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SOUTHERN AFRICA: "Women Can Be More Than Small-Scale Farmers"

Stanley Kwenda

HARARE, Sep 8 2009 (IPS) - "Government must lead in breaking down the stereotypes of women as tuck-shop owners, candle-makers, peasant farmers, teachers and nurses and create the reality in which they become hoteliers, large-scale commercial farmers, miners and proprietors of retail chains."

These were the words of Zimbabwe’s vice president Joyce Mujuru addressing a women’s investment conference held in Harare on Sep 4. The conference was attended by South African and Zimbabwean businesswomen.

It was organised by the Zimbabwean businesswomen‘s organisation called Profesional Women, Executives and Businesswomen’s Forum (PROWEB) and aimed at promoting the participation of women in the economies of both countries.

Backing their call for increased participation by women in the two economies, Mujuru told the conference that the country’s coalition government is working on creating a conducive environment for women to enter business.

"A secure and peaceful environment is but one of the things the government must create in its bid to advance the interests of professional and businesswomen. The environment must be complimented by the physical infrastructure necessary for business to thrive," said Mujuru.

She said Zimbabwe’s new government offers them an opportunity to enter into business and urged them to work with parliamentarians to lobby for laws that empower women.

Zimbabwe used to be South Africa’s biggest trading partner in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region before the country experienced its economic downturn from 2000 onwards.

South African businesswomen attended the event under the Businesswomen‘s Association of South Africa (BWASA), whose delegation was led by Kunyalala Mapisa. BWASA is an influential association, with membership of over 30,000 people.

The conference discussed how women can increase their participation in the economies of their countries and break the glass ceiling in the corporate world.

Mapisa told IPS that women played a central role in society and need to claim their share of the economy. "Women should take their meaningful and rightful place. South African and Zimbabwean women can do this together," she insisted.

The South African businesswoman told the conference that women in South Africa are slowly breaking the business barriers. They have interests in construction, mining, foreign currency trading, tourism, media, agriculture, energy, health, pharmaceutical, manufacturing and finance.

The president of the International Women’s Forum South Africa, Namani Mahawu, said Zimbabwe can learn from South Africa in areas of empowerment and legislation. "The South African government has been doing a lot in terms of empowering women and the excitement we are getting from our Zimbabwean counterparts is quite encouraging. We are hoping that they will lobby the government to copy and adopt legislation that makes life easier for women who want to venture into business," declared Mahawu.

She urged the Zimbabwean government to relax legislation that hampers investment in the country.

Thandi Ndlovu, who owns the South African Motheo Construction Group, said BWASA was mainly interested in empowering Zimbabwean businesswomen on how to scout for business opportunities in Zimbabwe. "It makes a lot of business sense to collaborate in the economic liberation of women," Ndlovu told IPS.

Elton Mangoma, Zimbabwe’s minister of economic planning and development, told IPS that, he "want to see more women getting involved and getting involved in a big way. We want to transform this country and government cannot do it alone. Women can come in and invest and bring new technologies."

Theresa Makone, one of the few female ministers in the new Zimbabwean government, told IPS that "this is the time for women to come together and get business deals, otherwise they will miss out. There are a number of investment opportunities that have been created by this peaceful environment that we are in today.

"If we do not seize this opportunity now, the train will leave us behind as it has always done," Makone, who is minister of public works, told IPS.

The conference agreed to promote cooperation between and advance business partnerships. Participants also aim to promote the opening of new markets in both countries for goods and services and to cooperate in their pursuit of investment opportunities in key sectors of their country’s economies.

They have also resolved to constitute a 10-member committee by Oct 4 with executive authority. The committee will implement a vision of the total economic empowerment of women in their respective countries.

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