It is sunny Saturday afternoon. Even though it's already 4.15 pm, it seems like the day has just begun at this border section at Katuna between Uganda and Rwanda. Multitudes of people are seen busily crossing the border, some with merchandise on their head, while scores of others are carrying slightly heavy bags.
Janet Uravuza, 32 years old, is one of them. Armed with a huge bag weighing about 30 kgs, Uravuza is among the many female merchants who have been engaged in cross border trade between the Rwanda and Uganda border in Gatuna for close to a decade. She started trading in soft drinks, children’s clothes and locally made craft foot ware when she was 19. Today, married to a truck driver in Uganda’s southwestern town of Kabale and with four children at home, Uravuza is upbeat about leaving the trade.
The trade she is considering to quit, has since left the majority of her colleagues either jailed or dead, as they try to flee from the tax revenue officials and tough border security patrol personnel. Uravuza is not alone, she is just among the thousands of women engaged in the cross border trade between the Uganda, Rwanda and the Uganda Democratic Republic of Congo. They trade in handcrafts, soft drinks and clothes, as well as simple groceries like sweets, bread, cakes and biscuits.
The officials deny the problem
A brief visit to the towns of Gatuna in Rwanda and Katuna at the Rwanda-Uganda border highlighted the plight these women are facing as they seek means for survival. Though the East African Community protocol that is supposed to help such Small and Medium Scale Entrepreneurs enhance their livelihoods through trade, the protocol seems not to be supporting them. At least based on what happened in the past. Uravuza says their daily trade is characterized by harassment and bribe asking by the revenue and tax collectors at the border, though the border customs officials vehemently deny this.
“When we leave our homes to go for business, we pray that God helps us, that we are not abducted and return back safely in the evenings,” she said in an interview. Barriers such as language issues, sexual harassment and corruption are what hinder effective trade by these women. “When the security gets us crossing with our merchandise, they ask for bribes. If you don’t have money, they demand sex or confiscate your money”, says Ruth Tumushabe, a local trader from the Katuna border on the Ugandan side. She says many of her colleagues have long died due to HIV/AIDS that they contracted after engaging in “unwanted” and “unsafe“ with some of the border security officials. The border security officials act with impunity due to inadequate checks and supervisions by the top immigration officers. This gap, allows them ample time to act like small “gods“.
Hardly any progress
Tumushabe notes that since their presence can determine whether they cross the border or not, depicts how powerful they are. The border security officials however deny any wrong doing. “Such allegations are not new to us. People have always accused us, but we are doing our job. Even if a few bad apples are amidst us, that does not mean that we are all bad,“ said a one border official who identified himself as Hizimana Deogratius. The Immigration officials at the Uganda and Rwandan side said such allegations are taken very seriously and are punishable. “We don’t condone such acts. We appeal to any person oppressed by our staff to report so that we can take action“, said Deogratius. But as much as the border official counter such allegations with promises of punishing the errant officers, the talk continues, every day since it remains to be seen as the usual political rhetoric. And as such, the plight of these suffering women is not about to cease.
Even though the East African Community protocol on Free Trade was launched decades ago, these vulnerable women still don’t know that they are supposed to move freely with their trade and not engage in “smuggling” along the porous borders. Though the East African Community Legislative Assembly recently passed a binding legislation to eliminate non-tariff barriers (NTBs) to trade among East African Community partner states, this is yet to be realized.
The new issue rising in trade is the cross border women who continue to meet numerous challenges as they carry out their trade across the borders. Elizabeth Ampairwe the Project coordinator at the Eastern African Sub-regional Support Initiative for the Advancement of Women (EASSI) notes that the five EAC countries should create an enabling environment for cross border women traders, saying this has a multiplier effect as the women support their immediate families and extended families, among others. “Women engaged in cross border trade still face many challenges that are affecting their performance and profitability. Issues like insufficient working capital and the fact that mothers are not allowed to cross some borders with their young children, still impede business growth of women engaged in cross border trade,” said Ampairwe.
Ampairwe said much as some border customs procedures have been greatly reduced, cross border women entrepreneurs say a lot of time is wasted at border points clearing goods, especially when there are power cuts or the data capturing system is down, causing delays.
A lobby for the trading women
The Eastern African Sub-regional Support Initiative for the Advancement of Women (EASSI), is a regional body that seeks to help women do trade without hindrace. EASSI has helped these border women, who lack skills on how to compile business data and on how to use technology in business transactions, gain experience in doing business. “We appeal to the EAC governments to increase their support to women cross border traders so that they are able to improve operations and earn more money that would help enhance their lives and those of their families,” said Grace Kashabe, a Rwandan cross border trader. A visit to the border point indicated that majority of these women traders are illiterate and don’t understand Kiswahili, the language used mostly in the East African Community trade. The lack of interpretation of trade documents compounds the challenge.
Trade technocrats have argued that the East African Partner states need to harmonize laws that increase access of credit to women. The women entrepreneurs from the borders of Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya operating small medium and large scale enterprises observed that despite the formulation of the East African Common Market protocol, elimination of laws, regulations and practices that hinder women access to finance assistance is still lacking.
The women traders have in a way to help address their challenges formed women groups united under the Women and Girls Empowerment project (WOGE), a cross border lobby advocacy group. Joyce Bwambale, the chairperson of one of the cross border women trade group association said: “A majority of the women operating along the borders have been empowered but more sensitization is needed.” Bwambale notes that although the regional governments have embraced regional integration through border crossing, a lot still needs to be done to ease free movement of people and goods. “As women cross border traders, we still face hurdles while crossing with our merchandise. Issues of clearance at the customs border point still dog the process,” she said in an interview.
Bwambale observes that despite the customs union and common market protocol, the borders in Rwanda, Mutukula and Katuna are always congested due to bureaucratic clearing procedures. “It is such procedures that force many cross border women to engage in smuggling tendencies,” she said. Uganda’s Trade and Cooperatives Minister Amelia Kyambadde says a lot has been done by the EAC states to address the issues of Non Tariff Barriers (NTBs) but the problem of empowering women to do effective trade is intensified by the multiple documentation processes that are often not standardized. “The EAC states still needs to do more to empower the women to benefit from the EAC common market protocol,” she said.
The officials seem to find merely bureaucratic answers to the situation of the cross border women traders. Meanwhile, the threats and dangers by border officials continue. Every day. Totally unbureaucratically.