The New Times Kigali James Karuhanga
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The East African Legislative Assembly (EALA) needs to expedite enactment of laws that foster gender equality, protection and development in the East African Community.

This was one of the key recommendations from the first ever national conference on the role of women in socio-economic development in EAC.

The event was held Wednesday in Kigali to mobilise women in EAC cross border trade to aggressively tap into opportunities provided by regional integration.

Elizabeth Ampairwe, the coordinator for women and girls’ empowerment at the Eastern African Sub-Regional Support Initiative for the Advancement of Women (EASSI), expressed concern regarding regional laws that she said are “gender blind” or do not address issues specific to women.

She noted that the EAC Gender Equality and Development Bill has been on table since 2008 without a law being enacted.

“The challenges of women still remain and they are unique, in a way. When we talk about non-tariff barriers, for example, you realise that the most affected are women,” Ampairwe said.

“The EAC came up with the non-tariff barriers Act but when you look at that act, it is still gender blind. It does not address the needs of women,” she added.

The EAC Elimination of Non-Tariff Barriers Bill was passed by EALA last year.

“We thought that this is an opportune time for us activists for gender equality to come in and highlight the gaps and we and call upon EAC countries to invoke implementation of this elimination of non-tariff barriers Act in a gender responsive way,” Ampairwe added.

The EAC trade policy, she said, needs to be informed by a thorough gender analysis that enables gaps to be filled effectively.

Land ownership

Last year, EASSI conducted a gender analysis of the EAC trade policy which highlighted similar challenges faced by women in the entire east African region.

“Women have the least capital, are more affected by non-tariff barriers, those with babies are not allowed to cross borders with their babies, and I am aware that this is also happening especially on the DR Congo border yet there are no facilities for day care services at the border.”

On land ownership, a crucial bank collateral requirement, Ampairwe noted that much as the situation is better in Rwanda, in other partner states, the percentage of women owning land is below 10 per cent.

“And that shows you how it is almost impossible for a woman to access a loan from a bank. The EAC Gender Equality and Development Bill is trying to address such issues,” she said.

The Bill has already gone through the first reading and will be up for the second reading when EALA sits early next year. Activists hope it will be passed before the current Assembly’s tenure expires in July 2017.

In the past, MP Nancy Abisai (Kenya), who proposed the draft law, said the Bill sought to consolidate and harmonise various commitments on gender equality made at regional, continental and international levels in EAC context.

Women in regional integration

Women constitute over 60 per cent of the EAC population and 52 per cent in Rwanda and, as such, officials are of the view that it is important to fully enable them participate in the EAC integration process.

“If we target women empowerment, in general, targets will be achieved. But if we target SMEs or women who are in big projects we remain far,” said Francine Uwera Havugimana, second vice chairperson at the Private Sector Federation (PSF).

“We need to offer equal, or even better, opportunities to business women as we stand as number one in promoting women empowerment.”

Martine Umubyeyi, chairperson of the African Women Entrepreneurs Programme (AWEP), as well liked the idea of EAC women entrepreneurs working hard to increase volume as well as quality produce for the regional market.

Umubyeyi said: “We need to think big and especially form cooperatives and produce for export. And, as a member of DUTERIMBERE, I call upon women to join voluntary savings and loans schemes where they save and lend money to each other.

“This helps women mobilise funds to start small businesses instead of opting for banks, where interest rates are high and remain a barrier. Own equity is the way to go.”

The women’s conference themed “Strengthening Women Participation in EAC Integration to Ensure Sustainable Socio-Economic Development” was organsed by the Ministry of Trade, Industry and EAC Affairs in collaboration with institutions such as the National Women’s Council, the Ministry of Gender and Family Promotion and Pro-Femme Twesehamwe.

Its objectives also included facilitating increased interaction, networking and exchange of business ideas among women in the EAC.