Empowering women is her lifelong passion

Ruth Butaumocho Gender Editor
She has traversed the region pushing for economic empowerment for women, a journey of 40 years that has strengthened her resolve to improve their welfare despite all the odds. From the time she discovered that business was not about money and products but understanding the terrain, Ms Phides Mazhawidza, a yesteryear business icon, has been putting her energy into training and mentoring fellow women.

Ms Mazhawidza is among the first group of women in Zimbabwe to agitate for economic empowerment of women by advocating and lobbying for their recognition in various economic sectors.

“Seeing women doing well in business after receiving training and mentoring is something that I look forward to on a daily business.

“I have mentored women from diverse backgrounds and I take satisfaction in knowing that I brought transformational change in the lives of many,” she said in an interview recently.

Ms Mazhawidza is the president and founder of Women Farmers’ Land and Agriculture Trust, an organisation that trains and facilitates market linkages for women farmers and the private sector.

Her passion for women empowerment from the time she was in her 20s has seen her mentor hundreds of women who are now running successful business enterprises in different sectors, although she never had a knack for entrepreneurship.

“I never wanted to venture into business after my father who was a successful rural businessman went broke in Hwedza. Our lifestyle changed overnight and it was at that time that I resolved that I would never have anything to do with business,” she said.

Because she was determined to succeed in other areas outside entrepreneurship, Ms Mazhawidza took her studies seriously resulting in her attaining a degree in Business Administration with the University of Zimbabwe in the early 1980s.

“My choice of business had nothing to do with my background or a yearning to venture into business. It was just an opportunity that presented itself and I had to go for it,” said Ms Mazhawidza.

It was while she was working for the {psts and Telecommunications Corporation (which has since been unbundled into Zimpost, TelOne and NetOne) that an opportunity to fulfil her desire to mentor and empower women came by following her meeting with one of Zimbabwe’s high-flying businesswoman.

“I had read in the newspaper about Zimbabwean women who had gone for the Third World conference on women, dubbed Nairobi: Decade for Women, and were giving a feedback on the resolutions that had been adopted.

“When I went to inquire about these developments at Ms Esnath Mapondera’s office, who I worked with, I met Kubi Indi. We all discovered that we had a passion for women empowerment,” recalls Ms Mazhawidza.

The meeting resulted in the birth of an organisation called Women’s World Bank to facilitate loans to women running various businesses across Zimbabwe.

However, the project did not get much financial support, forcing the founders to incorporate business training, which was a crucial aspect of money lending after they realised that beneficiaries needed to have an appreciation of business fundamentals to assist them in managing their businesses.

“I realised that many businesses, including my father’s, were folding because the entrepreneurs lacked training in business management and other crucial aspects needed to run businesses viably,” said Ms Mazhawidza.

By then her passion for women mentorship was growing. After nearly a decade of working for PTC, she called it quits and joined Women in Business (WIB), an advocacy organisation for women empowerment, as a director.

With the contacts and networks she had established through her interactions with several women’s organisations and several women entrepreneurs — both established and upcoming — Ms Mazhawidza focused her energy and resources towards training.

Since the majority of members based in the country’s 10 provinces were entrepreneurs with a few still formally employed and already moonlighting in business, WIB went on a massive training programme while promoting market linkages within the region.

“The organisation received an overwhelming response from women across Zimbabwe whose needs and aspirations then were not being catered for by the Zimbabwe National Chamber of Commerce.

“Our thrust was on sensitisation, raising awareness among our members on the business opportunities within Zimbabwe, the region and the globe.

“Training was a crucial aspect of the whole process because we realised that our members would not be able to excel if they were not schooled in business issues such as accounting, access to finance, business etiquette and exploring existing and emerging markets.”

The active participation of WIB and several other women organisations offering the same services heavily influenced the promulgation of a number of economic policies that have seen the advancement, inclusion and participation of women in different sectors.

During that time, WIB became a regional brand that in 2000, Ms Mazhawidza had to lead a group of 25 women to Obgwendivah, Namibia, for the WIB-SADC Network trade indaba, where the group excelled.

Among some of her achievements has been her participation in lobbying for a quota allocation system to ensure that women would get 20 percent of land that was being allocated during the land distribution exercise.

Her undying determination to uplift women saw her taking part in the formation of a number of advocacy and empowerment organisations between the 1980s and 1890s, among them Zimbabwe Women in Finance, FEMCOM-COMESA, Women and Land Lobby Group and the OMA Bank, a project which sadly never took off.

“It is disheartening to note that the same concept for the OMA Bank was later used to start a commercial bank that is now operational here in Zimbabwe.

“We worked so hard to develop the concept and sadly nothing came our way,” she said.

Ms Mazhawidza admits that despite the milestone achievements women have made over the years, it has not been easy.

She says women still face the same challenges they were facing more than four decades ago, save for the fact that there are now policies in place for their ascendancy, although they are not being implemented holistically.

“The time that we started working on women empowerment can best be described as an era of creating awareness. That era resulted in the creation of policies which women now enjoy today.

“We might not have been able to do everything during that time, but we laid a good foundation for both the economic and social empowerment of women through advocacy, training and mentoring.

“Lack of resources had always been an issue even then, the same challenge that women still face today. Yes, economic policies meant to alleviate the status of women are there, but there is no political will to support them,” she said.

Ms Mazhawidza also bemoaned lack of home-grown organisations driving the local agenda for women, saying most of the existing institutions are now donor-driven, and no longer developmental.

Although the terrain is not level, Ms Mazhawidza who will be turning 60 soon, is not discouraged.

“Development does not happen overnight, it’s a gradual process. Women may not have achieved much, but we are certainly getting there.

“We will continue using the existing legislation to empower our women,” said Ms Mazhawidza who is also a farmer in Goromonzi, where she spends most of her time.

Feedback: ruth.chinhema@zimpapers.co.zw

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