For the past several years, Fatima Shoriwa, the first Zimbabwean woman to work as a trained carpenter and welder, has operated a successful business where she has trained several other women who continued to work with her. Drawing on that experience, she is now establishing a training center for women and an associated production facility with the ambitious aim of transforming traditional attitudes toward women and giving the women themselves new skills and opportunities.
La nuova idea
Fatima is working to change prevailing perceptions of women and their societal roles in rural Zimbabwe, and to help the women themselves gain opportunities and rights that have long been denied. From her own experience, she is certain that the surest and quickest way to liberate women from attitudes and circumstances that tightly circumscribe their control over their own lives is to help them learn trades that, until now, have been the exclusive province of men. With such skills, she confidently predicts, rural women will achieve economic independence, and, with that newfound freedom, they will assume new roles in society and gain access to new options in education, marriage, child rearing, and other important aspects of their lives.Fatima is translating those convictions into concrete action by organizing a women's training center and an associated production unit in a rural area. The training center will equip Zimbabwean women from rural communities with practical skills in carpentry, welding, and similar fields. The production unit will help them hone their newly acquired skills, expose them to the benefits of working as a group, and generate income that will help make the center self-sustaining.
Some 80 percent of Zimbabweans live in rural areas, where attitudes toward women have changed very little in recent times. As it was for their fathers and grandfathers, the prevailing attitude among men in the Zimbabwean countryside is that women should stay at home, raise children, manage a household, and perform routine agricultural chores.
Women are often clearly seen as a gateway to property in that, when a man marries, he may ask the headman in his community for a small plot of land for growing maize and vegetables. But women are also widely treated as little more than another form of property, and routinely denied participation in even the most basic choices affecting their life prospects.
Evidence of gross discrimination against women and girls, and of abridgments of their rights and opportunities, can be found not only in everyday life in rural Zimbabwe but also in dry statistical reports. Such reports record significantly lower school enrollments and higher dropout rates for girls than boys and vastly lower employment in the trades and other particularly remunerative economic sectors. They also highlight the important role that training can play in opening up better economic opportunities.
More than four million in number, women and girls in rural Zimbabwe are increasingly aware of the extent to which their rights are infringed and their opportunities curtailed. They know that their urban counterparts live under very different rules, and they are not immune from the countless messages in modern communications media to that effect. But they lack both the skills and the attendant economic opportunities that would permit them to break free from their current cruel restraints.
Fatima has demonstrated through her own accomplishments that something better is possible for rural Zimbabwean women. She has designed and is now implementing a strategy that will help them gain access to the skills and opportunities that they seek.
The focal point of that strategy is a new training center for women, and a related production facility, in the rural area of Nyazura, some two hundred kilometers east of Zimbabwe's capital city, Harare. Through ties that she has developed in recent years with foreign funding agencies, Fatima has already obtained the financial support required for the construction of the training/production complex and added help in the form of scholarships for the women trainees, visiting teaching and advisory staff. (Fatima reports that such assistance has been obtained or pledged from British, Danish, Dutch, German, New Zealand, and Norwegian sources.)
The first phase of the implementation plan calls for bringing the new production unit on line well before training programs are launched at the new center. To make that possible, several skilled women who are already working with Fatima in the facility that she established several years ago will accompany her to Nyazura and launch production operations there as soon as the construction of the new physical facility permits. That approach will equip the new operation with experienced Zimbabwean staff from the outset, and the production unit will get an early start in generating a continuing source of income for the new undertaking.
The second phase of the implementation plan will involve recruiting and selecting rural women trainees and launching a training program. The experienced Zimbabweans in Fatima's current business will play a central role in the training program, which will also use foreign visiting staff in parts of its curriculum. The training program will initially concentrate on carpentry skills, and the production unit will turn out simple wooden tools for farmers, and coffins that will be marketed by commercial firms in Harare.
In the third phase of the development of the new undertaking, a welding department will be added. This department will permit training to be offered in an additional skill, for which there is considerable demand in rural settings. It will enable the new enterprise to begin servicing farm machinery.
During its first three or four years, Fatima plans to focus the new training operation exclusively on women from rural Zimbabwe. At a later point, however, she intends to offer places in the program to women in rural areas of neighboring countries, including Zambia and Mozambique. In doing so, she will be motivated in part by a desire to spread her idea and encourage its replication in other settings. To assist in achieving the latter aim, she already has a 27-minute color video documentary (in English, Shona, and Ndebele versions) that describes her remarkable accomplishments thus far, and was produced with the help of foreign donor/supporters.
Born in 1956 in a rural area in Zimbabwe, Fatima knows from her own experience the many obstacles and challenges with which girls and women in rural Zimbabwe contend.When Fatima was fifteen, her older sister died, leaving behind five children. In accordance with customary practice, Fatima was then married off to her brother-in-law, so that she could take care of her sister's offspring. Unfortunately, but not atypically, her partner in that marriage was abusive, and after their two children were born, he left her for another woman.
At that point, with responsibilities for the care of seven children, her father and stepmother as well, Fatima concluded that her only chance for survival was to return to school. Although not herself a veteran of Zimbabwe's battles for liberation from harsh minority rule, she somehow gained admittance to the Danhiko School, which had recently been established to enable ex-combatants to complete their education and acquire practical skills. While enrolled in that school, having elected a field of concentration normally reserved for males, Fatima was the lone woman in the carpentry program, and she supported herself and her family by operating a stall where she sold food and other supplies to her fellow students.
After completing her schooling, Fatima worked as an apprentice in a local building company. When that phase of her training was completed, she constructed a small workshop, using sheets of tin that she found at a local dump, and opened her own business.
At "Fatima Family Investments" (the name that she gave to her nascent enterprise), Fatima was soon approached by other women seeking training in the skills that she herself had only recently acquired. Acceding to their requests, she put them to work making simple wooden tools for use in carpentry. When things went well in that endeavor, she began producing a broader array of products. In the process, she converted the women she trained into a highly skilled work unit, and she introduced a scheme (still in effect) in which profits from their collective efforts are shared.
During the period when Fatima was building her business, she came to the attention of foreign donors. With their financing, the video documentary noted above was prepared, and at their behest she has shared her experience and insights with audiences both in Zimbabwe and abroad. She has also served as a consultant and trainer for the United States Peace Corps and the British Council.
Fatima and her work have gained wide recognition in Zimbabwe. In 1992, her life story was published in the country's major newspapers. The video was also widely distributed, and it was aired on the national television station in 1993. In that same year, Fatima also received an award from the British Council for her outstanding contributions to Zimbabwe's development.
Fatima has become a role model, not only for poor rural girls, but for urban women as well. She is frequently invited to give talks at schools and to various women's groups. In her own community, she is lovingly called "Mbuya" -a term that means "grandmother" but can be accorded to others who display a grandmother's wisdom and caring.