COVID suspended jobs that are crucial for women in southern Africa

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Before the borders were closed, Michele, 31, earned a modest income by buying clothes and electronics in South Africa and reselling them for profit across the border in Zimbabwe. But when the pandemic shut down most traffic between the two countries, she said, her revenues dried up and she had to try “other ways to support herself.”

Thousands of other cross-border traders in southern Africa face the same dilemma. For decades, this informal commercial network has provided steady work for people, mostly women, in the area’s borderland. The UN has estimated that industry accounts for 40% of the $ 17 billion trade market among the 16 countries in the Southern African Development Community. But the pandemic has kicked down this important economic pillar for communities where job opportunities are small and there is limited access to covid-19 vaccines, which has triggered an endless financial downturn in sight.

Almost 70% of traders in Zimbabwe are women, according to the UN, and they have had to find other sources of income. Some have tried to buy and sell goods in the domestic market, for less profit. Some have collaborated with smugglers who sneak across the border to move products and take a reduction in revenue. Some, like Michele, have started selling sex, boarding and company to truck drivers stuck in town for weeks due to delivery delays, bottlenecks for covid screening and confusion over changes in government policy.

A truck driver has been staying with Michele in her small home in Beitbridge, Zimbabwe, for two weeks, waiting for him to make it back on the road to transport goods as far as the Democratic Republic of Congo, a 15-hour drive . She cooks and a hot bath for him every day.

“This is life – what can we do?” said Michele, who requested partial anonymity because she did not want to publish her current work situation. “I do not want to think ahead. I am working on what I have at the moment.”

Beitbridge, a hub for trucking with a bustling port along the Limpopo River, and other border towns have long offered opportunities for upward mobility through a bustling transnational trade network, leading to a infusion of the South African currency, the rand, whose value has been more stable than the Zimbabwean dollars weakened from years of hyperinflation. But with that trade network limited, these are the economic engine of societies.

“The virus and the resulting lock-in happened so quickly that the women did not have enough time to prepare for any economic repercussions,” said Ernest Chirume, a researcher and member of the Catholic University of Zimbabwe’s Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, who wrote a paper on the effects of covid-19 on informal traders.

Before the borders were closed, Marian Siziba, 40, bought large appliances such as refrigerators, lighthouses and solar panels from South Africa for resale to small shops in downtown Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second largest city. For months, she was able to sell foreign currency and issue small loans, which provided her with payments from customers with current debts. But lately, many of her clients have not been able to pay their dues.

Before the coronavirus, “we had already gotten used to financial difficulties,” she said. “Only now is it worse because we can not work.”

Fadzai Nyamande-Pangeti, a spokesman for Zimbabwe’s international migration organization, noted that the pandemic hit informal cross-border trade harder than other sectors. But in the absence of state aid, economic hardships that once seemed temporary to Michele, Siziba and other cross-border traders now feel indefinite.

Transport challenges have increased inequality in prosperity. Either people have the opportunity to get around border restrictions or they do not.

Nyasha Chakanyuka runs a popular clothing store in Bulawayo and said that the road closures have not hindered her sales because she has long relied on air travel, which most traders who spoke to BuzzFeed News said they could not afford. In fact, the situation offered her an opportunity to expand her business: she has bought up bulk stocks in other countries and sold goods to traders who cannot leave Zimbabwe.

Others have turned to carriers who cross the land border illegally. “You can give someone you trust money to buy goods for you in South Africa, but it requires extraordinary trust because the risks are obvious,” Siziba said.

Those who cannot afford to pay others to move their goods for them have had to find other ways to make ends meet while waiting for a return to business as usual.

Adapting to the new circumstances, Getrude Mwale, a Bulawayo trader and mother of five, began selling clothes at the gate to her home, even though the business has been so slow that it has taken her a year to clear warehouses. once was able to clear within a month.

“Selling from home means you only sell to people who know you from the neighborhood,” Mwale said. “It has not been easy.”

Before the pandemic, 33-year-old Sarudzai, who requested partial anonymity to keep her work situation private, traveled as far as Malawi to buy baby clothes, which she sold at a flea market in Masvingo, Zimbabwe, earning the equivalent of thousands of US dollars each. year.

When the pandemic struck, she suddenly had piles of shirts, pants and socks in her house but no one to sell to. With her company stopped, she decided to move to Beitbridge.

She sells samosas, french fries and soft drinks, but much of her income nowadays comes from transactional relationships that sell sex and company to truck drivers who live with her in the one-room wooden house she rents. She now earns enough money to send her two children back to school in Masvingo, where they remain, almost 200 miles away from her mother.

“I always knew truck drivers had money – that’s why I came here,” she said.

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