Making Life Better for Women Traders in the Democratic Republic of Congo

On either side of the rust-colored mud road, hills green with abundance climb to the horizon. Far from the border, the crisp morning quiet is fragile. A woman with a basket balanced on her head hurried towards the border separating the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) from Rwanda. She knows how hard finding a spot in the bustling market will be if she is late. Despite the challenges–the heavy loads they carry on their backs and heads, the threats of sexual violence, and harassment from unscrupulous border guards–she needs to get the border market to trade her eggs for what her family needs. 

The DRC is a place rife with contradictions. Despite being one of the most resource-rich nations, it is also among the five poorest. Six out of ten people live on less than $2.15 daily, many in extreme poverty. The DRC’s twin monikers of “the rape capital of the world” and “the world capital of sisterhood and solidarity” thread its violent past to its possible future. We’re working to ensure women thrive in the DRC with projects to increase the social and economic empowerment of women traders in East Africa.

The Importance of Cross-Border Trade in Eastern DRC

Much of the trade occurring at border crossings between the DRC and Rwanda and between the DRC and Burundi is small-scale trading. Over 80% of the traders are women, who usually walk five to ten kilometers with their products nestled in baskets on their heads. They travel to land border checkpoints, unofficial crossing points, or to border markets to sell their products and buy what they need. One out of three people in eastern DRC are food insecure, making cross-border trade a lifeline for families. 

Women traders selling the same products sometimes have tension with one another. Photo by our local partners.

Barriers to Cross-Border Trade

There is a lot of tension between women traders and border officials. Because there is a need for more information concerning trade laws and procedures and contradictory regulations, many women traders, in good faith, do not pay taxes or duties. The information that is available may not be available in the local languages spoken by the women traders on either side of a border. In the gray area of confusion and corruption, some border officials charge women traders informal fines. The border officials may prohibit them from trading, or confiscate their goods. 

Women suffer violence at the hands of border officials. Many are verbally abused, intimidated, or harassed. Corrupt officials extort them under the guise of not following the law. They may be spat on or physically assaulted when they cross borders. Some are blackmailed for sexual favors, inappropriately searched, groped, molested, or raped. Some officials confiscate the traders’ goods and then force the women to consent to being raped to get them back.

Women traders also have tension with one another. Past acts of brutality committed by Rwanda-backed armed groups in the DRC, as well as the DRC government’s alleged complicity with the groups responsible for the Rwandan genocide, have made women traders from both countries mutually suspicious of each other. Also, women who produce the same products might view one another as their competitors. 

Despite inter-country political tensions, people came together to attend our cross-border trade festival, featured in the local news last December. Photo by our local partners.

How the Common Ground Approach Empowers Women Traders

Using our Common Ground Approach we invite leaders from every dividing line in conflict to find a common goal they all want to accomplish. We encourage these community leaders to reach this goal by working together. Because trust and cooperation exist in a virtuous circle, as people in conflict work together, they learn to trust each other more, which leads to further collaboration and less conflict.

We invited border officials and traders to come together and attend conflict resolution training, which included the Common Ground Approach. Women traders also received training in financial literacy and trade regulations so they would know what kind of documents they need to present to border officials and which taxes to pay. Over 5,000 women traders have increased their financial knowledge. With their newly learned financial literacy, women traders were able to expand their businesses. Of women traders surveyed, 57% felt they had increased their trade value due to our programming.

To reduce friction between traders, we held community walks where traders from either side of the border would walk together and clean the market, improving health in the local communities. Women were also invited into resource centers where they could report a border crossing problem or a problem with another trader to get it resolved. The centers also offer support to women who have suffered sexual violence. 

Women traders meet at our cross-border trader festival despite inter-country political tensions. Photo by our local partner.

Hate speech spread through the media amplifies the tensions existing between the DRC and Rwanda. To mitigate polarization, we’ve organized trade fairs for Congolese and Rwandan women traders because trade is a point of connection and an opportunity to collaborate. The trade fairs offer the women traders a safe space where they can gather, show off their products, and discuss the challenges they face, sharing strategies to overcome them.

Border officials received training in gender-based violence prevention and harassment. Women traders received training in how to refuse advances, the importance of denouncing perpetrators, and how to report acts of gender-based violence. Concurrently, we ran radio campaigns to raise the general public’s awareness about the problems women traders face at border crossings. With our training sessions, we’ve reached approximately 15,000 women and border officials.

It’s tempting to dismiss the power of investing in relationships to address real world violence, but our work with the women traders in the DRC tells a different story. Of the women traders who participated in the cross border trade associations, 85% felt a decrease in gender-based violence and harassment at the border, and 75% felt safer. Their businesses, too, profited from our work: 57% felt their trade more profitable. Our advocacy work reverberated throughout the province when the Prime Minister decided to waive taxes on basic food items for these female traders, meaning they had more money to better take care of their families and themselves. The best part? We made this impact by supporting 21,000 traders at a cost of $50 per trader.

The poorest countries are where women are most put down. But when women are economically empowered, their children eat better and stay in school longer. Child marriage declines while female agency increases. If a woman’s life changes, so does her family’s. When enough families improve their lives, a community emerges and eventually a nation. By changing norms that denigrate women, we are creating a world where everyone rises.