Trading for peace in the Great Lakes

A three-day advocacy campaign to support women’s civic, political and economic empowerment in the Great Lakes region of Africa has ended with calls to ensure that the rights of women cross-border traders are respected and their contribution to peacebuilding is recognised.

The campaign, which took place as part of the 18th Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) summit of heads of state and governments, was organised by International Alert in partnership with COMESA and the Peace and Security Department of the African Union Commission (AUC).

The COMESA summit, which this year focused on inclusive and sustainable industrialisation, was held at the African Union (AU) headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, from 28–31 March.

Through a panel discussion, accompanied by a photo exhibition by award-winning photojournalist Carol Allen-Storey, the campaign emphasised the role that cross-border trade can play in alleviating poverty, empowering women and promoting peace and security.

The panel discussion, titled ‘Trading for peace’, gave a platform to women cross-border traders from Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to share their experiences, and gave policy-makers the opportunity to hear directly from and interact with the women engaged in this trade. It also provided the women with a space to voice their demands and advocate for better working conditions at the different borders where they operate.

"Thanks to cross-border trade, women are supporting themselves today," said Nunu Salufa, a cross-border trader from DRC and the Executive Secretary of the Association of Female Entrepreneurship (APEF).

Previous research in the Great Lakes showed that more active economic roles for women did not automatically produce an improvement in their social status and political participation. But things are improving, said Nunu. "Women feel more empowered, respected by their peers and husbands, and as a result they are beginning to have a voice, which was not the case before."

"Women from different communities are coming together in dialogue, which is helping them bond together and reduce the hatred they used to have for each other. Rwandans are trading with Congolese and vice versa," she added.

Echoing these words, Angelique Umulisa (pictured below), a representative from Profemmes Twesehamwe an organisation working for the advancement of women, peace, and development in Rwanda), said: "Women traders can be pioneers of peace because they understand the reality of conflicts."

The panel stressed the importance of information and education to help empower women cross-border traders, so that women can defend their rights and become decision makers.

Bineta Diop, the Special Envoy of the Chairperson of the AUC on Women, Peace and Security, said the dialogue offered an important opportunity to raise awareness on the condition of women cross-border traders. "On a recent trip to Rwanda and Burundi, I was impressed by the good practice solutions that women cross-border traders have developed. It is important that our governments continue to support cross-border trade initiatives."

Her remarks were echoed by Dan Smith, Secretary General of Alert, who co-chaired the discussion with Bineta. Dan emphasised the need to support women at different levels, particularly at the local level.

"Peace is built at the local level. What this discussion and exhibition show is the importance and transformative potential of cross-border trade, not only as a source of livelihood for millions of people in the Great Lakes, but as a platform for building trust, regional integration and reconciliation between the peoples of this divided region."

The discussion also noted that informal cross-border trade was important for regional integration in other parts of Africa (such as Zambia, DRC, Tanzania and Zimbabwe).

Alert works with local partners to provide a safe environment for cross-border traders in eastern DRC and neighbouring Great Lakes countries, most of whom are women, improving their economic situation and forging closer ties between traders in the region.