ESTHER Mwanza, 38 of Nyimba District Town in east Zambia, center has one personal motto: “If my family is uncomfortable with this business venture, I quit.”
It is culturally frowned upon for Zambia women to participate in the fishing business. However, that hasn’t discouraged Esther in the past 10 years of her fish trade.
Esther is now a fish importer too because she spends her time chasing orders for fish as it lands from neighbor Mozambique, a country with one of Africa´s largest coastlines.
For Esther, fishing is seasonal, and very concentrated in the rainy season because due to large volumes of water in the local Luangwa River, she spends about three days before she travels back to her district.
“I fear to drown,” she says.
When the water levels ebb, she spends up to five days before buying her desired quantity of fish.
“I have established reliable customers for my fish. I have an assured market such that even if I take more than three days to return, my customers still wait for the fish,” Ms Mwanza says.
She joined the fish trading business in 2007 with very minimal start-up capital. Having been married for over 15 years now, Ms. Mwanza is thankful to her husband for providing the crucial support.
“I have been married for 15 years. When I proposed the business idea of fish trading to my husband, he supported it and gave me a go-ahead. Just this was enough support to give me the zeal to work hard and make this business viable and beneficial to our three children,” Ms. Mwanza says.
Her formal education includes a grade nine certificate, with a craft certificate in tailoring.
Despite Ms Mwanza’s success and support from the family, the fish trading business for women carries a negative connotation which smacks of some discrimination against the women engaged in the trade.
Most Zambia women who engage in the fish trading are accused of being in the business to exchange sex for fish profits. “It´s disgusting what society thinks of us.”
But for Ms Mwanza, she says despite the gender division of economic activities in fish trading, her focus is to gain profit from the business for her family.
The lack of economic opportunities for women at fish-landing sites in Luangwa has been described as a key contributing factor to the vulnerability of women.
However, the economic vulnerability of women does not only result from the desperate profit generation between men fishing and women selling fish, it also emerges from the inability, or lack of women at the landing site to negotiate access the price of fish.
She acknowledges the societal negative thinking about women in the fish business.
“The moment a woman ventures into fish trading, the way society looks at her immediately changes. Mockery arises,” she says.
But for Ms Mwanza, the notion has not discouraged her.
“As women fish traders, we travel regularly to remote fishing camps to purchase fish and this doesn’t not mean that all of us travel there for sex, actually it’s just a false statement. Society should change the way it looks at us, we are not sex objects, we are independent beings that can positively contribute to economic growth even in a little way,” she says.
Her colleague, the vice-chairperson of The Luangwa-Feira Fish trading Association, Mr. Anthony Mwansa says, “It is very sad the way this country stereotypes women, and a woman cannot be intelligent, young and maybe slightly attractive and not have any relationship with anyone for them to move up.”
Mr. Mwansa says such thinking can dampen the zeal for women to work hard and empower themselves through various business ventures.
“Even when a woman buys a car, it doesn’t matter whether she is single or married, for society it is an issue. People will begin planting damaging rumors about her.”
Rumors of most women fish traders being involved in extramarital affairs are everywhere even in fish trading. But we haven’t seen any tension at the harbour because of extramarital affairs issues,” Mr. Mwansa says.
And a male fish trader, Martin Njovu, adds, “Time is now for women to stand up and change this thinking towards them. Such kind of thinking has resulted in women not venturing into income-generating activities. Currently in this country, a woman cannot clinch a job without being accused of landing that job through sex,” Mr. Njovu said.
Mr. Njovu adds, “It won’t matter if she is a hard worker. A woman cannot get into politics in this country without people questioning the source of her resources. It is socially illegal for a woman to own a house without being accused of reap off a man.”
Despite the stereotyping, Ms Mwanza says the secret to success in the fish trading has always been her positive attitude.
“A positive attitude is the fuel needed to drive us from idea conception to realization.”
(Picture caption: Eshther Mwanza poses with fish at her trading post)
(Picture credit: Doreen Chilumbu)
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