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Four Things about Women and Trade in the BBIN

April 25, 2018

By Diya Nag

Next week, two passenger buses will make the journey from Dhaka to Kathmandu using new routes proposed under the Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, and Nepal (BBIN) Motor Vehicles Agreement, saving riders a distance of more than 100 kilometers. What began as an agreement to simplify the movement of people and goods between these countries is now developing into a framework for deeper cooperation in several areas, including trade.

Trade in the BBIN

Encouraging the inclusion and participation of women in the economy remains a significant challenge for South Asia. Photo/Conor Ashleigh

The BBIN countries belong to one of the world’s fastest growing regions, but the benefits are bypassing key segments of society. When it comes to trade and trade-related activities, South Asian women do not participate as much as men, and therefore are less likely to benefit directly from economic opportunities that arise out of increased intra-regional trade.

By failing to achieve gender parity in economic activity and participation, South Asia loses $888 billion. The exclusion of women, whether by design or happenstance, is not just an issue of women’s rights, but also represents unaffordable economic losses for the countries that make up this large and populous region. It is crucial to engage with women traders and entrepreneurs.

Significant efforts have been made to promote the participation of cross-border women traders in Africa, but such programs have not been replicated in South Asia. To help identify key programming challenges and opportunities in expanding the benefits of trade to women in the BBIN countries, The Asia Foundation, with support from The World Bank and in partnership with the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), released a new program design primer. Below are highlights:

  • First, gender disparity is deeply entrenched in South Asia. While designing trade facilitation programs in South Asia, particularly those that look for favorable outcomes in terms of gender equity, one must incorporate the reality and context of gender disparity that is deeply entrenched in the region. Despite a few success stories and achievements at the country level, South Asia’s overall performance on gender equality has been weak. Women are constrained by cultural, financial, institutional, and legal barriers when it comes to engaging in economic activities, and participation in productive, high wage, non-agricultural work needs improvement. Therefore, any programs designed to increase women’s participation in regional trade or extending the benefits of regional trade to women must be applied with knowledge of these existing structural challenges.
  • Second, the BBIN region is politically and economically poised to advance because it is free from significant geopolitical hostilities that plague greater South Asia. It is positive that India’s resolve to promote and anchor deeper regional integration with its Eastern neighbors has strengthened significantly. Further, the Indian private consumption market provides a substantial incentive for Bangladesh, Nepal, and Bhutan to pursue deeper trading relations with India. Since the trading relationships and state of trade infrastructure are still nascent, the scope of intervention is very promising in the region. Finally, the investments made on women and girls in all four countries, particularly on improving school enrollment rates and expanding access to information (and communication) is just beginning to pay off on the economic front. All of these factors contribute to an environment which is ready to take on programs that are designed to expand the benefits of trade to women in the region.
  • Third, program designs should reflect the existing operational context. Cross-border trade in the BBIN region is influenced by diverse geography, and a variety of actors and attitudes, all of which have the potential to greatly influence design, implementation, and outcomes of programs. The report provides some salient observations on operational realities of border areas, and looks at some key stakeholders (government agencies, civil society, business associations, or the private sector) and their attitudes that shape the day-to-day functioning of the border points. For example, one of the report’s major findings is that border level government agencies are not as empowered to make decisions, and tend to restrict themselves to the operational frameworks introduced by the central government. Investing in capacity building of border agencies to solve local trade related problems would go a long way at promoting cross-border trade, and easing the ability of women to engage at that level. Further, these “frontier” border areas are also less open to the participation of women in trade related activities, unlike urban areas where women enjoy more freedom and autonomy. If programs are designed taking into account these contextual realities, they are more likely to succeed.
  • Fourth, the border ecosystem is not women-friendly. Infrastructure and connectivity at border points are in disarray, and border points operate under chaotic conditions. They are not yet trade-friendly and are an even longer way away from becoming women-friendly. Significant investments in infrastructure and public services at border points is needed immediately. For instance, simplifying and digitizing border level procedures and processes breaks down many barriers to entry for women. Most importantly, there is a need to increase the visibility of women in border agencies and trade-related service sectors. The optics of complete absence of women at the border points is a deep deterrent for most women who want to enter trade-related professions.

At the core of the report is a matrix of illustrative program activities. This matrix goes beyond port-level facilitation measures to capture opportunities before the border, at the border, and beyond the border in four thematic intervention areas: infrastructure gaps, capacity gaps, knowledge gaps and support-activity gaps. For example, public areas around land customs stations are poorly lit and lack sanitary facilities for women, which can be rectified by government agencies at the design stage when infrastructure is built or upgraded. Further, business associations in border towns can be supported to organize training programs for women entrepreneurs on trading rules, tariffs, and logistics and handling to promise their entry into trade and trade related services. Finally, civil society can get behind designing a very practical web and mobile based portal to document the regional retail price disclosure and dissemination for top 50 products and commodities trade in the BBIN region that directly benefit women workers and producers.

Encouraging the inclusion and participation of women in the economy remains a significant challenge for South Asia. The challenges of the trade and trade-related sectors are a mere sub-set of the broader set of South Asia’s problems with gender inequality. This program design primer is meant to be a first step toward implementing actionable ways in which women can benefit from the exciting expansion of trade in the BBIN region.

Diya Nag is The Asia Foundation’s senior program officer in India. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.

Related locations: Bangladesh, India, Nepal
Related programs: Inclusive Economic Growth, Women's Empowerment and Gender Equality
Related topics: BBIN


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