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Women's Savings Clubs in Zimbabwe Experience Uncertainty as Local Currency Grows Unstable

By Ignatius Banda

Women's savings clubs contributed monthly instalments of anything from as little as USD5. (Photo: The SEEP Network)

Bulawayo — For years, self-employed and unemployed women in Zimbabwe formed neighbourhood "clubs" where they pooled money together for everything from buying bulk groceries to be shared at the end of the year to meeting funeral expenses.

But as inflation renders the local currency virtually worthless, with, for example, the price of a loaf of bread reaching ZWD4,000, women rights advocates say this has thrown local saving initiatives into a mind-numbing tailspin.

In recent weeks, the local dollar has been on a frenzied free fall against the greenback, and in one week alone, the parallel market rate went from USD1:ZWD2,000 to anything between USD1:ZWD3,000 and ZWD4,000. Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency put Zimbabwe's annual inflation rates at triple digits, with inflation rising 175.8% in June from 86.5% the previous month.

"We cannot buy foreign currency on the street to keep our savings club operating. You can't plan anything with such an ever-changing exchange rate," said Juliet Mbewe, a Bulawayo homemaker who sells snacks, sweets and other small items on a roadside not far from her township home.

"It was better when the country was using the USD as the official currency," she said, referring to the period of the country's government of national unity between 2009 and 2013.

That period is widely credited with taming Zimbabwe's economic turmoil and also helped make savings possible for women such as Mbewe.

Women's savings clubs contributed monthly instalments of anything from as little as USD5, and from this pool, the club operated as an informal bank or microfinance lender where they issued loans at a small interest.

The accumulated savings were shared at the end of the year, while other such clubs bought groceries in bulk to be shared in time for Christmas.

And this was also a time when local banks encouraged women's clubs to partner with registered financial institutions to incubate their savings and earn interest at the end of the year.

But with banks not being spared the decades-old economic turmoil, which has seen even banks close shop, financial institutions that remain are not known to offer ordinary account holders interest on their savings.

However, the return of rampant inflation is making the operation of women's savings clubs increasingly difficult, says Mavis Dube, who formerly led a group of women's clubs as their treasurer.

"It's no longer easy because of the unstable currency. It now means having to raise more local dollars in order to buy foreign currency," Dube said; as the authorities struggle to put breaks on a currency on free fall, these have been upended by inflation and an unsteady local currency.

For those who can afford that, the women are cushioning themselves from this by buying livestock which they say is guaranteed to store value.

International NGOs such as World Vision are assisting rural women navigate increasingly tough economic circumstances, supporting projects such as raising and selling poultry.

However, such projects have not been made available to more women in a country where self-help efforts face incredible odds as inflation gnaws into small enterprises.

While the Ministry of Women Affairs, Community, Small and Medium Enterprises Development has made efforts to encourage women's participation in the country's economic development agenda, it has struggled to keep up with the increasing number of women seeking assistance to start their own businesses.

The ministry recently launched what it says are "Women Empowerment Clubs" with the aim to assist women access funding, but concerns remain that the red tape involved in accessing the loans only enables a cycle of poverty for women.

Rights advocates say the high unemployment rate among women has meant that women have no access to the formal banking sector, where they access loans.

"Most banks and lending institutions require collateral for them to release loans which most women do not have. Profits from the informal sector are so meagre and only allow women to feed from hand to mouth," said Sithabile Dewa, executive director of the Women's Academy for Leadership and Excellence.

"In order to address these challenges, the Government must put in place laws and policies that protect women in small businesses, such as discouraging lending institutions from putting too much interest or demanding collateral on women, something they know they do not have," Dewa told IPS.

While women have attempted to keep up with the volatile exchange rate, it has exposed their vulnerability to poverty at a time when agencies such as UN Women lament that women's economic empowerment in Zimbabwe has been "impeded by their dominance in the informal sector and vulnerable employment."

While saving clubs served as a bulwark against such uncertainties, Dewa says contemporary economic circumstances have made it near impossible to run such schemes that hedged against poverty.

"The savings clubs are still there though they have been modernised to meet the changing times," Dewa said.

"The problems facing these clubs are hyper-inflation, an unstable and unpredictable economy. Those which are still viable are the ones being done using USD, but how many women have access to the foreign currency," she added.

For now, women such as Mbewe and Dune continue to live hand to mouth, their ambitions to save for a rainy day effectively on pause.

"It's harder now than ever, and the pain is that there is no sign this will end anytime soon," Mbewe said, the little she makes selling sweets barely enough to meet her daily needs.

Source: IPS


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