Building a regional network for women traders across borders in the Hindu Kush Himalaya

APN News, March 12, 2021

“Cross-border trade is an important source of income for many poor families, especially women in the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) region. Evidence shows that there is a cross-border exchange of goods as well as socio-cultural exchange across this region, which provides great potential for women traders to explore economic possibilities,” said Bipul Chatterjee, Executive Director, CUTS International.

He was moderating a webinar on “Bringing Mountain Women across Borders: A Case of Women Traders in the Hindu Kush Himalaya” organised jointly by CUTS International and theInternational Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD)

The webinar was organised to share the findings of a study conducted by CUTS in partnership with ICIMOD on how various shocks, including COVID-19, have impacted the lives of women traders and entrepreneurs in four transboundary landscapes of the HKH– Hindu Kush Karakoram Pamir Landscape, Kailash Sacred Landscape, KangchenjungaLandscape, and the Far Eastern Himalayan Landscape. More than 50 participants from these transboundary landscapes in Afghanistan, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, and Tajikistan participated in the webinar. 

In his opening remarks, Pema Gyamtsho, Director General, ICIMOD observed that informal trade in these transboundary landscapes is mostly carried out by women but they face challenges in customs clearance and poor storage and transportation facilities. He said that women’s participation in economic activities should not be limited to trade alone but expanded to include tourism as well,which can be enabled through joint ventures or partnership arrangements. “The HKH region is rich in art, culture and biodiversity,and so the exchange of products and ideas can provide an enabling environment for women’s participation in cross-border trade. This can be facilitated through the simplification of rules and regulations to make cross-border trade profitable for women entrepreneurs and traders,” he added.

Janita Gurung, Programme Coordinator, Kailash Sacred Landscape, ICIMOD shared the objectives of the webinar and said that women have a strong motive to engage in trade but need an enabling environment.

Veena Vidyadharan, Fellow at CUTS International presented the findings of the study and highlighted major external shocks that affect business activities of women – seasonal nature of business, extreme events and natural disasters, geopolitical tensions, poor transportation, and the recent pandemic. She recommended capacity building of women entrepreneurs and traders for promoting niche products such as chiuri ghee (from the Indian butter tree), large cardamom, beeswax, sea buckthorn, and scorpion grass, and local art and handicrafts such as Aipan art and handmade carpets.

The actionable points that emerged from the discussions included creating a regional network of like-minded women traders, digital platforms for specific products, product-specific clusters, and setting up business incubation centres.

Women entrepreneurs from the four transboundary landscapes also shared their experiences in trade before and after the COVID-19 pandemic.  On the issue of gender, trade and COVID-19, it was observed that women traders who were reliant on exhibitions and trade fairs faced many challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic. One entrepreneur said that while some government initiatives have facilitated trade, for example through financial relief, simplification of tariffs and business processes, they were not sufficient.

Moderating this session, Kamala Gurung, Gender and Natural Resource Management Specialist at ICIMOD noted the potential for use of online platforms and digital marketing channels. She said that these platforms have helped women entrepreneurs and traders sustain and expand their business in the post-pandemic situation.

Mozammil Shinwari, Executive Director, Organization for Economic Studies and Peace,Afghanistan pointed out that border markets are extremely important for mountain communities. “We have to look at border markets not only from an economic perspective but also from a social perspective, as border markets can engage local people in economic activities and at the same time meet their demand for food and daily requirements,” he said.

Kunzang Lhamu, Director General, Department of Employment and Human Resources, Ministry of Labour and Human Resources, Royal Government of Bhutan underlined the need to create an enabling environment for women through safety measures, easing the unpaid care work responsibilities, having parental/maternity support, and child care arrangements at workplaces in all sectors.

Reeta Simha, President, Federation of Women Entrepreneurs Associations of Nepal and Executive Member and Chairperson of Women Entrepreneurs Development Committee, FNCCI and Pankaj Tewari, Executive Director, Aarohi, Uttarakhand, underlined the need for access to finance, easy and timely availability of information, and capacity building of women traders. 

While acknowledging the contributions of CUTS and participants, Chanda Gurung Goodrich, Senior Gender Specialist at ICIMOD concluded by saying that women were the hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, discriminatory trade and industrial rules, and biased business practices. There is a need to focus on enhancing capacity in digital technology and risk management to build their resilience.

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