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Indigenisation must Empower Women

The indigenisation and democratisation of the Zimbabwean economy is not merely a moral initiative designed to overthrow the legacy of a past discriminatory colonial economic system but a pragmatic development strategy to unleash the nation’s full economic potential. However, neither the past’s wrongs nor future’s promise can be addressed without prioritising women’s economic empowerment.

In order to appreciate how the Indigenisation Act can empower women, it is necessary to understand how under colonial misrule, black women suffered double-edged discrimination and dis-empowerment as women and as black people; appreciate the personal and societal benefits of economically empowering women and devise concrete strategies that Government can use to empower women.

At independence in 1980, the democratic Government of Zimbabwe inherited an economy extensively dominated by white Zimbabweans and multinational corporations. Black Zimbabweans were marginalised from mainstream economic activity, possessed limited skills and were mainly low-level workers in both the public and private sectors. Therefore, the indigenisation of the Zimbabwean economy and empowerment of black Zimbabweans is both morally and economically justified in the continuing struggle for independence. However, to address the issue of race and uplift men without prioritising women’s empowerment, would exacerbate rather than close the gender gap and signify a gross misreading of history.

Prior to colonisation, the significant value of Zimbabwean women’s productive labour in producing and processing food created and maintained their rights in domestic, political, cultural, economic, religious and social spheres, among others. With the creation of the colonial economy, the marginalization of women came in several ways:
Firstly, the advent of title deeds, made men the sole owners of land. Consequently, as women lost access and control of land, they became increasingly economically dependent on men. This in turn led to an intensification of domestic patriarchy, reinforced by colonial social institutions.

Secondly, as colonialism continued to entrench itself in Zimbabwean soil, the perceived importance of women’s agricultural contribution to the household was greatly reduced, as their vital role in food production was overshadowed by the more lucrative male-dominated cash crop cultivation for the international market.

Finally, the introduction of wage labour affected women by uprooted men from villages to work in urban areas causing both negative social and economic impacts on women.

Three decades after the Zimbabwean flag was hoisted at Rufaro Stadium, the economy is still mired in the transitional problem of creating an equitable environment in which indigenous people can extend their control over productive activities across all sectors of the economy.

The extent to which the colonial economic system created conditions for the exploitation of women’s labour and dependence on men has not been adequately redressed. The economic independence that the democratisation of the Zimbabwean economy seeks to attain is incomplete and thus unattainable without prioritising women’s economic empowerment.

When brute strength mattered more than brains, men had an inherent advantage. Now that brainpower has triumphed, the two sexes are more evenly matched. However, gains in women’s economic opportunities lag behind their comparative capabilities.

A growing body of developmental research shows this to be inefficient. Since increased women’s labour force participation and earnings are associated with faster growth and reduced poverty; women will benefit from their economic empowerment, but so too will men, children and society as a whole. Women’s lack of economic empowerment, on the other hand, not only imperils poverty reduction and growth, but also has a host of other negative impacts, including less favourable education and health outcomes for children and a more rapid spread of HIV.

In sum, the business case for expanding women’s economic opportunities is becoming increasingly evident; this is nothing more than smart economics.

In Zimbabwe, industry and commerce is predominantly the domain of men, who own most businesses in all sectors. The levels of women’s participation in industry and commerce and business entrepreneurship continues to be unacceptably low. As it stands, black women who suffered a double-edged discrimination as women and as black people, have not been sufficiently prioritised in the Indigenisation Act. The indigenisation process therefore runs the risk of appearing to have been designed for the exclusive benefit of black men and in turn loosing the very credibility and broad based support that it requires to be a success.

The impending indigenisation guidelines should incentivise businesses to hire and promote black  women to managerial and executive-level positions in specific ways. For example, companies that can demonstrate a percentage of black women in their workforces, and beyond that, a percentage holding manager-level or higher positions, should earn empowerment credits. Businesses that employ equitable percentages of women in senior roles and across the firm, as well as pay them equally with their male counterparts should also qualify for empowerment credits.

Government should also encourage firms to meet indigenisation targets by creating Employee Share Ownership Plans (ESOP) for groups of female employees. An ESOP is a means through which employees can own a share of the company they work for and employee ownership increases production and profitability, and improves employees’ dedication and sense of ownership.

For those not directly employed by any corporation worth at least $500,000, the National Indigenous and Economic Empowerment Fund should create and support gender sensitive financial schemes to assist women to start and develop businesses. Special rewards such as tax incentives should also be given to financial institutions that have special programmes to support disadvantaged groups, especially women in business.

The Indigenisation and Economic Empowerment Act is not merely a moral initiative designed to redress the wrongs of the past, it instead serves as a pragmatic growth strategy designed to realise the nation’s full economic potential. However, neither the pasts wrongs nor future’s promise can be addressed without prioritising women’s economic empowerment.

By Garikai Chengu

The author is a Researcher at Harvard University’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

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