Women informal cross-border traders are facing monumental hurdles, ratifying this international convention could help them

By Mandipa Machacha and Sasha Middleton

Across Southern Africa, millions of people, predominantly women and girls, engage in informal cross-border trade, shouldering heavy burdens and navigating bureaucratic hurdles just to make ends meet. This trade, estimated at $17.6 billion by the African Development Bank, constitutes a significant portion of intra-regional commerce, yet the women driving it often face exploitation and violence with little recourse.

On International Women’s Day, it’s imperative to spotlight the challenges they face and the transformative potential of the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Convention 190 in safeguarding their rights.

ILO Convention 190, officially titled the Violence and Harassment Convention, 2019, is a ground-breaking instrument designed to eradicate violence and harassment at work. While its importance reverberates across all sectors, its potential impact on informal women workers is particularly noteworthy.

One of the key merits of Convention 190 lies in its expansive definition of violence and harassment, encompassing not only physical violence but also psychological and economic harm. This broader scope is essential for informal women workers who, beyond facing physical threats, often endure economic coercion and psychological abuse at work.

Informal Cross Border Trade (ICBT) involves the exchange of goods and services between countries outside formal trade channels, characterized by small-scale transactions, limited documentation, and informal customs procedures. It is dominated by women, many of whom are living in poverty and have access to very few resources.

Working is a struggle in the best of times. For women informal traders who cross the border daily, things are infinitely harder. As one woman told Amnesty International:

“At times they (the police) confiscate your passport in order to force you to give them your phone number and whatever they want because people are boarding the bus and you might get left behind. You are forced to give your phone number because you are going to use that route again,”

Despite abuses being relatively common in some border posts, it is concerning that currently only three countries in Southern Africa – South Africa, Namibia, and Mauritius – have ratified the Convention.

Another admirable aspect of Convention 190 is that it emphasizes prevention, protection, and remedy, offering a holistic framework for safeguarding the rights of informal women workers, providing a framework for empowering these women and holding perpetrators accountable.  Implementing the Convention and developing effective policies to ensure that these workers are not only protected but are also equipped with the tools to seek redress for violations would go a long way to empower women who engage in cross-border informal trade. These tools may include access to legal aid and support services, training on their rights and how to report violations, establishing hotlines or reporting mechanisms specifically for cross-border traders, and creating awareness campaigns to educate women on their legal rights and available resources. By providing these resources and support systems, women can more confidently navigate the challenges they face, seek justice when needed, and actively participate in cross-border trade without fear of exploitation or harm.

The ratification of Convention 190 also aligns with the broader global agenda for gender equality, exemplified by the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. By prioritizing the rights of informal women workers, nations can contribute substantially to achieving Goal 5, which seeks to end all forms of discrimination and violence against women.

Additionally, Convention 190 provides a valuable platform for social dialogue. Inclusion of informal women workers in policy discussions and decision-making processes is vital for creating effective and relevant interventions. Recommendation 206, which accompanies ILO Convention 190, further emphasizes the importance of ensuring the voices of informal workers, especially women, are heard in policy development and implementation. This aligns with the principle that social dialogue should reflect the needs and aspirations of all participants. It acknowledges the agency of informal women workers in shaping the policies that directly impact their lives. While acknowledging existing treaties like the Maputo Protocol and SADC Protocol on Gender and Development, which have been ratified by many Southern African states but are not fully implemented, it’s important to recognize Convention 190 as an additional step towards addressing the multifaceted challenges faced by women, including those in informal employment.

The ratification of ILO Convention 190, which is tailored to address the unique challenges faced by informal women workers in cross-border trade, is not just a legal obligation; it is a moral imperative. As nations strive for inclusive and sustainable development, ensuring the rights, safety, and well-being of informal women workers must be at the forefront of their agendas. The transformative power of Convention 190 can pave the way for a more just and equitable future for these resilient women who contribute significantly to our global economy.

Recognizing the significance of informal work, particularly its feminization, and acknowledging the vital role played by informal women workers is crucial for achieving sustainable and inclusive development. The ratification of ILO Convention 190 is a clarion call for nations to recognize the invaluable role played by informal women workers and to take decisive steps toward ensuring their rights and dignity are protected. In doing so, nations can collectively build a world of work where all individuals, regardless of the formality of their employment, are treated with respect, equality, and humanity.

This Opinion piece first ran in South Africa’s Daily Maverick.

Mandipa Machacha is an Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Advisor at Amnesty International

Sasha Middleton is an Executive Coordinator at Amnesty International