For years, Zimbabwe’s female informal cross-border traders have been targeted for robbery, because they are assumed to carry suitcases of cash they use to purchase their stock in neighbouring countries.
From violent hold-ups in buses by “highwaymen”, to muggings as they hunt for bargains in downtown shopping sections of their host countries, these experiences are part of the occupational hazards for the thousands of women who support their families through informal cross-border trade.
When Covid-19 hit and borders closed, domestic incomes suffered, and with husbands and partners losing their work because of the closure of different sectors of the economy, the financial strain became an outlet for long-simmering household tensions, according to researchers.
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Since the emergence of the coronavirus lockdown measures, there has been a global surge of domestic and gender-based violence, raising concerns among campaigners about the enduring psychosocial effects of the pandemic that go beyond the economic.
This is a story 37-year-old Nokuthaba Hadebe is only too familiar with.
A married mother of three, Hadebe worked as an informal cross-border trader and, with her business largely driven by stable foreign currency that guaranteed a steady income, she was the de facto breadwinner, while her husband worked as a commuter omnibus driver.
But when the public transport was shut down, and borders closed, the family was suddenly left without any source of income.
“I have applied for a restraining order for my husband because of emotional and physical abuse,” she said.
“We are always arguing about money. While I want to save the little we have, he wants to go out and drink,” Hadebe said, telling a story that features regularly in Bulawayo’s magistrate’s courts.
Industry officials say it has been particularly tough for informal cross-border traders who earned a regular income, but saw their incomes disappear overnight after borders closed.
“Women informal cross-border traders support some of the most fragile and impoverished communities, and so any threat to [them] poses a threat to the most vulnerable and least resilient,” said Fadzai Nyamande-Pangeti, International Organisation for Migration — Zimbabwe spokesperson.
“Besides a marked increase in gender-based violence, Covid-19 has affected women significantly more than men, especially through widening existing financial inequality between men and women,” Nyamande-Pangeti said.
Despite official statistics showing that 51% of Zimbabwe’s population are women, the unemployment rate is still tipped against women, according to local labour unions, who also note that even more women are burdened with unpaid work.
Perhaps even more alarmingly, the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions said it is pushing for the increase of the proportion of informal-sector workers covered under the Occupational Safety and Health Services from “zero to 20% by 2025”.
This could, however, prove a daunting task: there are no projections from global health experts regarding the end of Covid-19 that would allow informal traders a full-time return to their work.
Local researchers have mapped the psychological effects of Covid-19 on women living in the country’s high-density suburbs, noting that it worsened the social and economic conditions of already disadvantaged and vulnerable women.
Even after Covid-19, women’s rights campaigners say African governments will have to do more to ensure social and economic protection of women, because the majority of them remain stuck “in low-wage, low-skill and often insecure jobs”, said Tsitsi Matekaire, global lead at Equality Now.
“The Covid-19 pandemic exposed already existing structural problems and the lack of social protection for women is not a new thing,” Matekaire said.
The unforeseen outcomes of the pandemic may have been exacerbated by informal cross-border traders’ lack of access to information, which could have partly protected them from the shocks of the Covid-19 outbreak, according to an analysis by the Southern Africa Trust, conducted in conjunction with the Southern Africa Cross Border Traders Association.
“Small-scale border trade plays an important role in contributing to poverty reduction and food security,” the trust said, adding that, in the absence of that ability to provide for their families, a powder keg has been set off.
What has worsened the situation for thousands of women is that “cross-border trade is their only source of income and livelihood”, said Mary Mulenga, a representative of the traders association.
According to the association’s estimates, more than 80% of the region’s informal cross-border traders are women; now, their lack of work creates a huge economic shock for families who rely on cross-border incomes.
For Zimbabwe’s informal traders, the extent of the effects of the lockdown is highlighted by World Bank estimates that extreme poverty levels increased from 6.6-million people in 2019 to 7.9-million in 2020. Moreover, the government does not have the capacity to support the ever-growing informal sector, according to Nathan Hayes, a senior Africa analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit.
“Although the government has often talked about fiscal surpluses and the economic transformation under the administration of Emmerson Mnangagwa, the government’s coffers are still threadbare, owing chiefly to limited revenues due to weak economic activity,” Hayes said.
“Informal workers’ incomes often support a large number of dependents, so reduced earnings often have an oversized impact, leading to the sudden inability to feed families, send children to school and pay for rent,” he added.
And this situation has led to unimaginable domestic pressures for the thousands of women for whom the streets are an open-air factory.
Lobbyists, however, say the government will have to do more if workers on the periphery of the formal economy are to be protected from future shocks.
“In the long term, there is need for governments to develop and implement gender-sensitive legislation that recognises the rights of workers in the informal sector, and also create gender equality measures that ensure women have equal access to economic and social opportunities, in order to reduce their vulnerability when health crises or other social upheavals occur,” Matekaire said.
In the meantime, women such as Hadebe remain stuck in a cycle of domestic turmoil coupled with Covid-19 fears; all they can do is keep hoping for what could well prove to be a long wait for economic salvation.