HARARE, Zimbabwe – When the whistles and yells ring out through the crowded streets of Harare Central Business District (CBD), the street vendors – most of them women – hastily pack their goods into large sacks and run. The same scene plays out every day in Zimbabwe’s capital. Each morning, vendors set up in alleyways, pavements and bus ranks to sell their various goods. And each day, many are fined, arrested and have their goods confiscated by police as they struggle to eke out a living.
According to the Zimbabwe Chamber of Informal Economy Associations (ZCIEA), around 70 percent of street vendors in the country are women, most of them divorced, widowed, disabled or homeless. They have been forced to sell on the streets to provide their families with basics such as food, school fees, healthcare and rent. Police are tasked with fining and arresting unlicensed vendors, but police action has intensified since a food poisoning outbreak in January prompted a ban on vendors in the CBD. The ban has since been lifted, but women’s rights advocates say the crackdown continues, making the dire situation of most street vendors even worse.
Matron Chimukoko, 32, has been a vendor for 15 years. These days she’s selling fruit and vegetables in the CBD because her husband is unemployed. She can’t afford childcare, so every day she works with her 9-month-old baby girl strapped to her back. “I have to pay for rent for my six children and husband, and pay school fees for the four who are going to school,” she says. “If I don’t, their life will be the same as mine, because I didn’t go to school.”
Dewa Mavhinga, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW), says poverty in Zimbabwe “wears a woman’s face,” with the high unemployment rate forcing women into the roles of both raising their children and supporting their families. Those who have little option but to become unlicensed street vendors face not just police harassment and arrest, but sexual exploitation, says Mavhinga. “Thousands of women vendors are vulnerable to sexual abuse as authorities often demand bribes and favors to allow them to work,” she says.
The International Labour Organization says most people find work in the informal economy, such as street vending, not by choice but as a consequence of the lack of opportunities in the formal economy and the absence of other means of making a living. According to Lorraine Sibanda, president of the ZCIEA, Zimbabwe’s high jobless rate means a growing number of younger people are turning to informal sector jobs. The majority of women vendors in Zimbabwe are in their late 30s or older, but “we have started to see young women between 22 and 35 years old joining the informal sector,” says Sibanda. ZCIEA figures estimate there are more than one million informal traders operating in the country, with 100,000 in Harare alone.
Considering the growing dependence of Zimbabweans on the informal economy, Pamela Mhlanga, chairwoman of the Women’s Coalition of Zimbabwe, says local authorities are being short-sighted when they chase away vendors. Zimbabwe’s GDP relies on the informal economy, so street vending should be recognized as a micro-enterprise, they say.
Rather than continuously disrupting the one source of income for thousands of women, authorities should be supporting them, says Mhlanga. “Local authorities should create an enabling environment for vendors, providing adequate infrastructure such as shades, ablution facilities, sanitation and designated spaces where they are able to sell their goods,” she says. Women in the informal economy also need to be incentivized and trained to shift their thinking from survival mode to a business approach, she says.
“Vending is not a first choice; it’s a livelihood issue, and for the government to ignore such a significant sector is showing lack of vision,” says ZCIEA president Sibanda, who is also a cross-border trader. “We need proper licensing of our businesses, and clean, decent and adequate operating spaces which we would willingly pay fees to use.
HRW researcher Mavhinga says that while the government is obliged to work toward empowering women by allocating resources to expand entrepreneurial opportunities in general, women vendors also need to be proactive in finding ways to legitimize their trade. “Women vendors should innovate and consider harnessing new technologies and social media, as well as taking steps to register and grow their businesses with the support of the authorities,” she says.
Sibanda of the ZCIEA says the organization has already gone to the local government, asking for vendors to get the same protections as other workers, including employment rights, healthcare and pension services. “We feel we have to start at policy level to ensure favorable laws are enacted to promote informal trading,” he says.
At a national level, the government is taking slow steps to help women gain a foothold in the economy. Last year, the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe launched a Zimbabwe National Financial Inclusion strategy, which makes financial services accessible to everyone while prioritizing gender inclusion. The government also has announced plans to allocate $10 million towards the establishment of a Women’s Bank, which could offer help to women trying to grow their small businesses. And the Zimbabwe Informal Sector Organization (ZISO) has been giving money to vendors whose goods have been seized by the police so they can restock and remain in business.
Chimukoko believes she can start to build a better life for her and her family if she could tap into some financial support and get business skills training. At the moment, she pays a $20 fine to the police once or twice a week and sometimes has her goods destroyed and confiscated.
“Every day I have to run away from the police with my child strapped on my back. For the past two months, I haven’t finished paying my monthly rent and only managed to pay half of our school fees,” she says.
“It’s a tough life, but one has to endure and persevere in order to survive.”