AfCFTA Protocol on Women in Trade: a tool for supporting women-led enterprises

The AfCFTA Agreement is commonly defined as a “deep agreement”[1], because it aims at promoting a deep level of integration that goes beyond trade, with provisions covering various policy areas such as services, intellectual property rights, investment and competition policy, e-commerce, most of them being still in course of negotiation within the context of specific Protocols yet to be formally adopted. In addition to such areas, a Protocol for Women in Trade and Youth is being negotiated, which aims at empowering women as a key sector for boosting intra-regional trade in Africa.

A trend which is increasingly apparent in the latest “deep” Preferential Trade Agreements, including the AfCFTA, is the gender mainstreaming, i.e. the inclusion in such agreements of provisions addressing the specific needs of women, with a view to boost their participation in trade[2].

In July 2020, the International Trade Centre (ITC) published a report titled Mainstreaming Gender in Free Trade Agreements, that observes how women face higher barriers in trade and commerce compared to men, including regulatory and cultural biases, maternity obstacles, employment restrictions, lack of access to capital and productive resources, skills mismatch and inadequate market information and business networks.

An article published on the World Bank blog in 2019 explored the role of women with specific regard to cross-border trade, especially informal trade. After pointing out that at many borders, particularly in developing and less developed countries, a significant share of such trade is conducted by women, the article concludes that women are generally confronted to problems and impediments bigger than those to which their male counterparts are subject to, being more vulnerable and more exposed than men to phenomena of harassment, abuse, request of payments of unofficial fees, and thefts of goods.

The Agreement establishing the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), apart from a generic reference in its Preamble regarding to the need to promote and attain gender equality (a concept that is reiterated also at art. 3(e) of the Agreement), does not explicitly address gender issues. The same is for Article 27(2)d of the Protocol on Services, which simply encourages State parties to improve women’s export capacity through the mobilization of adequate resources, also with the support of Developing Partners[3]

Gender mainstreaming will be specifically addressed in a future AfCFTA Protocol on Women in Trade, whose negotiations are in an advanced phase[4]. Such Protocol was launched in 2020 after the African Union completed, in collaboration with the UNDP, a study titled “The Futures Report: Making the AfCFTA Work for Women and Youth” which highlighted the need to ensure that women and youth, who account for the majority of the population, business owners and workforce in Africa, are better integrated into the value chains, jobs and opportunities stemming from the AfCFTA implementation.

The report recognizes that as these sectors play a significant role in trade in Africa, it will be essential to leverage their potential by facilitating youth and women-led trade activities and empowering women and young entrepreneurs.

This objective is in line with Agenda 2063, the 50-year strategy adopted by the African Union on the occasion of the OAU’s 50th anniversary celebration, that lists among the seven key objectives (referred to as ‘aspirations’) the need to unlock the potential of women and youth in order to grow trade (aspiration n. 6). Specifically on women and gender equality, the African Union adopted in February 2019 the AU Strategy for Gender Equality & Women’s Empowerment, a document which contains a series of recommendations for concretely realizing the aspiration n. 6.

Although the draft text of the Protocol on Women and Youth is not publicly available and the measures aimed at promoting women trade are largely unknown, the AU Strategy for Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment is essential in order to understand the spirit of the new Protocol. Moreover, the African Union (Directorate of Information and Communication) issued on 3 March 2021 a press release that gives some additional hints on its contents, revealing that its provisions will be addressed not only to women on the continent, but also to those in the diaspora, in the attempt to put them at the centre stage of the AfCFTA process that, it has to be kept in mind, is fundamentally a continental trade policy agenda with the objective of boosting intra-regional trade.

[1] Laget, E.; Osnago, A.; Rocha, N.; Ruta, M., Deep trade agreements and global value chains’, Policy Research working paper no. WPS 8491, 2018, Washington, D.C. : World Bank Group, available at:

[2] Laperle-Forget. L. ‘Gender-Responsiveness in Trade Agreements – how does the AfCFTA fare?’, TRALAC, 17 Mar 2021, available at:  

[3] See footnote n. 2.

[4] Ahovi, K., ‘ AfCFTA: Protocol on Women in Trade almost complete’, Business Week Ghana, January 27, 2021, available at:

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