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Zimbabwe: Women build economic alternatives for survival

  • JASS

Relative calm has returned to Zimbabwe since the protests over 150% hike in fuel prices in January. The political repression that ensued injured and detained hundreds. Twelve people were killed and at least six women were raped. This combined economic and political crisis unfolded only 4 months after the first post-Mugabe election in 37 years. Though the situation is quieter, the economy continues to crumble with massive unemployment, cash and basic food shortages, a deteriorating healthcare system and legal restrictions on street vendors.

Women are among the most affected by the growing surveillance, militarization and continuing economic hardship. Tendai has to walk miles to fetch water and firewood because of water and power cuts. Revai who commutes daily is contending with rising public transport fares. Tsitsi worries about a 70% spike in school fees, while Chenai worries how she will afford sanitary pads next month. Despite this grim reality, women are coming together to address these basic needs collectively – a critical organizing strategy that is laying the groundwork for a future-oriented agenda to advance economic rights and democracy.

The Politics of Provision

“Zimbabwe is open for business is disempowering for us”

Zimbabwe is “open for business” is the new mantra that newly elected, President Mnangagwa pronounced following the coup that ended Mugabe’s 37-year rule in November 2017. With this purportedly new economic policy, “Austerity for Prosperity“, the government has introduced a slew of legal restrictions on informal trading (cross-border and vendor) and imposed new taxes on online transactions meant to bear fruit in the long-term despite their devastating impacts on people’s ability to make living in the interim. The rationale behind the “belt-tightening” measures is that these are the necessary growing pains in order to recover and grow the economy.

Survival is only becoming harder and frustrations are bubbling. As Researcher Ian Scoones argues, “If the state’s economic policies do not have a moral economic commitment to their core, then resentment will inevitably grow“. The “open for business” policy is equally discouraging as it signals an opening of markets to foreign and corporate investors, which often means fewer business opportunities for locals, even more so for women in the agricultural and artisanal mining sectors. Mining has been dubbed Zimbabwe’s mainstay, but local communities do not reap its benefits. As Gladys from Marange expressed, “Zimbabwe is open for business is disempowering for us. I am from Marange and yet mining companies from China and other countries are being given rights to come and mine here. The people of Marange are not benefiting from this. We are exploited by these companies for their own benefit.

Mukando: Women-led Economic Alternatives

While the state looks to foreign investment to solve the economy, women are building homegrown solutions to meet their basic needs through networks of solidarity, support and pooled savings. Women have created Mukando, or savings cooperatives, where each member contributes money that can be used for essential needs. A Mukando is built upon a strong foundation of collective trust, shared decision-making and mutual accountability with a practical benefit. Tarisai who sells fresh garden produce joined a 12-member Mukando where women members and contribute US$100 had this to say, “I have been able to save better and also buy some meaningful stuff as a result of the Mukando. It is hard to get the money but it is worth it. I mostly use mine to pay my children’s school fees.”

Many women have adopted different models and approaches of Mukando to better support each other. For example in other cooperatives, women make monthly contributions, which are up for loans with a minimum interest to the group members. All group members are expected to borrow from the fund and dividends are then paid biannually or annually depending on the group’s agreement. Many women are using this method as a way to generate more income and save.

Other women are also using Mukando as a grocery cooperative to stock up and beat the basic commodities shortages and continuous price increases. Women contribute money every month to buy groceries, which are distributed every 6 months. As Ruvarashe says, “I participate in the grocery round and I can tell you that when people were crying about basic food shortages, I was not affected as I was well stocked.”

Some market women are now pooling their resources and sending a representative or two to go and buy goods for all of them to sell as a way of minimizing on transport costs. Some mothers are now car-pooling for school runs to save on fuel. Rejoice says that these small ways of collaborating keeps her from feeling alone. “My strength is drawn from the support systems around me and the realization that with the right allies, the correct timing and a well calculated strategy we can get this right. My hope comes through my work, and the platforms and agency that it gives me. That I am an agent of change is my greatest weapon.” Many others like Rejoice see these collective economic alternatives as a source of hope in a tough moment.  

Laying the groundwork for a better future

“We need to think differently about organizing for change. We need to step up away from the frames that we are accustomed to and root our organizing in experiential organizing. We need to start from where the women are. Let our organizing be reactionary, reacting to women’s lived realities and needs. Let’s move to organizing that focuses on the root of the problems rather than dealing with the symptoms. Let us listen and really hear what the women want and not what we want for them. –Rudo

JASS has long argued that basic economic needs have the greatest potential for organizing and mobilizing women. Strategies for addressing shared needs then become the way to realize rights. Putting that idea into practice, in July 2018, JASS Southern Africa and our local partner, Institute for Young Women in Development, mobilized more than 2,000 diverse women leaders and organizations across the country to generate their own electoral manifesto, “What Women Want,” listing demands for the new government. Bridging the urban-rural and political divide, JASS traveled across many cities to hear directly from the women most excluded and carrying the burden of Zimbabwe’s worsening economic crisis, including girls and women in informal urban settlements, rural farmers, sex workers, LBTI activists, and market women.

These demands have become a rallying point as Ntombi from Bulawayo notes, “the women’s demands speak to all women and they are our call to action to all power holders. In the past few months, I have seen women organizing informally in their communities and collectively acting for change. It is the organic organizing that has been happening at community level that has been very inspiring for me. Women in savings cooperatives have created their own spaces and have started using those spaces not just as spaces for giving each other money but for collective organizing and talking about issues that are affecting them. These women are powerful…” In 2019, JASS is convening critical dialogues that meet women where they are – at boreholes in rural areas or market places in low-income urban areas – to do on-the-spot popular political-economic education circles. These circles promote economic literacy, foster critical awareness and surface common agendas and nurture collective leadership – all of which lays the foundation for a future-oriented agenda that works for women and all Zimbabweans.



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