mahila Bank is a small step towards the economic empowerment of women.” 

Finance Minister P. Chidambaram has set aside 10 billion rupees (USD 161 million) of his 2013/14 budget to capitalise the new bank, the Board of Directors of which will be made up of eight women.