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ZIMBABWE: Woman Metal Worker Breaking the Mould

Ignatius Banda

BULAWAYO, Zimbabwe, Oct 20 2010 (IPS) - At a time when more and more women around the world are taking up jobs in male-dominated domains, 41-year-old Sithabile Ruswa is also making her mark, albeit far from the air-conditioned boardrooms usually reported on.

Like millions of other women across Zimbabwe, Ruswa has had no opportunities to access the formal labour market. Now she works in an occupation that has been regarded as “a man’s world”.

Ruswa crafts metal into pots, pans, baking trays, candleholders, dustpans and a whole array of kitchen wares that she sells to the residents of Bulawayo, a vast city of two million people and Zimbabwe’s second largest.

Working from her backyard and counting on unpaid family members as her only workforce, she has established a small but thriving business despite the many odds stacked against her. This is a country where women in business still have little access to capital or any formal support from financial institutions.

“I learnt from my late husband how to make these pots. He supported us by making and mending pots,” explains Ruswa. In-between working she also looks after five school-going children in a crammed four-roomed house in the working class suburb of Mabutweni in Bulawayo.

“It was tough at first but now I have mastered this. My children work as my assistants. They move around the townships and the central business district selling the pots,” she says.

The bias against women entering this field is demonstrated in an interview with Gillian Msakwa, who has created a name for himself locally as a craftsperson making household furniture out of steel.

While he says women such as Ruswa should be supported, he cites the usual “concern” about women entering occupations that are deemed “too physically demanding” for them.

He is also worried about women doing such work as they should rather perform the functions associated with being the “backbone of the family”. In the interview with IPS he also admits that some men still have to change their attitudes towards women breaking gender stereotypes in their choice of work.

The ingenuity of Zimbabwean women such as Ruswa is what pulls them through in a context where the forging of a government of national unity has not brought relief in the form of formal employment opportunities, especially not for women.

Ruswa’s home-based enterprise is but one of many that can be found providing a means of survival in this southern African country where economic possibilities have dwindled due to the political crisis. “I am happy sending my children to school. I have never thought of any life beyond that,” as Ruswa says.

Like many other women operating backyard micro-enterprises, Ruswa lives from hand to mouth with no opportunities to expand or invest, despite consistent demand for her cheap products.

She sources her material to make her wares from local factories and foundries. Her prices are four dollars for a pot, three dollars for a baking tray and one dollar for a candle stand.

A pot of a similar size would cost 10 dollars at the retail shops. In a country where disposable incomes have been eroded, Ruswa’s products are cheap and practical alternatives.

But: “I have never thought about expanding. It would be good if I got a small factory where I could produce more,” Ruswa states.

Jennifer Tizirai, a consultant working with the country’s small to medium enterprises and co-operative development ministry, explains the problem: “What we have seen is that not many women come forward to seek assistance with finance or advice on how to sustain their typically small but thriving operations.

“In the end, they remain stuck without realising their full potential.”

Despite the existence of the small to medium enterprises and co-operative development ministry, women like Ruswa do not know where to turn for assistance.

Ruswa has never heard of an entity that seeks to assist women like her, and believes the burden lies with these groups to make known what kind of assistance they can offer her.

“It is the educated and rich women who have access to financial assistance because they know where to go while we have to be content getting a little money to buy bread,” she says, expressing what has been a lingering complaint among informal workers in Bulawayo.

Backyard industries like hers were destroyed in 2005 by the then solely ruling ZANU-PF government in an attack on informal workers who were perceived to be opposition party supporters. Ruswa remains grateful that her business has gone uninterrupted since that dreadful year.

“I have not had any problems with the authorities, though some people have complained about the noise we make with the metal,” she admits.

Despite stringent council by-laws, the local authority has allowed these backyard industries to operate, being all too aware of the economic hardships that have thrown millions into the informal economy for survival.

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