- Though women in Zimbabwe are finding a greater place in the national economy, this is not necessarily translating into real growth and leadership. Zimbabwe women mastering the current crisis may lead an increasing number of households and enterprises, but still totally fail to promote their sisters to gain economic freedom.
This was the conclusion of a recent Leadership Training Workshop hosted by the Feminist Political Education Project (FPEP) in Harare, which pointed out that women in leadership positions rarely commit themselves to grooming future women leaders.
Many nations have tales of how a period of great difficulty for all led to the emancipation of a previously oppressed group. For African-Americans it was the American war of independence. For the first time, slave and master fought together equals with the objective of freeing America. The seeds for the abolition of slavery were sown on the battlefields of this war.
For Zimbabwe, the difficult period is the current economic crisis and the emancipated group is the country's women. During its first 20 years of independence, the country's employment and economic demographics reflected its colonial past. The men worked in the factories while the women stayed at home to raise the children.
However, all this changed at the turn of the millennium as the country sank deeper into the current recession. Zimbabwe's hitherto tradition-oriented men discovered a cold, hard, economic fact. A single income will just not do when inflation is far over 1000 percent.
In a short space of time, many men grudgingly accepted the idea of their wives and partners joining the workforce - not so different from the war economies of 20th century Europe. Some women joined the formal sector, others opened flea markets and still others joined the cross-border trade.
Seven years later, and the economic story of the Zimbabwean woman is still unravelling, albeit in a way no one ever expected. The formal job market is shrinking dramatically. The unemployment rate is estimated to be at 80 percent in the country, and the government's widely condemned clean-up operation effectively wiped out the once-flourishing flea markets, which mostly employed women.
The above situation has left many women with only one option. Cross-border trade. Due to its informal nature, statistics are hard to come by, but suffice to say that cross-border trade - legal and illegal - accounts for a very significant portion of Zimbabwe's Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
Each month, thousands of women set out for Zambia, Botswana, South Africa and even as far abroad as Dubai and China to buy and sell clothes, and in that way provide for their families. They bring back clothes, they pay the bills and they proudly pay fees for their children. Their husbands count on them to help cope with hyperinflation, and at times, the woman is indeed the sole breadwinner.
Is this enough? Is this, the fact that women are now working for a living, cause for celebration?
According to leading feminist Thoko Matshe, a woman working is a step in the right direction, but it is neither the end of her journey nor all there is to her life.
Speaking on the sidelines of the Leadership Training Workshop, which she convened, Ms Matshe said, "We are in a survival mode and the women are doing it for survival not for growth."
"In times of crisis people's innovation is unleashed. What is a problem is that people are not planning or looking for growth. We [women] are now travelling to all these countries: China, Dubai and South Africa to trade. But we are not going there to learn," she said. "As much as we are doing that, it is not enough for nation building."
Ms Matshe, who has professional experience as a civic leader, explained that another problem that emerged from this "survival mode" was that those women who had made it into leadership were no longer grooming future women leaders.
"Half the people who could be mentoring them [future women leaders] are not in this country. Those who are there are so fatigued that they don't find the time to do it," she added.
This realisation was what led to the convening of the FPEP workshop in Harare. "We want to build leadership amongst young women but focusing more on feminist leadership," she said.
"The workshop is also about regenerating ourselves because some of us have been civic leaders, so we have not done enough to mentor and to build leadership capacity amongst women that has got a feminist slant," added Ms Matshe.
In August 2006, FPEP joined forces with the Zimbabwe Women's Bureau to look at programmes that could assist those women affected by the government's clean-up operation. They also published a book 'In Their Own Words', which chronicles the experiences of this group of women.
There is a realisation among Zimbabwe's women - especially the leadership - that, although the current economic crisis has helped women's economic participation, a lot more still needs to be done. The challenge now is to help women realise true growth and to train future leaders even as the country is deep in recession.
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