Women Without Borders Informal Cross-Border Trade among Women in the Southern African Development Community Region (SADC)
The women whose story is told in this book are those who conducted trade in at least one of the SADC countries during the 2002 period. Informal cross-border women’s activities, their perceptions, hopes and investment strategies, and in many instances, the constraints imposed by official policies on their activities are examined. The book is about how the women managed to capture the cross-border market niche, and how they had successfully appropriated that market niche to their advantage. How and where women traders source their merchandise, and how they access markets and strategise for success is discussed. The way the women cross-border traders are developing informal trading networks based on new ties and connections far away from home is also discussed. An in-depth study of a purposively selected group of Zimbabwean women traders based in Harare, the capital city, and Chinhoyi, a provincial city, was the focal point for the study, which had a regional emphasis.
2. A Summary of Findings
Over the past two decades Zimbabwean informal cross-border trade had become a strategy that enabled some previously poor women and not so well off people to climb out of poverty. It had become an avenue that enabled many women to support themselves and their families. It was through this highly gendered cross-border trade that many women in the study were able to fulfil their domestic responsibilities. Women cross-border traders strategise for success and seek to maximise returns from their investment in the cross-border market niche. Most cross-border women traders adopted a multiplicity of strategies in order to boost their income earning capacity. The women embraced strategies that enabled them not only to cope with poverty but, in many ways, to escape, invest and climb out of poverty. The concern for the women traders was survival in an economy where nothing is free.
The life style of many of the cross-border traders showed clearly that the urban family, based on increasing nuclear family relations, was breaking up as most of these women’s marriages revealed new patterns of commuter type of marriages. In many instances cross-border trade meant being away from the family on extended periods each month. A new family form, notably the commuter household, was emerging as the dominant family form for this group of women. Some of the women observed “mukuwasha tikagara takatarisana pamba tinodyana here?” (If we stay at home just enjoying each other’s company, will that bring us food?). The commuter household emerged as part of the women cross-border traders’ coping and survival mechanisms.
Success in cross-border trade depended on the development of interpersonal trans-border business connections. Cross-border traders were truly cosmopolitan people who had imbibed regional and international cultures and languages to enable them survive, and maximise returns in their cross-border operations. Every woman cross-border trader had learnt, no matter how rudimentary, a foreign language in the country where they did cross-border operations. Language was then used as a tool that enabled the women access markets and customers.
Non-kin and sometimes kin network connections were activated and found useful in cross-border trade. Cross-border traders were developing business relationships through a vast network of clients that straddled the Southern African region. In many ways their 'trans-border culture' transcended ethnic and gender differences. The ability to network was the single most important strategic resource behind the success of cross-border traders. Networking and social networks functioned as a major resource that enabled the women traders to maximise their urban coping and investment strategies. Non-kin (particularly friendship) networks became more pronounced and their utility was acknowledged as something enabling many to cope, under the hard times of the economic structural adjustment programme (ESAP).
Many women traders were involved in credit-and savings groups. Three quarters of women in the study participated in rotating credit and savings groups. Those who participated in marounds savings and credit unions were getting empowered economically. In the absence of State welfare benefits and aid, credit unions functioned as social support systems and an aid as far as domestic savings are concerned. Contrary to assumptions that voluntary associations such as marounds were adaptive, transitional and temporary, these credit and savings groups appeared to be a part of the long-term, enduring strategies by urban women to aid themselves in their struggles for a livelihood. The credit savings groups also illustrated the usefulness of social networks as an aid to urban survival.
Diverse product mixes also characterised the cross-border market niche. The women sourced their wares from a multiplicity of sources. Cross-border traders sold a wide range of products that were in demand outside Zimbabwe. In many ways women cross-border traders had to devise ways and means to minimise official constraints, and sometimes harassment, to succeed. A major survival strategy adopted by women cross-border traders, particularly at border posts, was the ability to create the impression that they were going along with official policy and demands when in fact they acted differently, contrary to officially sanctioned ways.
Cross-border traders also demonstrated the interconnections that existed between formal and informal sector operators. In some ways these interconnections blurred the distinctions between the different sector operations. For example, there were cases where cross-border traders had opened up mupedzanhamo (second hand clothing markets) shops and were employing labour that was remunerated on a regular monthly basis. Putting-out work for a commission followed the lines of established formal sector businesses.
Entry into the informal cross-border sector was hard, although it was a market niche that had been captured by women and was still beyond the reach of the patriarchal state and men. The amount of money required as start-up capital in order to enable one entry into cross-border trade was becoming a deterrent. More that Z$80 000 was needed as start up capital. Due to increasing competition, it was becoming harder for newcomers to join and start operating at a profit. Lucrative areas, such as informal cross-border trade, required an ever-inflating amount of capital to start-up operations. The idea that the informal sector is a sector of last resort and transitory was clearly disproved; there were women who had been cross-border traders for more than twenty years.
