12/12/2013 12:28 GMT | Updated 11/02/2014 05:59 GMT

Trading Income for Harassment? The Reality of Women Traders in Africa

"No matter how long the night is, the morning is sure to come," goes a Congolese proverb. Ruth, a cross-border trader in Africa, knows that only too well. She gets up every morning long before sunrise to prepare for the exhausting climb over the border from Rwanda to Congo. Rising early means beating the unbearable heat that makes her journey on foot with a heavy load of maize on her head even more arduous. It means getting to the border crossing before custom officials - who frequently ask her for a bribe or worse - and securing a place at the market ahead of her competitors. After all this, she makes the return journey back to collect water, look after her children and tend the fields.

Women like Ruth make up the majority of Africa's informal cross-border traders, according to a report recently published by the World Bank Group, "Women and Trade in Africa: Realizing the Potential". Such informal cross-border trade in the Great Lakes region is likely to be several times larger than officially recorded trade flows show. Food products, such as beans, maize, tomatoes and pulses are by far the most common items carried by small-scale cross-border traders. Trading goods across borders provides an income opportunity for women, which helps provide for their families. Cross-border trade is the main source of family income for three out of four traders in the region, according to the report.

On the flip side, informal cross-border work poses huge threats to women's safety and health. According to a recent survey of trade in the Great Lakes region, more than fifty percent of traders reported suffering from physical harassment and abuse, including sexual harassment and even rape. More than eighty percent of traders confirm that they have to pay a bribe to government officials at the border. This power imbalance and extortion of favors was also well documented in an excellent BBC report on 29 October 2013: "The Heavy-Lifting 'Mule Women' of Melilla". The article outlines the barriers women face daily at the border between the Spanish enclave Melilla and Morocco, where women carry secondhand clothes, bolts of fabric, toiletries and household items across the border.

In order to better capture the potential for increased and safer trade across borders, various steps can be taken to improve the situation of women. Concretely, the International Trade Centre in Geneva runs a successful "Women in Trade" program, which targets women entrepreneurs and women working in export-oriented value chains with the aim of building their business capacity.

Women are often at a disadvantage more generally when it comes to trade, as they lack access to finance and market information and are less likely to be part of trade associations. According to the World Bank Group report, surveys confirm that the vast majority of women traders would like to grow and develop their businesses. Hence, trade and development organisations should concentrate on providing access to trade information, business training, productive inputs and work with government authorities to secure land and property rights. In order to avoid bribery, tax rules and fees should be publicly displayed at border crossings. In addition, customs and border officials need to be trained in trade regulations, customs evaluation, sexual harassment and HIV/AIDS awareness.

The World Bank Group report also recommends the simplification of documents and regulatory requirements as well as the use of mobile technology to address safety, banking and information gaps that women encounter. Another study, "Women and Mobile - a Global Opportunity", by GSMA and the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, documents that ninety-three percent of women surveyed felt safer because of owning a mobile phone.

IFC already strengthens women's role as traders by facilitating access to finance, building the capacity of women entrepreneurs as well as improving the investment and trade climate. Given the recent findings, IFC will also explore further opportunities to engage women safely in trade opportunities. Simple tools--such as providing market-price information via mobile phones, establishing a sexual-violence helpline or a mobile-based complaint service--can make the journey across borders much safer. For women like Ruth, such tools could be life-saving.