A large number of women are involved in cross-border trade in the BBIN sub-region and it is necessary to acknowledge their role in national trade policies.
“Given the huge demand and supply mismatch in border areas of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal, challenging trade procedures and low volume of production, large-scale informal cross-border trade is prevalent and women are mostly engaged with it,” said Bipul Chatterjee, Executive Director, CUTS International.
He was speaking at a Webinar held on Monday as part of a project on “Gender Dimensions of Trade Facilitation in the BBIN Sub-region”, which is supported by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office of the United Kingdom.
“However, we have started witnessing semi-formalisation of such trade through border haats and that is to be recognised in our trade policies,” he added.
He elaborated that this sub-region has been seeing large scale migration of men-folks and while remittance is a significant source of household income, it is not sufficient. That is one of the major reasons for women’s engagement in informal cross-border trade.
Speaking on the occasion, Kamala Gurung, Gender and Natural Resource Management Specialist of the Kathmandu-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, said that cross-border informal trade is observed historically in all regions but over time there are changes in its scale and products being traded and women in this sub-region are mostly engaged with informal cross-border trade in small quantities.
While explaining motivational approaches to cross-border informal trade, she categorised them into pull and push factors.
The pull factors included low financial requirement, basic knowledge and skill sets and the aspiration to become financially independent and the push factors comprised of socio-economic inequality, social norms and customary laws that constrain women’s inheritance and property rights.
She suggested that the government should introduce gender-inclusive reforms in terms of rights of inheritance and land policies, and should emphasise on their implementation at the local level.
Recognising that “only with equal opportunities for both genders can Bangladesh achieve prosperity”, Nasreen Begum, Member (Law) of Bangladesh Competition Commission, outlined a positive agenda for improving gender facilitation in trade measures.
She highlighted the importance of sensitising policy makers and front line workers towards the challenges faced by women entrepreneurs and workers through large-scale decentralised awareness generation programmes.
“Make them accountable if they operate in a manner that makes women feel vulnerable or harassed,” she argued. She further stressed on the need for removing the existing loan procedures in order to truly make the financial assistance programmes beneficial for women entrepreneurs.
She added that representation of women in the policy-making ecosystem needs to be increased. This can be done by making sustained efforts to recruit more women in trade bodies and streamlining maternity leaves and other similar benefits.
“Trade begins at the grassroots and thus getting to the roots is imperative,” said Damchae Dem, Founder, Bhutan Association of Women Entrepreneurs. “Existing trade procedures are not gender inclusive and if we truly want this to be transformed, we need to involve the representatives of women entrepreneurs and workers for furthering their interests in policy formulation and implementation,” she added.
She also delineatedsome doable mechanisms such as establishing digitised warehouses, providing micro-financing facilities, cold storage, and enabling market assurance, which can help make trade gender-inclusive at the grassroots.
Highlighting the impact on the Covid-19 pandemic on informal traders, Hasina Kharbhih, Founder and Managing Director of Impulse Social Enterprises, Meghalaya, said that “Post Covid-19 the government needs to look at how border haats would operate in a bio-secure manner so as to enhance economic livelihoods of women traders”.
She added that at present the border haats are not women-friendly in terms of their infrastructure. For increasing ground level women participation basic infrastructure such as toilets and resting facilities need to be provided.
Operational policies of the border haats are yet to address the requirements of support services that make women participation much more conducive,” she added.
She concluded by saying that a country’s foreign trade policy is incomplete without looking at informal trade which has the highest women participation. There should be convergence of appropriate measures including awareness generation on trade procedures for encouraging women’s participation in cross-border trade.
In his concluding remarks, Bipul Chatterjee said that trade is not gender neutral and we need a structural approach for institutionalising border practices for facilitating women’s participation in cross-border trade.