Avondale flea market in Harare.
She spends long hours travelling to and from South Africa where she buys clothes for resale.
Sandra has been in this trade for over seven years now but she says she still rents two rooms in Kuwadzana and gets just enough money to buy food and to pay school fees for her two children.
For Sandra and many Zimbabwean women, informal cross-border trade, is a means of survival, nothing more.
This week we put informal cross-border trade largely dominated by women on the women’s empowerment radar as we retell the women cross-border experiences.
IOM Zimbabwe reports that cross-border trade is a high-risk venture involving corruption, sexual abuse and other forms of human rights violations.
Because the law only protects people in formal employment cross-border traders, mostly women are susceptible to robbery, harassment by customs officials, rape, transactional sex and other forms
Furthermore, they are excluded from the benefits of formal employment such as health insurance, access to information, capital and leave days, among other incentives.
Yet, as Dr Sithembiso Nyoni said, it is the cross-border women who prevented the Zimbabwe economy from total collapse at the peak of its economic crises in 2008.
Despite the risks and hardships associated with cross-border trading, many women still consider cross- border trade as a vital source of livelihood because of economic hardships and high unemployment rates currently prevailing in Zimbabwe.
Commenting on the challenges faced by informal cross-border traders in conducting their trade, Sandra Hundi said her trade is very risky and sometimes life threatening.
“Women are harassed by both Zimbabwean and South African customs officials but our greatest challenge is in South Africa where we are not protected by law and there is increasing hostility towards immigrants.”
Recounting her weekly experience as a cross-border trader, Nesta Chironga, said she boards a bus from Zimbabwe at around 4pm and arrives in South Africa at around 6am.
She does her shopping as soon as she arrives in South Africa before she travels another 14 hours back home.
Nesta’s weekly travel to South Africa is not because business is brisk for her. “I have to travel those long hours often because I do not have enough capital to buy wares that can last for a month.
“I also try to buy as little as possible to avoid hassles with the customs people because the more you buy, the higher the duty charged,” She said.
Nesta says she still lives from hand to mouth. “The problem with my trade is that I never make enough money to cover my basics because sometimes I have to borrow money for rentals when business is not good.” she said.
Nesta also said her trade does not earn her meaningful profits because of the high custom duty charged on shoes and clothes.
“We are made to pay duty which would be equivalent to half the cost price of that item and this lowers my profit margins”, she said.
The other category of cross-border traders takes various wares including crafts to sell in South Africa and they spend weeks or months in South Africa.
When their wares are sold, that is when they come back home with other wares bought from South Africa for resale in Zimbabwe. These women also do not have very fancy stories to tell.
“In South Africa we live in very squalid conditions as we try to minimise accommodation costs and we lose our wares many times when South African Police raid our rented hostels,” said Lucia Chakari, one of the cross border traders.
Reports from cross-border traders allege that there are women who when they lose their wares whilst in South Africa, sometimes resort to desperate measures in trying to raise money for their return tickets.
Some of the measures include begging and assisting visually impaired beggars in order to get a share of their proceeds from begging.
Whilst the idea is not to paint a gloomy picture of cross-border trading, or discredit the trade, it is important for these stories to be shared with a view to interrogate the current state of women’s economic empowerment as well as their access to the right to decent livelihoods.
In fact, cross-border trade is not all bad news. It brings potential benefits to female traders and can lead to greater control over financial resources and participation in household decision-making process.
According to IOM Zimbabwe figures, 91 percent of female cross-border traders’ income supports other family members (dependent adults and children).
Nesta says what keeps her in the trade is the fact that she is able to use the money that she earns to keep her family alive and dressed.
“When I make good sales, I am able to pay my rentals and school fees for my children,” she said. But is survival all that women can reap from their toil?
A UN Women study estimates that almost three quarters of informal cross-border traders contribute to governments’ revenues through the payment of duty and licence fees.
Despite the lack of formal statistical data, some estimates have put informal cross-border trade contributions at between 30 to 40 percent of intra-Southern African Development Community (Sadc) trade. If women are contributing so much to their governments, what is their reward?
The RBZ Governor has proposed that female cross border traders be exempted from paying duty on their wares.
Would that be commensurate with the hardships and sacrifices involved in the trade?
Ottilia Chikosha from the Harare-based Regional Export Promotion Women’s Trust estimates that in Zimbabwe around 70 percent of women of productive age are involved in cross-border trade.
This shows that there is great potential for these women to produce more, given a conducive policy environment and meaningful resource base and support mechanisms.
Strategies to harness and co-ordinate the female cross border traders’ efforts and provision of access to markets could make a difference for women.
Those individual efforts could be put together to form powerful consortiums of women traders.
This can only become possible if there is will power by Government and other stakeholders to stop the energy haemorrhage from women cross border traders and raise their livelihood standards.
Who said women traders should only board cross- border haulage trucks whilst they can become owners of whole fleets from their hard work? – ZWRCN.