Women in the informal sector in Southern Africa: towards a developmental perspective


For inclusive and sustainable development to take root in the Southern Africa region, it is imperative for the region’s member states to embrace developmental regionalism that is both gender sensitive and gender responsive.1 Gender responsiveness is an essential element of inclusive governance that is central to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), yet it has not received much attention from regional policy makers. Bloom et al. (2001) define gender responsiveness as a “creating an environment . . . that reflects an understanding of the realities of womens lives and addresses their issues”.2 Emphasis is always placed on gender sensitiveness and gender responsiveness in government budgets and regional policies and institutions. Adopting a “developmental regionalism” approach, in which existing regional institutions’ gender policies can be utilized to achieve broad development, holds much more promise for Africa. Addressing the key challenges of gender inclusiveness and equity that are key ingredients for economic transformation clearly requires the participation of women. Through the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa’s (COMESA) protocols on gender, the southern African region has the required policy and institutional frameworks in place to close the gender development gap.

What then would be the basic tenets for promoting gender empowerment within the framework of developmental regionalism in Southern Africa? How can the region pursue developmental regionalism that is inclusive of women? Do COMESA and the SADC’s poverty eradication strategies, trade and investment policies, facilitate women’s roles in the formal and informal sectors? Considering that informal traders and agriculturists are mostly women, are the region s overall development policies in these sectors gender sensitive and gender responsive? These questions can be answered partly by posing the question: What is the current scope of regional integration in relation to women’s needs and how can this be part of a coherent developmental regionalism agenda in Southern Africa? Overall, the entire African region has the institutional frameworks required for steering the shift towards a paradigm of developmental regionalism but lacks clear strategies for implementation (UNCTAD 2013).

The same can be said about initiatives to reduce the gender gap in all the countries; there are many provisions on gender parity yet most African countries struggle to translate these into action.

The plethora of regional integration initiatives across different development sectors presents opportunities for the empowerment of women but member states’ action on the recommended actions remains wanting. The failure of almost all the governments to implement many of the gender protocols partly explains the lip service paid to gender responsive and gender sensitive regional integration in African. Individual countries have the responsibility for translating the many protocols into concrete activities that heads of states commit themselves to. This chapter analyses SADC women’s roles in the informal development sectors: mining, trading and agriculture. The intention is to find entry points for designing an approach that leads to developmental regionalism that is anchored on gender responsiveness.

Development as a woman’s right: defining key gender concepts

Gender remains a contested topic and many of the concepts used in reference to the theme are often used interchangeably. For instance, gender equity is often used to refer to gender equality; hence a distinction has to be drawn between these two concepts. This is important for reflecting on divergent understandings of gender differences and formulating appropriate strategies to address them. Reeves and Baden (2000) point out that gender equality denotes women having the same opportunities in life as men, including the ability to participate in the public sphere, while gender equity denotes the equivalence in life outcomes for women and men, recognising their different needs and interests, and requiring a redistribution of power and resources. Gender equity goes beyond equality of opportunity by requiring transformative change. This brings it closer to the concept of gender responsiveness as it recognizes that women and men have different needs, preferences, and interests and that equality of outcomes may necessitate different treatment of men and women (Bloom and Covington 2001). This conceptualisation brings out the distinction between gender equity and gender equality with gender bias, which refers to the displays of favoritism to a specific gender resulting in unfair treatment. Belknap et al. (1997) make this distinction clear: “equality does not mean “sameness”. Equality is about providing opportunities that mean the same to each gender and takes cognisance of needs beyond women’s control in this case. For instance, cross-border trading support programmes for men are more likely to be successful when they focus on rules, and ways to advance within a highly regulated and structured environment. For women, trading ventures are more likely to be successful when emphasis is on relationships with others, strong networking systems, and flexible systems to manage their personal lives while keeping both elements balanced (Bossuroy et al. 2014). Designing such responsive systems levels the trading arena for women to participate.

Gender responsiveness is thus a womans human right and is designed to ensure equality of treatment within regional and national development institutions. This implies mainstreaming women’s needs across the different development sectors. A gender responsive developmental approach is important for creating an environment that supports and enables women to realize their full potential. A good example is the South African governments National Export Development Programme, implemented by the Department of Trade and industry since 2013, that recognizes the need to support women’s exports by creating an enabling environment for Black, African, and female-owned businesses to access international markets (Bossuroy et al. 2014). The programme has measures for supporting all exporters but places more and specific emphasis on womens needs during the process.

The acute gender gap across all sectors, regional3 activities and transactions in Africa, necessitates the collection of massive information on female participation to ascertain their participation in regional developmental initiatives. Regional economic communities (RECS) such as SADC, the Economic Community for West African States (ECOWAS), the Economic Community for Central African States (ECCAs), and the East African Community (EAC), have not compiled such extensive data bases on the development gender gap that could be useful for both tracking implementation, and identifying the specific sector gender needs and challenges (Ndomo 2009). Incorporating gender into the current regional frameworks implies factoring in gender responsive policies into the burgeoning developmental regionalism agenda to guarantee equitable development outcomes.

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