- Women Informal Traders in Harare and the Struggle for Survival in an Environment of Economic Reforms
This book, by two academic social workers at the University of Zimbabwe, is the fourth and final report on a longitudinal study sponsored by the Nordic Africa Institute. The study, part of that institute's program on the context of structural adjustment in sub-Saharan Africa, focused on women in the informal sector. It started in 1991, and compares the data collected from the fourth round of fieldwork, in October 1998, with that collected in earlier phases of the study, in December 1992, October 1993, and October 1995. Its major potential interest lies in its longitudinal nature, because few if any studies have followed a group of people in the informal sector for this long a time. The book's major weakness is, predictably, that the study sample has undergone considerable attrition over the period, exactly fifty percent attrition as it happens, so that the 1992 sample of one hundred seventy-four women had become a sample of eighty-seven in 1998. Most of the attrition (fifty-six cases out of eighty-seven) occurred between 1995 and 1998, and more than eighty percent of that attrition was because the women involved could not be traced. Nine cases out of fifty-six were omitted because they were no longer active economically in the informal sector. This attrition was largely a matter of bad luck for the investigators. In the early phases, most of the respondents in the study lived in Mbare, the oldest high-density suburb of Harare. Between the 1995 and 1998 interview periods, much of the older housing in Mbare was demolished by the government, with the result that respondents moved away and the investigators could not find them.
Because of the attrition in the sample, very little in the way of firm conclusions about changes over time is possible; however, this report still has considerable interest. It gives a great deal of detail about the respondents' situation, behavior, and experiences, and the statistical data are backed up with fascinating narratives and anecdotes, including some telling case-study examples. The respondents included traders in fruit and vegetables, clothing, crafts, cooked foods, snacks and drinks, and other goods, as well as cross-border traders and a few producers (dressmakers and knitters). The report details the women's demographic characteristics, their conduct in informal-sector activities (including their views on such matters as competition versus cooperation, the trading environment, entry barriers, and future plans), and the economic characteristics of their activity. It has a [End Page 131] chapter on changes in consumption patterns between the survey dates, with special attention to education, food, health, and shelter, and a discussion of the respondents' knowledge of the Social Dimensions Fund, which in theory should have been available to help them. Another chapter is devoted to changes in the women's productive roles and their household and community management activities, and includes data on how financial and other responsibilities are divided between the women and other household members, notably husbands (when present) and children. A more speculative chapter discusses how the economic environment and the changes in the women's activities and economic status has impacted their relationships with others, not only spouses, but also extended family members, rural bases, and nonkin. In most cases, the authors discuss how subgroups differ in their response patterns (when they do), and whether the subgroups are demographic, activity-based, age-based, or whatever. Overall, the report provides a fascinating glimpse into the situation of its subjects, with rich empirical detail.
Unfortunately, the authors are far less successful in their attempts to relate the apparent changes they suggest have occurred in the sector to the structural adjustment process in Zimbabwe. This lack of success is predictable, and probably unavoidable. The 1990s saw many changes in the economy of Zimbabwe, and these undoubtedly affected the informal sector, which the authors argue has in practice been neglected, as has the...