Zimbabwe Bans Sale of Used Underwear the Poor Are Often Forced to Buy

In an effort to maintain health standards and protect the domestic textile industry, Zimbabwe's government has passed legislation that outlaws the import or sale of secondhand underwear, but some critics are calling the ban an attack on the nation's poor.

The legislation, entitled Statutory Instrument 150, bans "articles of second-hand undergarments of any type, form or description, whether purchased, donated or procured in any other manner."

The legislation was introduced by finance minister Tendai Biti, who was appalled to find out many of the country's flea markets sell used, and sometimes soiled, undergarments to impoverished customers.

"If you are a husband and you see your wife buying underwear from the flea market, you would have failed," Biti recently told The Zimbabwe Mail.

"If I was your in-law, I would take my daughter and urge you to first put your house in order if you still want her back," he added.

According to  the Guardian, the Zimbabwe Revenue Company will now charge 40 percent duty, 15 percent VAT on all underwear imports, as well as a $3.00 levy on each kilo of underwear entering the country.

Supporters hope the ban, which took effect Dec. 30, 2011, will improve personal hygiene and boost self-esteem.

When Ghana aggressively enforced its ban on secondhand garments in 2010, the African Review reported that "second hand undergarments often cause bacterial and fungal infections that usually affect the skin. These infections include itching in the groin area, athlete’s foot, candidiasis and yeast infections."

Some critics contend that the negative affect of used undergarments are minor compared to unhealthy environmental factors and living situations.

"The authorities should focus attention on poor environmental sanitation which poses serious health risks to the populace, because no medical facility has reported ailments associated with wearing of used under clothing," executive member of the used clothing importers in Accra, Daniel Ankomah, told Africa Review in Dec. 2010.

Many also hope the ban will boost Zimbabwe’s flailing textiles industry.

Zimbabwe holds one of the world’s highest unemployment rates at over 90 percent, forcing many of its inhabitants to purchase used garments, including underwear, from flea markets.

It is also one of the poorest countries in the world, according to the International Monetary Fund.

An editorial in Newsday Zimbabwe refers to the ban as "one of the best laws that our country has put in place in recent years," describing the wearing of used underwear as “most dehumanizing.”

"What nation have we become that knowingly subjects its people to humiliation and disease? It is inconceivable for a country to open its borders for the importation of used underwear – to allow our women to wear undergarments that other women in other countries have used and discarded," reads the editorial.

According to the USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Gain Report of 2009, "[Zimbabwe's ] textile industry is considered strategic to the economy as it contributes significantly to the Gross Domestic Product, bringing in foreign currency through export receipts and also through direct employment creation of thousands of jobs."

The report went on to indicate that Zimbabwe’s textile industry has suffered an economic downturn because "the majority of spinning and weaving firms have reduced capacity utilization and face stiff competition from the Asian textile industry where labour costs are lower."

The ban may prove beneficial time wise, as the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology reported  Dec. 5 that China’s textile industry is expected to grow in 2012 despite a fading export demand.

Community business leaders have shot back at Bidi’s ban, arguing that he is unfairly trying to run traders out of business.

"The minister is among those in the MDC advocating for the creation of employment but people have resorted to cross-border trading because there are no jobs," Cross-Border Traders Association president Killer Zivhu told the Standard paper, according to the Zimbabwe Guardian.

This is not the first ban Zimbabwe has put on imports. In late 2011, the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority placed duties on popular imported goods, including footwear, blankets, and stoves.

Zimbabwe is not the only African country to recently ban the sale of secondhand underwear. Rwanda also banned such sales as of Dec. 31, 2011. As previously mentioned, Ghana has upheld the ban since 1994, although it has only been aggressively enforced since 2010.