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“LEGAL AID CLINICS” helps Rwandan Cross-border Trade Women recover their confiscated goods in Bukavu/DRC

Borders between DRC and Rwanda are among the busiest in the world in terms of informal cross-border trade. It is reported that about 50,000 small traders cross the Petite Barrière border post between Rubavu and Goma to trade foodstuff and basic services on a daily basis. During the EWICBT Project Phase I (December 2019 to 31 March 2023), Initiatives for Peace and Human Rights (iPeace) and Pro-Femmes /Twese Hamwe (PFTH) established 8 legal aid clinics and operationalized on both sides of the border (Petite Barriere, Rusizi I, Rusizi II and Bugarama) in Rwanda and (Petite Barriere, Ruzizi I, Ruzizi II and Kamanyola) in DRC, where Women Informal Cross Border Traders are able to present their complaints for immediate follow up. A total of 2,000 women who permanently rely on informal cross-border trade were supported in the legal aid clinics. All of these women have been involved in informal cross-border trade for 2 years at least with a capital of less than 50$. Every day, when they cross the border on both directions to buy or sell goods, these women face various challenges including payment of illegal taxes, sexual and gender-based violence, harassment, arbitrary arrests, confiscation of their goods, etc.

This was the case of Marie-Rose Mukambakuriyemo and Adela Nyirasinayobye, two Rwandan women selected by their cooperative “Indashikirwa” to sell their members’ chickens in one of Bukavu’s markets. They crossed the Ruzizi-1 border on 18 December 2020 with 46 chickens worth about 460$. When they arrived at the market, Mr. Takis, a representative of a Bukavu-based association of poultry sellers, denied them from entering the market and confiscated all their chickens. He alleged that, as foreigners, Rwandan women are not allowed to do retail business in DRC. They are supposed to sell in gross to their Congolese counterparts who are allowed to retail in local markets.

Fortunately, Marie-Rose and Adela had just attended a workshop organized by Pro-Femmes for leaders of women informal cross-border traders’ cooperatives a couple of days before. During the workshop, Adela and other women were informed about the Legal Aid Clinics set up in the framework of ‘Empowering Women in Informal Cross-Border Trade in the Great Lakes Region’ (EWICBT)

Project on both sides of the DRC/Rwanda border to provide free and quick support to women cross-border traders who are victims illegal and unfair treatments during their business. So, they immediately contacted Pro-Femmes/Twese Hamwe to complain about what had happened. Without delay, Pro-Femmes/Twese Hamwe referred them to iPeace’s legal aid Clinic positioned a few meters from the Ruzizi-1 border post. After listening and ascertaining the soundness of the claim of Marie Rose and Adela, iPeace legal officer invited Mr. Takis to tell his version of the story. After long discussions and involvement of a Congolese border official, Mr. Takis was requested to return all the 46 chickens to Marie-Rose and Adela. He was also reminded that his status as the president of a local association does not give him power to deny access to the market to other people nor to confiscate their goods. In case of any claim or concern, he should refer to competent authorities.

Almost every day when we cross to DRC, we expect to face some kind of harassment either from local authorities, police, border officials, or our fellow traders. Since the COVID-19 outbreak, the confiscation of goods by the heads of various associations has become frequent. As foreigners, we don’t know where to take our claim, and some of us do not even speak Kiswahili. That is why we end up paying a lot of money to get through. I am happy that this time I was able to recover all my goods swiftly and without paying a single dollar”, said Marie Rose, after she sold her, returned chickens. “I would like to thank iPeace and Pro-Femmes for establishing their offices next to the border. The fact that some of their staff in DRC understand Kinyarwanda made it easier for me to clearly explain the issue. I have been crossing the border for many years, it is the first time I am able to talk to an official without being humiliated. Usually, when you take the risk to complain to Congolese authorities, it takes long before your case is solved and you must pay a lot of money – sometimes above the value of the disputed goods – before your claim is settled. For that reason, most of us give up on our confiscated goods to return home. Now that I know there are people to help us quickly and for free, I feel like my confidence in pursuing my business has increased.” added Adela. In the DRC, the multiplicity of services at border posts blurs the system and puts women, cross-border traders, at the mercy of shady people, including public servants.

Marie-Rose and Adela are among the women in informal cross-border trade and their husbands who are direct beneficiaries of the EWICBT project funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in order to improve safety, security and enabling environment for cross-border trade while increasing income and social economic welfare of women who do informal cross-border trade between DRC and Rwanda. The comparative advantage of this project consists in the simultaneous implementation of identical activities on both sides of the RDC/Rwanda borders, which allows women from each of the two countries to be equally protected when they cross the border to conduct their trade activities. This project’s activities are implemented by Pro-Femmes/Twese Hamwe in Rwanda and iPeace in DRC through 30 June 2022.