Trading under the historic African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) is scheduled to begin on 1 July 2020. Hailed as a game-changing agreement, with the potential to propel Africa’s socio-economic transformation, the AfCFTA will play a significant role in anchoring the 17 SDGs.

The UN Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) has recognized the unparalleled opportunities inherent in the AfCFTA, but is also cognizant that these opportunities will not accrue automatically. This article describes how UNECA is working to ensure that African countries can seize the benefits offered by the AfCFTA, especially the benefit of greater gender equality.

The AfCFTA framework agreement includes an objective of gender equality (Article 3(e)). Gender mainstreaming promotes this objective by advancing the full, equal and meaningful participation of women in an integrated continental market. Gender mainstreaming also supports delivery on range of sustainable development imperatives linked to the 2030 Agenda. Indeed, gender mainstreaming embodies the most important promise of the 2030 Agenda: to leave no one behind. The 2030 Agenda also makes clear that there can be no sustainable development without gender equality.

Confronted with deeply-rooted gender based discrimination and pervasive inequalities, women across the region are disproportionately among the left behind. At the same time, African women are a powerful force for development, whose strength and leadership remain critical to the ultimate success of the AfCFTA.

What does “gender mainstreaming” mean as part of implementing the free trade area? First, mainstreaming entails analyzing the gender dynamics for women in the formal and informal economy. This process offers a systematic approach to identifying gender-specific barriers confronting female traders, producers, entrepreneurs, and wage-workers in agriculture, manufacturing and services- as sectors which are expected to gain new trade opportunities through the AfCFTA. It is crucial to consider the main factors leading to gender segregation in access to economic opportunities in priority economic sectors, together with gender differences in access to productive inputs (particularly finance).

In 2019, UNECA provided support to 15 African countries to develop national strategies for implementing the AfCFTA. Gender mainstreaming is central to the design of these national strategies (see full UNECA working paper). In particular, gender mainstreaming is guiding the development of gender-responsive policies and context-specific interventions to drive female empowerment in the AfCFTA. This in turn directly supports the realization of SDG 5 (gender equality) as a prerequisite for catalyzing progress across all the SDG and targets. Because women are known to invest most of their incomes (90% on average) back in their families (notably in education and health) and communities, identifying interventions to increase the economic power of women through employment can raise living standards for all. Higher living standards in turn contribute to SDG 1 (no poverty), as well as to improved nutrition (SDG 2), good health and well-being (SDG 3) and quality education (SDG 4) outcomes for women and those who depend on them.

Advancing women’s participation in agriculture under the AfCFTA directly supports increased agricultural productivity and food security targets in SDG 2. Likewise, drawing attention to gender-specific effects of export-oriented industrialization could support opportunities for women to hold higher-value addition employment in manufacturing. Raising gender-related concerns regarding the potential impact on women of trade in services liberalization supports the participation of women in higher-skilled services jobs. This in turn gives impetus to the decent work (SDG 8) and industrialization (SDG 9) agenda, as well as to SDG 10 (reduced inequalities). Highlighting the need for empowering women with the required ICT, technical education, skills development and training to access higher-skilled manufacturing and services jobs further contributes to providing education opportunities (SDG 4).

Women account for the vast majority of informal cross-border traders. If governments can identify the priority needs of female informal cross-border traders, they can also devise gender-responsive trade facilitation measures that respond to those needs, and then assist them to enter the formal sector (SDG 8). Similarly, in supporting women-owned informal businesses to participate more effectively in intra-African trade, trade facilitation measures directly contribute to meeting SDG target 8.3 on the formalization and growth of micro, small and medium-sized enterprises.

The AfCFTA can play a powerful role in empowering women and advancing global goals on gender equality. Gender mainstreaming in AfCFTA National Strategies is the building block to operationalizing these goals, turning the transformative promise of the AfCFTA into tangible progress for African women.