Risky business of informal cross border trade

Date: January 1, 1970
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You see them at every border crossing, in nearby towns, and every major urban centre. Informal traders who leave home and country determined to earn money by buying, and selling, an assortment of products ranging from food items to electronic appliances.

Although informal cross border traders contribute immensely to the Southern African region, particularly in terms of employment creation, economic upliftment of women, food security, regional economic trade and social integration, they are often invisible – unrecognised at home and harassed in the host country. More than half of informal traders in the world are now women, and yet women traders are especially vulnerable to harassment, abuse, and health risks – including HIV/AIDS.
The lives of these misunderstood informal cross border traders are the subject of “Back and Forth: Informal Cross Border Traders in Southern Africa” – a photo project and exhibit undertaken by the International Organization for Migration (IOM)’s Partnership on HIV and Mobility in Southern Africa (PHAMSA), in collaboration with the Market Photo Workshop’s Photojournalism and Documentary Photography Programme.
Over six-months, advanced photojournalism students, together with selected professional photographers from the region – Botswana, Mozambique, Namibia and Zimbabwe – traced and recorded the work and travels of informal cross border traders in the region.  The photographs document the lives of informal cross border traders in the region, focusing on their socio-economic conditions, particularly the factors of vulnerability, such as gender inequality, poor living and working conditions, separation from families, exploitation and discrimination, lack of access to health and other services.
To date no country in the region has a specific permit or visa for these entrepreneurs, and they do not benefit from preferential tariffs.  Furthermore, traders, particularly women, face risks of abuse, harassment, exploitation and are exposed to extreme vulnerability, not least of all vulnerability to HIV.
“Older women have traditionally been at the forefront of the informal cross-border trade. Now younger women have also joined the business,” notes photographer Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi.
Long waits and exhausting travel are the norms of the traders’ lives. Photographer Moshe Sekete captured a woman at the Musina train station who had just placed her luggage on the ground to rest when a voice emanating from the platform announced, “Hurry-up mama, the train is about to leave!” Sekete clicked the camera as the woman gathered her strength, grabbed her belongings and staggered on.
Traders often spend extended periods away from home in high HIV transmission areas, particularly cross border areas.  Here, those who command authority, such as border/customs officials, or those who possess economic resources, such as moneychangers or taxi drivers, may take advantage of the women. 
Transport and quality accommodation can also be a challenge for many traders who survive on meagre resources. Thus, transactional sexual relationships may arise between female traders and truck drivers in exchange for free transport or opportunity to sleep in the trucks.  Furthermore, some female traders end up sleeping in the open, again, exposing them to various vulnerabilities including sexual assault.
Moreover, in general, informal cross border traders have limited access to healthcare services, including HIV and AIDS interventions.  In most countries, foreigners pay a higher fee for public healthcare services, and thus informal cross border traders may be less inclined to seek treatment while traveling.
Few HIV and AIDS interventions are specifically for cross border traders, partially due to difficulties in actually targeting people constantly on the move. Traders are often preoccupied with survival needs, and may not be receptive to HIV and AIDS education and prevention messages.
In addition to the objective of raising awareness among stakeholders on the lives of informal cross border traders, the photography project also aimed to build capacity and increase awareness of the participating photographers on issues related to HIV, AIDS and migration.  The photographers first received preparatory sensitisation training by IOM on the issues. They then went out and traveled with informal cross border traders, informally interviewing them, and getting to know what their lives are like.
While many of us benefit from these traders, purchasing their many varied goods, few of us actually think about what life is like to spend so many days so far from home. There is a need for all people, and especially service agencies, to take into account this largely invisible population.  After all, we all know what it is like to be away from home, lonely and without support – so it is time that traders are able to access some of this support. 
Reiko Matsuyama is a Project Officer with the Partnership on HIV and Mobility in Southern Africa (PHAMSA) Programme of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) Pretoria. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service that provides fresh views on everyday news.

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