Women cross-border traders had no apparent interest in organised Party politics. Yet despite their apolitical nature, they had learnt how to deal with politicians, bureaucrats and generally officialdom. They did strategise politically and in some ways exercised deliberate withdrawal from active political participation as a political statement that marked their rejection of and lack of confidence in organised politics. They showed a total lack of trust of officialdom and a determination to source a living through their own hard work. Lack of active involvement in party politics enabled cross-border women traders to escape the long reach of the Party and the State and freed the women, thereby enabling them to go about sourcing a living for themselves and their households.
The range of activities, obstacles, merchandise, sources of goods, and income flows, are issues discussed in the book. Women traders contributed to the growth of the SADC region’s economy. The women’s trading operations demonstrate existing linkages within the SADC region and hence the need to build up on these synergies as a basis for creating a buoyant regional economy. The region’s history of much talk and little action is demonstrated by the non-observance of SADC protocols intended to enhance the free movement of goods and people.
Cross-border traders did not shy away from taking risks. It was because of the women traders’ innovativeness and resourcefulness that many were able to maintain a firm foot in the urban economy. Whilst there was an emphasis on reciprocity, especially with kin and friends, the situation of cross-border women traders both those in the coping and climbing-out-of-poverty categories, showed that as one extricated oneself from poverty, there was a tendency to minimise but not to cut off completely kin. However, there was a tendency to invest more in non-kin network connections rather than get tied down by kin obligations.
Success in cross-border trade and other related activities such as mupedzanhamo shops, hairdressing activities and even prostitution and putting-out work, could be traced directly to hard economic times. Hence, whilst it should be acknowledged that ESAP has been disastrous for both men and women, ESAP's effects seem to have been more pronounced on that group of men who traditionally depended on formal sector jobs. The same cannot be said as far as women are concerned, as they had traditionally been marginalized from participation in formal sector jobs. Women's energies and efforts as collectivities and as individuals have been harnessed through informal cross-border trade in order to meet the challenges of depressed economic times. Unlike men who were least prepared to handle the demands of the informal sector's low-return jobs, women who for a long time had worked in this sector have become more visible under hard economic times. ESAP might have the long-term benefit of raising the status of women as breadwinners and increasing their self-worth. These developments, of course are the unintended benefits of ESAP. It has never been the intention of policy-makers to empower women through ESAP; but from observations based on the one-year study, it appeared to be the case that the patriarchal state might not be able to reverse such empowerment. One is driven to the conclusion that ESAP is not the only cause of poor women's plight; in fact, not withstanding its general negative effects, ESAP has unintentionally benefited some town women in some instances.
Two noteworthy observations on which this book is based also emerge from the study. In the first instance, a positive picture is presented of informal cross-border women traders battling it out against heavy odds due to unsympathetic bureaucracies such as immigration, customs officials, police and even husbands. These informal cross-border women traders eat, travel, and sleep ‘rough’ but in the process they become ‘varume pachavo’. They build up a customer base in far away countries such as Lesotho, Namibia, Tanzania and Mauritius and distant cities like Arusha, Nairobi and Windhoek. The women cross-border traders invest in their children’s education, health and property. They become the envy of their communities. This first picture is an optimistic one and places value in cross-border trade as the one strategy that promises high returns for one’s efforts.
However the book presents a second picture of cross-border trade that is not overly rosy. The second picture is that cross-border trade can be difficult, and in some instances a hazardous enterprise. Cross-border trade involves prolonged absence from home and might cause marital stress. The roads are dangerous, especially the Beitbridge and Maseru stretches that have claimed many lives. There is constant harassment of the traders by the police and other law-enforcement agencies especially in Botswana and South Africa. Women cross-border traders sometimes have to bribe custom and immigration officials, and police. They also sometimes smuggle in products in situations where they cannot under declare them. In some other instances younger cross-border women traders end up engaging in mapoto temporary liaisons with Tanzanian males in return for accommodation. Since 2002, while cross-border traders still take out goods for sale in other countries, they were bringing back fewer goods or nothing for resale back in Zimbabwe. This was due to the deepening economic crisis and a shrinking market except for foreign currency exchanges in the parallel market. The study showed that there were inherent problems and limitations in cross-border trade as presently constituted. The major challenge of the book has been to balance the optimistic view and the dreary aspects of cross-border trade. The returns from cross-border trade, the volume of trade and other positive trade offs flowing from cross-border trade as discussed in the book do show that on balance cross-border trade is the one strategy that can set off a trader on the road to prosperity. Cross-border trade is a strategy many use to climb out of poverty.
The situation of cross-border women traders demonstrated the futility of all attempts to classify cross-border trade as either a formal or informal sector activity. Cross-border traders’ activities are steeped in both sectors as shown by the varied forms, sources and beneficiaries of cross-border trade. The cross-border market niche is a very vibrant and dynamic sector of the economy. Even if one conceded that cross-border trade operates at the fringes of informal sector activities, the sector is nevertheless not marginal.
