BFF, Women Beyond Borders Narrate Ordeal of Cross-border Trade, Rights Violations to UN Human Rights Boss

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A high-powered delegation of Indigenous Inter-state Women Traders, on August 8, 2020, paid a courtesy call on the Country Representative of the United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Human Rights in Liberia, Dr. Uchenna Emelonye, at the UN House in Sinkor, Monrovia.

During the visit, the women delegation, which was accompanied to the Office of the UN Representative by the Founder/ President of the Better Future Foundation (BFF), Augustine Arkoi, flagged a number of challenges they encounter in their effort to promote and expand cross-border trade and commerce not only in the Mano River Union (MRU) basin but also the region of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

Among the problems highlighted by the women traders are exorbitant taxation, harassment and intimidation by some border security personnel, and skyrocketing rental fees for warehouses being charged by unprincipled storage owners among others.

The affected aggrieved market women, numbering over 6,000 further disclosed that some unscrupulous elements within the formal financial systems in the MRU/ECOWAS sub-regions are taking advantage of the high illiteracy rate among indigenous cross-border market women by exploiting them during financial transactions, including loan processing, auction of Liberian and United States Dollars and during cheque withdrawals from commercial banking institutions.

The women delegation also revealed to the UN Human Rights Representative that they pay nearly US$9,000 per annual to owners of warehouses such as two-door store, and that they spend nearly US$200,000 on rent annually for 24 stores they currently occupy in Monrovia, Liberia.

The situation, the women traders said, is not only undermining their successful business operations but serves as a major source of discouragement and impediment for many indigenous women traders in Liberia and other countries in the MRU/ECOWAS regions.

Earlier, BFF President, Augustine Arkoi, who coordinated the women’s courtesy visit to the UN Office, under the BFF women’s Leadership and Socio-economic Development program, styled: “Women Beyond Borders (WBB),” noted that members of the delegation were WBB executives and longtime inter-state traders within the Economic Community of West African Countries (ECOWAS) and beyond.

Mr. Arkoi gave a brief history of BFF’s relationship with the cross-border women traders, dating back from 2011, when BFF entered in a “Call For Proposals” for non-state actors’ participation in the regional integration process in West Africa and won a grant from the European Commission, through ECOWAS Commission as the contracting party, under the 9th European Development Fund.

At the time, he said, BFF implemented the project to raise awareness among 597 inter-state women and 272 state border law enforcement agents in 13 counties of Liberia, aimed at achieving regional customs union and common market within ECOWAS.

The BFF President summarized the cases presented by the WBB executives as bordering on food chain security, human livelihood, gender-based violence, women’s rights and empowerment.

“Right now, the most urgent need for these marginalized underprivileged market women is storage; and possible Covid-19 awareness in Red-light and other local markets,” Mr. Arkoi told the United Nations round table in Monrovia.

At the occasion, some of the delegates shared their individual experiences as it relates to cross border-trade and commerce in the MRU/ECOWAS sub-region.

Taking the stance, WBB Acting President, Mrs. Sangay Dulleh Dunbar, lauded the UN Human Rights Representative for hosting the delegation. She said the opportunity for them, as indigenous market women to be hosted at the UN office was a major and historic recognition.

She noted that since 1990 during Liberia’s civil war that ended in 2003, cross-borders women traders have been playing critical role in sustaining the region’s food-supply chain.

“Even during the war, we went to neighboring countries and brought food for everyone in Liberia,” Sangay said.

“We travel to Mali and Cote d’Ivoire to buy bags of ground nuts and pay 4% customs at the borders, and yet when we arrive at Liberian borders and check points along the highway, some border security people take money from us again,” she added.

“I have been using banks for many years. I participated in the CBL- US-Liberian dollar auctions for 10 years and I saved with banks and took loans. But, the banking system in Liberia let me down, because some of the people in the banks duped me, and I lost all of my money.

“Right now, I am looking for money to re-start my business. We need a fund pool and our own storage for our goods. To get micro loans, it needs collateral and goes with high interests.  We pay USD8, 800.00 per year to a Lebanese for a two-door store. He has taken us to court several times because of payment default. Please help us,” Sangay begged the UN Office in Monrovia.

Commenting on the situation, the Acting WBB Treasurer, Mrs. Mama Sulonkemelee said inter-state women face many challenges. “Our biggest challenge now is lack of storage to store our goods,” Mama said.

According to her, law enforcement agents or security personnel, at times hold their goods for days before releasing the goods to them (market women).

“In fact, 10 days ago, trucks with our goods were arrested and impounded at LRA (Liberia Revenue Authority at ELWA Junction for days until BFF intervened and the goods were later released,” she noted.

Mama further informed the UN Human Rights Office that at the new Omega Market in Paynesville, several market women have paid for table spaces, plots and shops, but recently in a meeting with the Mayor of Paynesville City Corporation “the government is saying it is not aware of our payments.”

Another WBB executive, Mrs. Gayduo Ballaseneh, cited a case recently when, without prior information, police and taskforce team arrived abruptly where they sell and destroyed their tables and goods, although they, (marketers) paid for the spaces on which they sell in Redlight Market.”

Responding to the appeal of the indigenous and cross-border women traders to the UN, the Deputy Country Representative, Dr. Sonny Onyegbula, lauded the women for expressing their collective and individual concerns as it relates to their business activities.

“We have heard what you said. The UN Human Rights office is here to protect and save lives of all Liberians,” Mr. Onyegbula indicated.

He used the occasion to outline that his office works with the Government of Liberia (GoL) to ensure compliance with its human rights protocols and obligations.

“We also work with the Independent National Commission on Human Rights (INCHR), the Legislature, and others. A women organization like WBB is of interest to us; when women know their rights, they will demand for them. We will be willing to collaborate with you, especially in the area of capacity building of human rights,” Dr. Onyegbula added.

Finally, in his response to the concerns of the aggrieved cross-border market women, the Country Representative of UN Human Rights Office in Liberia, Dr. Uchenna Emelonye said the UN was delighted for the courtesy visit of the women.

“Today we have hit two firsts: This is the first time we are meeting in person with an outside group here since the COVID-19 lockdown. This is also the first time we are directly listening to, and dealing with an informal group on human rights concerns,” he added.

“Right to food is basic. Thank you Mr. Augustine Arkoi for the support the BFF is providing for women traders,” the UN Chief pointed out.

According to the UN Human Rights Representative, the BFF needs an award “for down-stream human rights work! People break laws because they go away with it. To deter this, we need accountability for proven wrongdoing.”

He further told the aggrieved market women, “My first pledge to you is a contact point, next time contact us, the UN. When we show up where you have a problem, anyone will know you have a big backup. And we will see to it that the problem is resolved the right way,” the UN Human Rights Chief stressed.

“Secondly, concerning some of the issues such as food chain problems, security and others, we will take them to the right UN agencies, like UN Food and Agricultural Organization for food security and UN Women for women’s empowerment.

“I will ask our Technical Team to work on this and we will revert to BFF in due course,” the OHCHR Country Representative, Dr. Uchenna Emelonyene concluded.

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