Supporting trade expansion and gender equality: Tackling gender-intensified constraints to trade

4 July 2012

There is broad recognition that gender equality matters for economic development. Trade, a key component of economic development, should not be an exception. Much of the literature on gender equality and trade has focused on the gender impact of trade liberalisation policies, with hotly contested evidence about whether trade liberalisation has been good or bad for women. But with the lowering of traditional market access barriers such as tariffs, high trade transaction costs have become one of the most important obstacles that countries face in benefiting from globalisation. As a result, initiatives that reduce these kind of costs, focused on improvements in customs and border management, trade and transport infrastructure and logistics services, represent a rapidly expanding area of trade policy. There is limited research and policy advice, however, on the gender dimensions of trade facilitation and logistics.

Given the intrinsic importance of gender equality to development, and the expansion of trade facilitation and logistics interventions, how can these initiatives take gender issues into account?

What gender-intensified constraints do women face in trade?

There is no doubt that, in many developing countries, both women and men face challenges when it comes to trade facilitation and logistics. But evidence suggests that women struggle with specific constraints.

For example, women traders are more susceptible to corruption, as well as verbal and sexual harassment, at border crossings than their male counterparts. They also tend to have lower levels of understanding about customs and border requirements and processes, including the opportunities that new technologies could offer. Women are likely to have less access to private forms of transportation than men, and therefore rely more heavily on public transportation to channel their goods to market. This means they are disproportionately affected by underdeveloped roads and transport infrastructure, and spend a larger share of their income on transportation. In addition, they face a higher incidence of robbery and physical assaults en route to market. In remote areas, small-scale female traders often lack easy and affordable access to efficient logistics services. Finally, women are more likely to engage in informal cross-border trade than men (see Box 1). Much of their contribution to a country’s international trade is ‘invisible’ to government officials and decision makers, who consequently neglect the role of women in the creation of mainstream trade policies and institutions.

How can gender-intensified constraints to trade be tackled?

How can gender-intensified constraints to trade be tackled through the design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of trade facilitation and logistics initiatives?

Initiatives seeking to improve customs and border management should offer gender training to officials, staff should comprise a better gender balance and, investments should be made in cross-border infrastructure to better secure border crossing areas. If all of this is done, the levels of harassment that women face would be lowered. Moreover, public information campaigns about customs and border processes, as well as outreach to female traders and women’s organisations, may enhance the knowledge female traders have, and as a result, decrease corruption.
To reduce the constraints women face in relation to trade and transport infrastructure, initiatives that improve the regularity, reach and affordability of public transportation to markets and border crossings can help female traders get their goods to market. Improving safety, particularly on public transportation and at transport hubs, may also lessen the levels of violence and insecurity to which women are confronted when carrying their goods. When it comes to logistics services, supporting cooperation amongst female traders to pool their goods may mean that they can access these services at a lower price. Public information campaigns about the costs and requirements associated with logistics services can give female traders the information they need to negotiate fairer prices with intermediaries.

Trade-related initiatives that integrate these ideas into their design and implementation are starting to emerge. For example, the Uganda Export Promotion Board and the International Trade Center have launched a project which seeks to increase exports by reducing the trade facilitation impediments that women informal cross border traders face. The World Bank has initiated a project in the Great Lakes region which aims to improve the conditions that female traders deal with when crossing borders, and also support an environment where female cross-border traders can become better informed and organised, and thus, benefit from the dynamics of greater scale.


Responding to the gender-intensified constraints that women face through trade facilitation and logistics initiatives might seem cumbersome and resource-intensive, but they are of paramount importance. Ignoring the very real gender inequalities that women deal with in their trade efforts can hamper a country’s potential trade expansion. Critically, it can also limit the contribution of trade to tackling one of the most pressing challenges in front of developing countries face – entrenched gender inequalities.

This article is based on a guidance note written by Kate Higgins for the World Bank titled “The Gender Dimensions of Trade Facilitation and Logistics”.

Author: Kate Higgins is the  Theme Leader of the Governance for Equitable Growth program at The North-South Institute, an international development think-tank based in Ottawa, Canada.

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