By Andrew Mambondiyani
MUTARE, Zimbabwe (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - After her husband died in 2011, Theresa Matanda looked for a job in Zimbabwe's capital, Harare, but with no success despite being a qualified accountant.
With two young children to support, Matanda, 36, was pushed to join the swelling ranks of Zimbabwean women risking rape, robbery and death as cross-border traders.
"I need money to pay rent for the house, electricity bills, water bills and school fees, and to buy food," Matanda told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "Cross-border trading is my only option."
Zimbabwe's job market has shrunk on the back of an economy that analysts say will stagnate or fall into recession this year. The economy slumped by 45 percent during 1998-2008 at the height of an economic crisis, prompting factory closures, huge unemployment and growing food shortages.
Some 65 percent of Zimbabwe's 14 million people now rely on the informal sector to survive, according to the African Development Bank.
Donors have withheld financial aid to the southern African country in protest over President Robert Mugabe's controversial policies, including his seizure of white-owned farms in 2000.
Now more than three million Zimbabweans, most of whom are women, make a living buying goods in neighboring South Africa and reselling them across the region, according to Killer Zivhu, head of the Zimbabwe Crossborder Traders Association.
But some never make it home.
The bodies of two Zimbabwean women, who had been assaulted before being killed, were recently found in Germiston, 15 km (9 miles) east of South Africa's capital Johannesburg.
Around 25 Zimbabwean women were kidnapped in South Africa between May 30 and July 11, according to a report in the Zimbabwean newspaper The Herald.
A Zimbabwean gang is believed to be behind the attacks, targeting women at the border town of Musina by offering them transport for the 500 km journey south to Johannesburg, it said.
Many women say they feel they have no choice but to take the cheapest transport they can find, despite the risks.
They can spend up to three months criss-crossing Angola, Mozambique, Zambia, Namibia and Malawi before coming home.
Matanda travels around 3,000 km northwest, through Zambia, to sell clothes, bed sheets and tablecloths in the remote Angolan town of Saurimo.
"The journey by road from Harare takes about seven days and we travel in open trucks through very dangerous terrain," she said.
Some travelers are killed by malaria and yellow fever on route. Accidents are also common on the decrepit roads.
"It is difficult and expensive to bring the bodies back to Zimbabwe for burial," she said.
More than a decade of economic crisis has driven many Zimbabweans to desperation.
More than 80 percent of Zimbabweans are unemployed, according to the World Bank, although the government puts the figure at 11 percent.
More than 10 companies have shut down each month over the past two years, according to the country's National Social Security Authority.
Factories lie idle in the once prosperous southern African country's industrial heartlands.
Despite the risks of cross-border trading, many women say they have no alternative.
"I will soldier on," said Nora Sithole, 34, a single mother of three, who was robbed of her passport and over $1,000 on the road last year.
Sithole regularly travels over 1,000 km north from the Zimbabwean border town of Mutare to Lichinga city in northern Mozambique to sell blankets and clothes. The journey takes two days.
"We cannot help it," she said. "We want to feed our families."
(Reporting by Andrew Mambondiyani; Editing by Katy Migiro and Belinda Goldsmith)