Insecurity is experienced as a constant of daily life in the Great Lakes region of Africa, especially in the borderland area between the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda. Congolese and Rwandan women face many risks through a complex intermeshing of economic hardship, crime, and gendered violence, while at the same time maneuvering and resisting structures of power. In a region disrupted by decades of conflict and the subsequent decline of economic opportunities, cross-border trade conducted by women is instrumental in securing the lives and livelihoods of women and their families. Using multi-sited, mixed methods research on the Congo-Rwanda border, I examine the daily strategies, mobility patterns, and social networks of women cross-border traders. My research finds that through this trade, women have become primary earners and taken up new responsibilities previously reserved for men, shifting culturally salient gender roles.
The importance of cross-border trade in supporting job creation, food security, and women’s empowerment is widely recognized by scholars and policymakers alike. However, studies on cross-border trade have neglected a critical area of contribution by women traders. Women’s cross-border trade facilitates the supply and delivery of goods and services across Sub-Saharan Africa. Importantly, women traders have cultivated important social safety nets in the absence of social protection mechanisms and institutional support systems. Emerging crises like the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the importance of strengthening social safety nets that safeguard inclusive access to basic goods and services, especially in areas underserved by government systems. Through a mobile ethnography, my dissertation demonstrates how women traders have been at the forefront of food and service provision providing for the needs and welfare of their families and communities and developed important social safety nets to prevent and mitigate risks. This dissertation highlights the essential role women play in service provision, risk-mitigation, and socioeconomic development in situations affected by conflict and insecurity. Drawing on the political economy of everyday life in insecurity, I contribute to a new direction in anthropological research—one that gives critical import to issues of power, inequality, and violence by critically analyzing the social and economic processes of everyday praxis in the midst of social change.