Academic journal article African Economic History

GENDERED EXCLUSION AND CONTESTATION: Malawian Women's Migration and Work in Colonial Harare, Zimbabwe, 1930s to 1963

Academic journal article African Economic History

GENDERED EXCLUSION AND CONTESTATION: Malawian Women's Migration and Work in Colonial Harare, Zimbabwe, 1930s to 1963

Article excerpt

Introduction

Mainstream scholarship has presented the history of both internal and international migration as a male phenomenon in the context of capitalist development. This obscured women's mobility throughout the twentieth century. Marxist scholarship on Southern, West, East and North Africa stresses men's migrant labor flows; recruitment processes and labor controls; and struggles for a fair wage, better working and living conditions.1 Even West African literature on inter-colonial commercial migration focuses on how "men came and went."2 Such androcentric literature erases women's engagement as inter-colonial migrant workers, reflecting prevailing patriarchal perceptions of the "migrant worker," and marking a significant gap in African labor history.

The new scholarship emerging between the 1990s and 2000s aimed to fill this gap by focusing on female migrants' livelihood strategies. For instance, Wells contested the mainstream conception, implicit in the male dominated literature, of African women as victims trapped in the passive grass widow syndrome. To her, South African women were "migrant workers in their own right."3 Similarly, for Zimbabwe and Swaziland among others, scholars established migrant women's struggles for mobility against colonial structures and customary laws; their fight to preserve their income generating options; and their flight from patriarchal controls and rural poverty.4 East, Southern and West African literature similarly examines internal migrant women's commercial sex work. For example, the Kenyan and Sotho women studied by White and Coplan fled rural poverty in Kenya and South Africa to work in Nairobi and the Rand respectively.5 Ouedraogo's Dagara girls migrated from rural Burkina Faso to engage in different economic activities, including prostitution in the West African town of Bobo Dioulaso.6 Pettin, on the other hand, focuses on circular, rural to urban commercial migration among Nigeria's Hausa women.7 C. Obbo follows Ugandan women's migration to the city of Kampala, where they settled in shanties such as Namuwongo-Wabigalo.8 Other scholars, such as Buijis, even established women's rural to rural migrant work, with Buijis' Transkeian women working on farms in Natal.9 However, despite dispelling the view of women as shiftless dependents of migrant men, this literature still focuses primarily on internal migration, based on the adage that women only migrate over shorter distances.

In Africa the feminization of international migration is increasingly drawing scholars and policy makers' attention. Even so, scholars still see women's international migrant work as merely a contemporary trend.10 Of course, by emphasizing the novelty of such movement, this scholarship misses the complexity of the colonial antecedents of women's migration and work, at once, moving from rural to urban areas and further across multiple colonial boundaries. For instance, Malawian women moved from rural Malawi to Blantyre and into either Mozambique or Zambia before reaching Zimbabwe and moving on to Harare to live and work.

This study traces these women's migration and work experiences in colonial Harare, Zimbabwe, against official laws designed to limit their mobility or to outright exclude them. Of course, inter-colonial migration emerged in response to the growth of the male oriented capitalist system in regional development centers such as Zimbabwe. Insofar as states, urban manufacturers and other employers regarded men as the principal workers, they promulgated trans-colonial and urban controls to confine women, as much as possible, to their homelands. However, Malawian women actively contested these restrictions. In both obvious and creative ways, they earned incomes for their families' survival in Zimbabwe and across national boundaries. This was despite the triple disadvantage of being women, foreigners and non-capitalist workers who encountered a complex regimen of laws, both generally affecting women and specifically affecting foreign women. …

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