Zimbabwe Women Cross-boarder Traders
Zimbabwe, like other African countries accepted the World Bank/IMF Economic Structural Adjustment Programme, (ESAP), in 1990. One critique of ESAP has been its adverse effects on the vulnerable groups in the country, especially women. (Gibbon et al: 92) It heightened gender inequalities in relation to men and women’s paid and unpaid work, locking women in the lowest rung of the economic pyramid. (Brendel et al: 1993)
In Zimbabwe the situation is worsened by the current economic, social and political crisis. Women constitute only 27.3 5 of workers in the formal sector. 62.65 % are men. A few ordinary women in Zimbabwe own land and immovable assets which are a prerequisite for them to acquire business loans from banks, to sustain bigger and competitive business ventures. Owing to this, the informal sector has become favourable terrain for women to discover new survival strategies for re-gaining power lost through years of poverty and neglect by the state. They use the informal sector to raise money for food and children’s education, but also as a space to fight unfair laws, policies and cultural practices that deny them access to opportunity and resources.
Below I use herstory to highlight Zimbabwean women’s experiences in the informal sector to fight poverty as well as define suitable life trajectories for themselves.
Development of this paper is linked to my personal experiences living in Zimbabwe. In 2010 I became jobless owing to dwindling donor funds. My situation demanded lots of shape-shifting for survival. I joined the informal traders, crossing the border to buy various items for resale in Zimbabwe. Constant reflexivity as a feminist kept me aware of how struggles to merely put food on the table can divert one’s attention from major feminist struggles. I thus turned to researching and writing on women informal traders’ experiences in a manner that gives value to their struggles as an additional preoccupation.
I worked hard to build a relationship of trust with the women, to gain access into their domains. Slowly the women started to regard me as part of their community and opened up their personal experiences for this herstory.
Simbiso: My husband died of HIV/AIDS in 1992. He was unemployed and our resources got exhausted during his illness. I am HIV positive. After his death life became difficult in the village where I lived with my four children, who subsequently dropped out of school. Food was scarce, and getting assistance from my in-laws was on condition that I became a second wife to one of them.
I refused, and visited my sister in town to seek help. She introduced me to a women’s round table , paid the initial subscriptions for me, and gave me money to start a small business. I made profits and sent food to my children in the village. My in-laws banned me from visiting my children. My friends at the market told me that it was my right to have custody of my children. I took my children to town with the help of the police and Child Protection Society. When my turn for the round came I bought a bale of old clothes and expanded my business. I made good profits and joined women who went to Mozambique to fetch cheaper bales of second hand clothes for resale. At first it was tough because we did not have import licenses and had to evade border procedures. This did not help as corrupt police officers waylaid us and confiscated our goods demanding bribes. We contributed money, formed a partnership and got a group import licence. Now we can easily bring in our bales of clothes and take advantage of the increased rebate to reduce import duty.
I have five stalls where I sell from in this market, and I employ 4 helpers. In 1995 our group of women took action against the municipality regulations prohibiting individuals to book more than one stall. Now we can book stalls according to ability, and alongside men. I also joined WOZA in 2005, and took part in peaceful demonstrations against the municipality and the police who arrested us for selling in the informal market. Some even confiscated our goods. I joined the women’s housing co-operative, got a residential stand, and am building a six roomed house. I have a bank account, and all my children are in school. The eldest is in University.
I caught up with Loina in Johannesburg, at a place where Zimbabwean cross-border women lodge in a big single room, specially designed to accommodate foreign cross-border traders. The room accommodates 20 women, who pay an equivalent of USD2.00 each per day for lodging fees. There are bathrooms and toilets inside, and each woman has space equivalent to the size of a single bed to herself. There are cupboards to store food, kitchen utensils, clothes and business wares, and women take turns to cook from shared stoves.
The turning point for me was when I found my husband with a live in girlfriend in my matrimonial house. I was coming from one of my cross border trips. I tried to reason with my husband but each time I left there was a new story. My husband was unemployed, he was retrenched in 2000. I decided to leave him than contract HIV. I have lived in this place for 5 years now, and only go back home quarterly, to see my children and to fetch more wares for resale. I send groceries, school fees and clothes monthly and communicate with them over the phone.
The women have a house committee that regulates living and other issues. The rules are well articulated in a constitution and code of conduct. You get a copy of these on arrival, upon registration. New members can only be admitted on temporary basis, to replace the few women who would have travelled back home. Some of the rules are:
• No men inside the room
• visitors can only be entertained outside
• Respect of each other beliefs.
• No money in the room, all money to be banked after collection
• Doors close at 7pm
I booked myself into this residence for 5 days in order to observe the day to day activities of the women. Each individual leads a separate lifestyle of her choice, and has a separate timetable for business. Women vacate the room at 9am every day to go to different places where they sell their wares, and come back when doors reopen at 5pm. Security is provided by the owners of the building. The women have a self-imposed curfew, and make it a point to be indoors by 6pm, given the prevalence of rape and violence in Johannesburg. They prepare their supper between 5 and 8pm.
8 – 9pm is debate time, where they discuss issues of concern such as HIV/AIDS, rape and violence against women, the political and economic situation back home and share other survival and coping strategies. Saru and Mavis love beer, and will drink a few bottles each during the discussions. Mai Mutsa belongs to the apostolic sect and kneels in a seclude place each night after the discussions, before she goes to bed, to recite her prayers.
Every Sunday night there is a group meeting to discuss their projects. The women have formed a burial society and pay monthly contributions to cover themselves and their families back home against funeral expenses. They have also formed a savings group where members can borrow money and return it with interest monthly. Every month they contribute 500 rand, give 5 people ZAR1 500 each and bank 2 500 in the loans savings account. This is repeated monthly.
In conclusion, the informal sector has become space in which women build alliances to claim their identity, independent of any relationships to men.