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Women cross-border traders deserve respect

Gender Focus with JUDITH KONAYUMA
LAST year, I took a trip to Johannesburg by bus. I used the Chirundu border and exited Zimbabwe at the Beit Bridge border.
One of the things that struck me as I took my designated seat on the bus was the number of women on the bus. In fact, one could count the men who filled up the space that was left by the women. The men were really few.
The overwhelming number of women on the bus aroused my curiosity. A number of questions popped up in my mind. Looking at them, they did not seem like they were just taking a jolly ride to Johannesburg. They seemed to be headed there for really serious business. I took time to find out the mission of some of the women.
Striking a conversation with one of the women was not a difficult task. In such a situation, and as a Zambian, one just listens to the language the other uses before launching a conversation. Initially, I heard such languages as Bemba, Nyanja and Tonga. At that time, I thought to myself, we are Zambians indeed.
Inevitably, my first contact was my neighbour. We had talked about a number of issues. After this, I decided it was time to move to set my mission into motion by asking her what she was going to do in Johannesburg. The answer was quite like what I expected. I had taken note of the signs earlier. She told me she was going there for business.
My intention was to know what kind of business. She explained that she runs a hair salon in one of the shopping malls. She finds it better to get her supplies from South Africa because they are cheaper. Besides, the salon doubles as a shop for hair and skin products. She acquires these items from South Africa. She is also convinced they are genuine. According to her, she has seen a number of salons wreck their business because they have used substandard products.
She has to sustain her family through her business. She was widowed more than 10 years ago. Running the salon has enabled her to take her four children to school, one has completed university and she is looking for a job. The second child is in her second year in university; the third child is completing secondary school and the last one is entering high school.
I got another opportunity when the bus stopped for about an hour during a tyre change. This time I went for a younger woman. As we got chatting, I strategically positioned myself to find out about her mission. I pointedly asked her what she does. After a moment of hesitation, she told me she buys agro-chemicals and supplies them in Lusaka. She told me it was not an easy task but she has to do it. With time, she has since come to learn the ropes of the trade.
For her, she has been in cross-border trading as a way of providing for her family. She is married and she has two children. Though her husband is employed, the family needs extra income for household and other needs. So she has to be on the move to fill up the gap.
At Beit Bridge, we took longer to go through immigration procedures. As we waited to do so, I seized the moment to conclude my investigations. I singled out one woman who was sitting on the floor and leaning against the wall. Striking a conversation with her was no hard task. After all, we had exchanged some formalities earlier when the bus stopped to allow passengers to respond to the inevitable call of nature.
From our short conversation, I discovered she was a mother of two and both her children were in university. She was abandoned by her husband who felt she was not fit for him because she did not go far in school. Her former husband, who had since remarried, did not have time for the children as well. So she had to do all she could with her hands to provide for the family and send her children to school.
She owned a garments shop in one of the shopping malls. This meant from time to time, she had to replenish her stocks and satisfy the needs of her customers. When she did not travel to South Africa, she had to make a longer trip to China or Hong Kong to source merchandise. This time, she found herself taking this trip to Johannesburg so that she could quickly get back home because her children were writing examinations.
These women find themselves taking such alternatives so that they could fend for their children. As cross-border traders, they undergo a lot of suffering. The mere fact that they have to leave their children now and then, disrupts family life. The children are often left in their own care. If these women had a choice, they would remain home.
From conversing with them, these women assert that cross-border trading is for the resilient ones. It is easy to give up because of what they are subjected to. The women face unfair treatment or they are sometimes heckled. They can be called names.
Sometimes they face harassment from members of the extended family who consider them as taking such opportunities like travelling to engage in prostitution.
Coupled with the hassle of travelling, is the treatment they are subjected to when they are clearing their goods. Just because they are cross border traders does not mean they are all dishonest. Though there could be some dishonest ones, they are all considered so. The onus is on the women to prove otherwise.
The drive to fend for their families and ensure they provide the school needs makes them forget the troubles they go through as they transit to and from sourcing their merchandise. They risk the dangers of travel because they have to support their families.
In most cases, these women are consigned to the dual roles of father and mother of the children. This challenge they have to take on, come what may. This is why when the children of such women grow up, most of them esteem their mothers highly.
The larger family members need to change their view of such women. These women deserve respect.
On the other hand, some women tend to shut out some larger family members by not coming to their aid when it really matters. There are times we cannot, as an African society, run away from our responsibilities to the larger family. Those who genuinely need help should have it where one can render it. The fact that one is left to fend for her children should not stand as an excuse for keeping away from the larger family.
On the whole, society needs to esteem these women who make an honest living. They are contributing to its well-being.
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