Reflecting on past economic heroines

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Ruth Butaumocho African Agenda

When women participate in the economy, everyone benefits,” this quote from Hillary Clinton an American lawyer, politician and former United States first lady, affirms the crucial role that women play in the economy.

Hundreds of local female entrepreneurs that the country boasts of today, owe their current accomplishments to a conducive economic environment, supportive legislation and a solid foundation laid by thousands of semi-literate women, who plied their trade in neighbouring countries as “vendors”.

In their wisdom or lack of it, these women — who later acquired the moniker “Vakadzi veJubheki” — opened a floodgate of economic opportunities, which formed the need to formalise regional trade and avail openings with less hassles.

While their business modus operandi is long forgotten, Vakadzi VeJubheki remain the heroines of the female populace that now enjoys the benefits of local economic empowerment initiatives.

But how was the economic empowerment foundation for women laid?

Soon after Zimbabwe attained independence, a flurry of economic activities began to take shape.

Cities were abuzz with movements as some families relocated to urban areas in search of better livelihoods following years characterised by gunshots, hovering choppers and dealing with merciless Rhodesian forces.

Those who remained behind in the rural areas, were looking forward to reconstruction programmes to take place so that they could resume their lives on a clean slate.

The same era, witnessed an emerging trend of hundreds of women crossing into South African and neighbouring countries with goods for resale.

But South Africa proved to be a game-changer for most women armed with minimum or no education at all, but who were eager to change their economic fortunes.

Soon after independence, hundreds of women, mainly from urban areas immediately engaged in cross border trading to buy stocks for resale in South Africa.

With little or no disposable income to hinge their business on, the majority would spend weeks crocheting doilies, which they would take to South Africa along with other goods such as traditional clothing, cushions as well as dried foods, amacimbi or mufushwa wenyemba for resale.

However, before they could even think of crossing the border, obtaining the travelling visa was their greatest nightmare.

Prospective travellers would spend considerable time and resources applying and eventually obtaining a visa to enable them to cross the border and sell their wares in the Southern African countries.

Getting a visa meant criss-crossing from the southern suburbs to fulfil certain requirements that included visa application costs, proof of sufficient funding for shopping and adequate proof of accommodation.

That alone did not deter hundreds of women, who remained resolute to ply their trade in neighbouring countries albeit, under different conditions.

Having acquired the visa, some would spend weeks, and even months selling doilies even as far as Durban, where business was reportedly brisk.

It was no longer surprising to hear names of far-away places like Louis Trichardt, Bloemfontein, Grahamstown, Katima Mulilo, Selebi Phikwe, and Lobatse being dropped casually in conversations as women shared their economic experiences in foreign lands.

Suffice to say, these were no empty conversations, neither were they futile expeditions.

In no time, in residential areas, development began to take place, at household and in some instances community levels, as more women joined the “economic trek” down South. Buses with loads of electrical gadgets such as stoves and fridges became a regular feature along the Harare-Masvingo Road, with other transporters reporting brisk business.

Renovations on conventional four-roomed houses became a status symbol, in most high density suburbs, as cross border traders upgraded the standards of living in line with their newly acquired economic status.

Some parents could now afford to enrol their kids to former Group A schools, where standards of education were believed to be better than local schools.

After getting the foreign currency some of the women would shop for luxuries and other goods which were not yet available in the country, such as electrical gadgets and motor vehicle spares to resale back home.

The frequency of shopping trips and number of women who were now into cross-border trading increased in the 1990s as the demand for disposable incomes shot up. However, all those economic escapades by hundreds of women were not without their own setbacks.

Name calling, stereotypes and social exclusions were also heaped on this group of women migrant workers who were naturally miffed by such hostility back home and even in the foreign lands where they were eking a living.

In addition, many of these cross border traders also experienced routine harassment from police in some of the foreign lands and would even have their goods confiscated, only to return home empty handed.

Others were not so lucky and fell victim to sexual assaults by transporters and “Good Samaritans” who would have offered them a place to stay for a nominal fee.

Others who lost their lives in too many road accidents beyond the borders as their traversed the region in search of economic opportunities.

It is on the basis of such a foundation that the country has managed to build solid entrepreneurial initiatives and financial support systems to prop up women.

One of the financial support systems is the Zimbabwe Women Microfinance Bank which is expected to cater for the financial needs of women, who had been struggling to get loans due to lack of collateral, among other factors.

If properly monitored and regulated, the micro-finance bank could contribute immensely not only to women empowerment but also overall economic growth as what is currently happening in most Asian countries, where they have proved to be successful by giving loans to the poorest and the female populace.

They are doing this because they know that economically empowered women have spill over effects on the economy at large.

Women tend to invest more in education of the family across sexes, whilst tending to other needs such as clothing, food and even embarking on income generating products.

With limited education, hundreds of female cross-borders who plied their trade in the region between the 1980s and 1990s sustained households and sent their children to school with proceeds from selling doilies and craft.

As Zimbabweans introspect the on the four decade journey that the nation has traversed, it is important to note that the economic empowerment platforms that today women stand on are founded on the bedroom of such inspiring stories of yesteryear women who dared to dream and managed to attain greatness.

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