How the women traders struggled to survive and cope with household survival as well as climb out of poverty are the central concerns of this book. As Chambers (1997:175) observed “again and again poor people show tenacity and self-sacrifice”. It is generally the laws, policies and administrative procedures that act as constraints when it comes to cross-border trade. Many cross-border traders conform to Chambers’ (1997:163) observation that “the livelihoods of most poor people are diverse and often complex”. The women were broadening their livelihoods options to ensure that in the event of faltering of cross-border operations they will be able to survive. Many of the successful women traders at the point of entry into cross-border trade were not that well off; they could be described as strugglers as far as household survival is concerned and yet they went on to become reasonably successful.
The book’s findings lead to the conclusion that the female marginalization thesis is of limited relevance to understanding the situation of women cross-border traders such as those studied in Harare and Chinhoyi. The increasing visibility of women in the cross-border market and opening up of gaps that enabled women to live in town also ensured that the country experienced political stability; for, rather than running around fomenting revolution, women cross-border traders took on the responsibility to feed their families as men lost their jobs. In the process, the potentially explosive political situation generated by economic melt down has been diffused by the economic ingenuity of women. ZANU-PF and the Government, instead of harassing entrepreneurial women, such as cross-border traders, should be quite grateful for their resolve to rid themselves of dependency on government by fending for themselves.
4. Policy Reforms and Recommendations
Many studies have shown that informal networks independent of the state are better able to respond to the needs of individual members (Burman and Lembete 1996; Cheater 1998; Long 2001; Muzvidziwa 1998; Rogers and Vertovec 1995). It is therefore imperative to institute measures that reduce the long reach of the state over the citizens, including cross-border women traders. Women’s exclusion in terms of effective participation in the national and regional economy needs to be addressed. The gendered nature of the Zimbabwean state's indigenisation programme must be addressed. Credit policy options could be better informed by experiences of informal credit arrangements, such as marounds credit and savings groups, which are more effective in honouring debt, compared to formal sector credit arrangements.
An area that requires attention in order to boost cross-border trade is that of coming up with tax incentives. These concessionary taxes extended to exporters should be extended to cross-border traders as well. Reduced customs duties by government, as suggested by the women, would be a strategy worthwhile and a sign of recognition of informal cross-border trade as a major income generating as well as, in many instances, job creating enterprise.
The legal framework is another major area constraints of which negatively impacts on women informal traders’ viability. Progressive laws, such as the Matrimonial Causes Act and regulations regarding maintenance, had meant access for a minority of women to resources they would otherwise have not accessed before these laws were passed. In the study sample, widows, due to the new laws, had managed to succeed to their husbands' titles in the case of their urban homes. It is suggested that what is urgently required is legal reform that would seek to harmonise existing laws relating to inheritance, ownership and control of property, marriage laws, etc. Currently, the family law, as a whole, is exempted from Constitutional regulation. This renders some women's rights unenforceable at law and leaves women open to abuse due to inadequate legal protections.
There still exist in the business sector, especially in the area of imports and exports sectors of the economy, an array of laws that in the main are discriminatory, anti-poor and gender-biased. Given the conflict between the laws meant to benefit women socially and economically, legal reform leading to the formulation of anti-poverty laws, based on public debate, is urgently needed in Zimbabwe. Sufficient backing should be given to existing laws to make their enforcement easier and accessible to women. This may require the appointment of women officers at various levels and in different Ministries to enforce the implementation of such laws. More women should be appointed to key decision-making areas in the governments and local authorities in SADC. Such developments are likely to lead to greater participation of women in regional economies, and lessen the intensification of violence and harassment directed at entrepreneurial women such as cross-border traders. However, legal provisions alone are not enough in the absence of sufficient safeguards to ensure that women's access to resources is guaranteed and their rights are respected. Public education is needed within the SADC region on women's legal rights in terms of freedom to move, participate in the region’s economy and gain unlimited access to property rights. There is also a need to expand legal advice and support services to assist women in their day-to-day lived experiences, including their experiences as cross-border traders. The regional cross-border association should address itself to the gender needs of most of its clients.
Topping the list of concerns that pose a serious threats to the viability of women cross-border traders’ operations is the issue of official harassment of these enterprising women. Official harassment must stop. There is a need by central government both in Zimbabwe and others in the SADC region as well as at local authority levels to develop policies that avoid criminalizing and undermining the survival strategies of innovative women. Generally in relation to licensing, local authorities were more interested in extracting revenue than improving the welfare of the poor; this amounted to ‘making the poorest members of society pay for their right to subsist'. In the case of cross-border traders, it seems that the Zimbabwean state and other SADC governments are bent on double taxation of these women. Something needs to be done urgently about this.
Generally many of the 'street bureaucrats' held negative attitudes towards women's independent survival means. Negative perceptions were more pronounced among government officials in South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe itself, depending on the border one is dealing with. Changes in the way professionals think and act could empower minor groups, such as cross-border women traders, and enable them to take control of their lives. Such a change in attitude is needed at national government, regional and local authority levels.
Women cross-border traders work hard for a living. These women venture out of Zimbabwe in trans-border operations. In many ways they are succeeding to pay for food, clothes, school fees for their dependents and rent; they depend on their own without the aid of the state. They deserve support instead of harassment. What women cross-border traders need least is interference from, harassment, discouragement, arrests and beatings by regional governments, state and local-level officials.