Politics and Society
Women’s labour and civil disobedience in Zimbabwe
While the state deploys various forms of violence against their bodies, marginalised Zimbabwean women of lower economic and social status are using African feminist praxis to amplify their voices and take control of their lives, Vimbai Midzi writes
One evening on my recent research stint in Harare, Zimbabwe, I walked along a street named after the country’s president in the city centre. The welcome rays of the winter sun disappeared by five o’clock as crowds of people packed into kombis (public mini buses) to make their way home. In this rush, however, a different group was just getting ready for its busiest time of day.
Scores of women sat along the pavements of the city streets, choosing to start their vending after the municipal police had knocked off for the day. Harare means ‘the one who doesn’t sleep’, and women vendors in the city are doing its name justice. Often, their days begin before the sun rises and end well after dark. It is the resilience and defiance of these women that keeps them coming back to the very streets the state excludes them from daily.
“Here the vendor is always a problem,” Sindi*, a woman street vendor in Harare, laments. “Even when you’re just trying to make a living, you’re a problem; you’re a threat, so they want to deal with you.”
(Hyper)Visibility and violence
Women make up about 85% of vendors in Zimbabwe, with Harare having the most concentrated group of vendors overall. Although women occupy the majority of vending spaces, their bodies and voices continue to be the most brutalised and silenced. “They don’t want to see us here,” Sindi says.
The informal sector in the country has been growing steadily since the 1990s, with a sharp incline after 2000. Zimbabwe’s Statutory Instrument 159 of 2014 states that vendors will be charged daily rentals in the designated sites they have been allocated by the council. It also gives the council the right to police the vendors and to fine them if they are found to be outside of the law.
‘Undesignated’ vending, however, is on the rise. The City Council of Harare can only comfortably accommodate about 6 000 vendors in the city centre, the hub of activity where most vendors want to be because they can access more customers. In an ailing economy and with over 20 000 vendors in Harare’s CBD alone, this leaves women vendors no choice but to work outside the confines of the law.
Undesignated vendors’ presence in the city is conspicuous – their hypervisibility is necessary to make sure they earn as much income as possible. While necessary, this hypervisibility also means their work and their bodies are easily susceptible to various forms of violence from the state. Despite the violence that is enacted against them as a result of undesignated vending, these women have continued to organise collectively. One of these organisations serving as a solidarity platform for vendors is the National Vendors Union Zimbabwe (NAVUZ), started in 2008.
The right to work
“There is power in numbers,” Sindi remarks. “I joined NAVUZ because I liked their stance on vendors’ rights and how they supported vendors. I have a right to work for myself, and I will fight for that right. It helps to be supported by other women who understand my plight.”
Sindi takes part in regular NAVUZ demonstrations against the City Council’s corruption, the confiscation of vendors’ wares and the sexual harassment women vendors’ face. Three times a week, Sindi contributes money to a ‘round’ – a group of women vendors who put their money together and rotate the total amount to different members every week.
“The rounds are the way we save money. I can’t afford to bank my money, and the state will never give us funds, so this is what we do,” Sindi says. “We are making it work.”
Urban Studies academic Amin Kamete speaks about vendors being ‘spatial deviants’ in the eyes of the state. Violence against the bodies of women vendors is inseparable from their hypervisibility. Their presence is regarded as ‘unsightly’ – a kind of framing the state uses to justify its actions against them. This gendered, spatialised control and militarised approach to urban policies is reminiscent of the 1983 Operation Chinyavada – a nationwide operation that saw the rounding up and arresting of scores of sex workers and ‘unaccompanied women’ from the streets. In 2005, Operation Murambatsvina saw mostly women being affected when the state destroyed informal markets and housing across the nation. Police brutality, often enacted by the City Council, is common against women vendors.
The state’s inability to view and treat informal work spaces for women with dignity and respect has not stopped women vendors from finding ways to make use of urban space to empower themselves. Their collective power in the face of exclusion and economic violence continues to be integral to their ability to thrive. They occupy space in a system that seeks to render them invisible. This defiance and refusal to allow masculinist urban spaces to define them, coupled with the demand to be seen as workers with rights, rings loudly of African feminist praxis.
This article is brought to you courtesy of the Black Feminisms Forum. The Black Feminisms Forum will be held on 5 and 6 September 2016 in Salvador, Bahia, ahead of the 2016 AWID Forum. Check here for updates, information and activities of the BFF.