By Kudzai Makombe
Only a month ago, scores of people, the majority of them women, could be found standing, sitting or squatting in long winding queues waiting throughout the day outside supermarkets in Zimbabwe’s cities for maize meal.

The situation has improved. There are still a few short queues here and there, but overall, it appears as though this interminable waiting never existed.

In a few months the government of Zimbabwe took measures to ensure that the long queues, a symptom of shortages of basic consumer goods as a result of both the drought and Economic Structural Adjustment Programmes (ESAP), had been reduced.

Along with the queues, hoarding, shortages and the violence that went with them have been reduced. Women in Zimbabwe are now better able to feed their children as well as to find time for day-to-day work, whether it be helping to supplement the families’ income or looking after the children.

However, people are still reeling from the initial negative effects of ESAP. The programme seems to be having its worst impact on the most vulnerable section of society – women and their children.

Retrenchment, continuing unemployment, the rising cost of living and removal of subsidies on health and education are affecting the lives of women all over the country. They constitute the majority of Jowly paid, semi-skilled workers both in the rural and urban areas and as such are likely to be the first victims of retrenchment. So far, this is already the case with female farm labour.

The Consumer Council of Zimbabwe (CCZ) price index shows a rise of 43 percent in rent and food since the inception of ESAP. Considering that the poverty datum line for a family of four is about US$130 and many families still earn well below that, the trend of women being active in the informal to help supplement the family income will continue.

The Social Development Fund (SDF), is part of ESAP’s efforts to alleviate problems experienced in the initial stages.

This fund is to assist in the provision of training and employment and to cushion the effects of price increases and cost recovery measures on vulnerable groups throughout the reform period.

However, resources for women are becoming less available in terms of credit facilities. The Small Enterprise Development Corporation (SEDCO), a parastatal body set up to provide small Joans to small scale enterprises, offers Joans to small scale businesses. But, the requirement of a 15 percent collateral is out of reach for most urban, and practically all rural women.

Competition from other workers who are being retrenched or moving into the urban areas in search of employment, with the drought is forcing many women in the informal sector out of business.

This vicious cycle has resulted in the upsurge of prostitution. Reports and figures indicate that prostitution has increased among single mothers and young school girls both in urban areas and rural growth points.

According to Gladys, a form two pupil at Murombedzi Growth Point. Many girls like herself are working as prostitutes to get themselves through school. ‘

Women constitute a significant socio- economic force and cannot be ignored if ESAP is to succeed. The government of Zimbabwe is taking some steps to ensure that they are not.

Attempts to minimize the negative effects which have been brought about as a result of cost recovery measures in education and health are being made.

The re-introduction of primary school fees and increases in secondary school fees have resulted in an increasing dropout rate among pupils, particularly female students. Culturally it is considered a better investment to educate the male children in the family. Under the present economic constraints, some poor families are resorting to such traditional values, thus reversing gender development to pre independence educational discrimination.

The government is attempting to offset this trend by setting up a system of fees according to income levels. Under this system, primary school children attending schools in higher income residential areas pay USS14 per term, while those in lower income residential areas pay US$5. Rural primary schools do not charge any fees.

The Ministry of Education has also devised a means to enable those who are unable to pay fees to make applications for assistance from the Department of Social Welfare. By February of this year, the government had already undertaken to pay more than US$60 000 for nearly 4,000 primary and secondary school pupils who could not afford to pay school fees.

Not only is the level of women’s educational attainment being affected by ESAP, but also their health. Health fees have either been introduced or increased. The result being that women and children who are the highest users of health care are less likely to visit hospitals or clinics.

Previously, health care was free to people earning USS30 or less per month. With the re-introduction of fees, this figure has been raised to US$80 or less per month.

Despite this, concern has been voiced by the CCZ, the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) and others that this may be ineffective and all the gains made through primary health care in previous years could be lost as the main users – women and children – die of easily treatable diseases.

According to analysts, the figure of US$80 per month is still far below the poverty datum line and most women in the informal sector cannot produce proof of their earnings.

The Department of Social Welfare has however argued that those people can get letters stating their Financial position from the department to present to hospitals on admission.

There are fears that the implementation of compulsory deposit fees before admission to hospitals, Particularly maternity wards could have serious implications for maternal and child mortality. According to David Chanaiwa, a prominent Zimbabwean economist:

“If deliveries are done at home or by traditional healers, there is a risk of the spread of disease, including the human immune-deficiency virus (HIV).”

It remains to be seen if the spread of disease and increases in infant and child mortality rates will soar as direct result of cost recovery measures. At the moment, the drought is also a major contributor to mortality rates.

An issue which is becoming of great concern to analysts in terms of the negative effects of ESAP is that of violence against women.

According to a local Women’s Domestic Violence Support Organisation, rapes, wife beatings and general assault have increased since the inception of ESAP. However, some argue that violence has always been there, and to attribute its increase to ESAP may be inaccurate.

The adverse effects of ESAP are being felt as much by women as by men, perhaps more so by women because they are a more vulnerable group. It is hoped that the Zimbabwean government will continue to be conscious of this vulnerability in its implementation of ESAP and take more measures to alleviate their
Suffering. (SARDC)

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