COVID cuts off jobs vital to women in southern Africa

Before the border was closed, the 31-year-old Michelle bought clothes and electronics in South Africa, and then reselled them at the Zimbabwe border, earning a meager income. But when the pandemic interrupted most of the traffic between the two countries, she said that her income ran out and she had to try “other ways to make a living.”

Thousands of other cross-border traders in Southern Africa are also facing the same dilemma. For decades, this informal business network has provided stable jobs for people in the border areas of the region, mainly women. The United Nations estimates that this industry accounts for 40% of the $17 billion trade market in the 16 countries of the Southern African Development Community. However, for communities with scarce employment opportunities and access to the COVID-19 vaccine, the pandemic has destroyed this important economic pillar, triggering an invisible financial recession.

According to the United Nations, nearly 70% of businessmen in Zimbabwe are women and they have to find other sources of income. Some people try to buy and sell goods domestically, but the profits are less. Some people cooperate with smugglers who secretly cross the border and extract income from them.Some people, such as Michelle, have started to sell sex, boarding and company to truck drivers stuck They spent several weeks in the city due to transportation delays, bottlenecks in COVID screening, and confusion over government policy changes.

A truck driver stayed with Michelle in his small home in Beitbridge, Zimbabwe, for two weeks while waiting for customs clearance to return to the road to transport the goods to the Democratic Republic of Congo. The drive took 15 hours. She prepares meals and takes hot baths for him every day.

“This is life-what can we do?” Michelle said, she asked for partial anonymity because she didn’t want to disclose her current work situation. “I don’t want to think about it in advance. I work with what I currently have.”

Beitbridge is a freight hub, a busy port along the Limpopo River, and other border towns have long provided opportunities for upward mobility through the bustling cross-border trade network, which brings Infusion The value of the South African currency, the rand, is more stable than the Zimbabwe dollar, weakened by years of hyperinflation. But due to restrictions on trade networks, the economic engines of these communities are working.

Ernest Chirume, a researcher and member of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Catholic University of Zimbabwe, wrote: “The virus and the resulting blockade are happening so fast that women don’t have enough time for any economic Be prepared for the impact.” Paper The impact of COVID-19 on informal traders.

Before the border was closed, 40-year-old Marian Siziba bought large appliances such as refrigerators, four-plate stoves and solar panels from South Africa and resold them to the city center of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second largest city. small store. For several months, she made a living by selling foreign currency and issuing microloans, providing her with small payments from clients with persistent debts. However, recently, many of her clients have been unable to pay dues.

She said that before the coronavirus outbreak, “we were used to economic hardship.” “It’s just that it’s worse now because we can’t work.”

Fadzai Nyamande-Pangeti, spokesperson for the International Organization for Migration in Zimbabwe, pointed out that the pandemic has hit more informal cross-border trade than other sectors. However, in the absence of government relief, what once seemed to be a temporary financial setback for Michel, Siziba and other cross-border traders is now uncertain.

The transportation challenge has widened wealth inequality. Either people have a way to bypass border restrictions, or they don’t.

Nyasha Chakanyuka, who runs a popular clothing boutique in Bulawayo, said that road closures did not hinder her sales because she has long relied on air travel. Most traders who spoke to BuzzFeed News said they Can not afford. In fact, this situation provides her with an opportunity to expand her business: she has been buying large stocks in other countries and selling goods to traders who cannot leave Zimbabwe.

Others turn to transporters who illegally cross the land border. “You can give money to people you trust and let them buy goods for you in South Africa, but this requires extraordinary trust because the risks are obvious,” Siziba said.

Those who cannot pay for others to carry goods for them have to find other ways to make ends meet while waiting for normal business to resume.

Adapting to the new situation, Getrude Mwale, a businessman from Bulawayo and the mother of five children, started selling clothes at home, despite the slowness of the business, that it took her a year to clear the inventory. Cleared within one month.

“Selling at home means you only sell to people who know you nearby,” Mwall said. “It’s not easy.”

Before the pandemic, 33-year-old Saruzai requested partial anonymity in order to keep her work private. She went to Malawi to buy the children’s clothing she sold at the Maswengo Flea Market in Zimbabwe. Each piece of clothing was equivalent to thousands of dollars in income. Dollar year.

When the epidemic hit, she suddenly had piles of shirts, pants and socks at home, but no one sold them. As her business stagnated, she decided to move to Batebridge.

She sells samosas, French fries and soft drinks, but most of her income now comes from selling sex and companionship to the truck driver who lives with her in the single cabin she rented. She is now earning enough money to send her two children back to Masvingo’s school, where they still stay, nearly 200 miles from their mother.

“I always knew that truck drivers were rich-that’s why I came here,” she said.

The Pulitzer Center helped support the reporting of this story.

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