The African Continental Free Trade Area: Opportunities for Mauritian Women through the Protocol on Women in Trade

Mauritius can be a first mover by capitalising on the trade opportunities through deliberate expansion of access for women.

August 2, 2021

A pulse survey by Business Mauritius and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to assess the impact of Covid-19 on businesses in Mauritius revealed that only 23 percent of women were involved in exports compared to men. Photo: Stéphane Bellerose@UNDP

Gendered barriers to women’s development must be tackled head-on

The African Continental Free trade Agreement (AfCFTA) has the potential to lift the human development of Africa’s 1.3 billion people on several fronts. While the benefits are many, including 14 million additional jobs within manufacturing alone by 2025, increase in wages by at least 10 percent, and reducing poverty by more than 60 percent, a key success indicator we must consider in assessing the value addition of the agreement is the promise to uplift those at high risk of exclusion from the envisaged benefits. According to UN Women, African women are a key constituency that face exclusion and marginalisation in both the public and private spheres, including employment and access to finance. A study by OECD reveals that the interaction of trade policies with the local economy can potentially entrench gender inequalities if not approached in tandem with domestic policy to support women’s economic empowerment. For instance, the burden of domestic activity, difficulty in access to resources and several other impediments reduce the chances of women taking advantage of the growing market opportunities compared to men.

The gendered barriers to women’s development must be tackled head on – if the AfCFTA is to achieve its overall aims. On a positive note, Article 3(e) of the AfCFTA explicitly recognises the significance of gender equality and seeks to “promote and attain sustainable and inclusive socio-economic development, gender equality and structural transformation”. It also seeks to facilitate job creation and promote greater competitiveness among micro, small and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs). The upcoming protocol on women is a testament to this commitment.  

Closing Gender Gaps Across the Value Chain makes Business Sense

In Mauritius, sex-disaggregated data on women-owned and led businesses is scant. However, a 2020 pulse survey by Business Mauritius and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to assess the impact of COVID-19 on businesses in Mauritius revealed that only 23 percent of businesses involved in exports were headed by women. The survey is, however, not fully representative as it excludes women’s engagement across the value chain such as in textile manufacturing, a sector which, since the 1980s, thrived under export-oriented policies but in recent years witnessed considerable decline, struggling to increase productivity levels. There is evidence showing that export growth, linked to the textile manufacturing industry did increase the share of female employment but it is to be noted that women are more often involved in low-value-added activities. This includes the production and sale of food, handicrafts and souvenirs, similarly to other countries of the African continent, where women tend to operate in the lower rungs of value chains. This finding also resonates with the OECD analysis of gender inequality in global value chains.

The urgent need to empower women is backed by a wealth of evidence from the human development indicators, which illustrates what Mauritius stands to lose in development gains. According to the 2021 global gender gap report, Mauritius ranks 118th out of 156 countries in economic participation and opportunity for women, only ahead of 10 countries in Africa. The UNDP’s Global Human Development Report 2020 also revealed that the country lost 34.7 percent of its human development ranking due to gender inequality, owing in part to a low labour force participation rate of 45.2 percent for women compared to 72 percent for men.

Quick Wins to Address Bottlenecks to Women’s Participation

The UNDP has partnered with the Government of Mauritius and the private sector to undertake national consultations on the AfCFTA Protocol on Women in Trade. This engagement is based on a cooperation framework between UNDP’s Regional Bureau for Africa and the AfCFTA Secretariat. Through this partnership and other consultative platforms, Mauritius can promote opportunities to benefit women through the Trade Protocol by: First, bringing together women entrepreneurs to share experiences on the gendered barriers and challenges to entering the African market, and to articulate the priority support needed to boost their participation. Second, consolidating these findings and enabling the formulation of national policy positions to inform the Action Plan of the Mauritius Africa strategy.  Third, enhancing export competitiveness by expanding the pilot Africa Warehousing Scheme (AWS) to subsidize rental and administrative costs of warehouses in select countries with a focus on additional incentives for women-owned and led enterprises. Fourth, updating key policies and laws to promote effective participation of women in gainful economic activity.

Now is the time for building inroads to markets in mainland Africa. Mauritius can be a first mover by capitalising on the trade opportunities through deliberate expansion of access for women.