Informal Workers: Global and Local Efforts

Almost every day of our lives in Sudan we encounter or deal with an informal worker, a tea-lady, a street-food vendor, a school doorkeeper, or the house keeper. There mostly must be an informal female (or male) worker that you have passed by through the day. In a sector such as the “informal” were boundaries are vague, informal workers face a lot of struggles just to pursue a decent living.

The Help

The Help novel by Kathryn Stockett is one of the books that brings forth many thoughts. The aftermath of reading it triggers feelings that invite for rethinking the way we see informal female domestic workers.

The Help, however, was one of the funniest reads I have read years back. The number of times this book has given me laughs, pure pleasure and entertainment were countless. The games played by the domestic African-American workers against their white employers, in an age where black Americans were brutally discriminated against, were an interesting exploration for how those brave working women learnt to cope and overcome hardships. And let’s not forget the courage it took for the white journalist, Skeeter (played by Emma Stone in the movie adaptation of the book) to cross dangerous lines, by forming a friendship and connection with the black house-workers. Which has led to the reporting of their stories to the world, and giving them the voice to reflect on the truth of the way they were being treated by their white employers, in both positive and negative ways.

The movie did not fail the book at all in depicting the story in a more engaging and entertaining way. Receiving three Oscar nominations and winning one says so much about it. Viola Davis, however, who portrayed the role of one of the black maids, expressed her dissatisfaction from how the struggle of house-workers was not delivered to the audience in its entirety in the film (but rather through a white journalist perspective). Adding that it lacked a deeper understanding of what these workers were truly feeling. Nonetheless, there is no denial of the marvelousness of the story, how stories of American house-workers were featured and the efforts of the author to put herself in African American house keepers’ shoes to narrate it.

Diplomatic Discussion

Informal workers and their stories, conditions and daily brawls with the undefined future may not be very visible for them and for us as they are an under-represented topic in global discourse. Many unanswered questions and behind-the-scene scenarios come to mind. Such as: are they being subjected to abuse, the way we saw in The Help book/film? Do they report it?  Are there any regulations that grant them protection? Are they aware of their rights? What about the migrants/foreigners rights in the informal sector?

For domestic servants, the unspeakable ill treatment of house-keepers had in some cases spurred governments’ intervention, as in the example of the Kuwait incident. The incident led to further discussions between the diplomatic delegations of both Kuwait and the Philippines, with the latter momentarily banning its citizens from traveling to work in the UAE which (was later lifted). This spurred a more concrete effort to establish a defined legal framework for Ethiopian domestic workers in the UAE.


To get a clearer understanding of the situation of the female informal workers in Sudan, an interview conducted with Sulaima Sharif, a lecturer at Ahfad University has helped in clarifying some of the questions we had in mind. Sulaima is a senior child therapist and head of the Trauma out of Reach office (TORCH). The struggles faced by informal workers as Sulaima has reported are many; including but not limited to poverty, the insecure working conditions as well as the lack of awareness of their rights, physical & verbal violence and sexual harassment. They mostly receive violence from customers when the latter refuse to pay for the services incurred by the informal female workers. Sulaima also mentioned cases of police officers misusing their authorities and mistreating female informal workers. Very few actually report to the officials the violent incidents they are subjected to. But the majority resorts to telling their friends, acquaintances, family members, and civil society workers.

Sulaima mentioned the existence of law articles that can protect informal female workers, but they are rather vague and not specific. This gives room for inept attitudes of law enforcers to intervene in applying the law. Refugee informal female workers on the other hand don’t fall under such regulations, making them more vulnerable to abuse.

In an attempt to shed more light on the issue, a number of short documentary films were produced by SIHA network. The films tell stories of informal female workers in different sectors. Each film presented an angle of the issue, and insights on how the women overcome their daily struggles in order to survive.

An online search for numbers and statistics relating to abuse and/or harassment towards informal working women in Sudan came to no avail. As the Global Database on Violence against women states, for Sudan there is no official national statistics on lifetime or past 12 months physical/sexual intimate partner violence, or non-partner violence, let alone any statistics concerning informal workers. Other local movements and initiatives that are based in Sudan also lack the statistics on violence towards informal female workers, which makes it even harder to quantify the size and dimensions of the problem.

Some movements such as “No to Women Oppression – لا لقهر النساء” are active in this area, but they face challenges in their work. What Sulaima suggests is a reformed way of thinking that promotes a more positive view of informal workers. A more scientific approach, she says “needs to be well researched and adopted for the problem to be tackled more efficiently”. In her own words, communities should “own the problem”, and prepare themselves to embrace the change the suggested solutions articulate.

Image credit: UN Women

What Happens When You Confront the Harasser?

You may be looked at as a person who lost their senses, you may be looked at as a shame, you may go through it alone and some might stand with you. All of these are assumptions, but what truly happened with Qabas?

The beginning: harassment in the street

Qabas Omer Abdulrahim and her sister Shahd were walking in a public street last May. They were going home near the central market south of Khartoum. It started with a young man following them while they were going to the bus stop. He first harassed them verbally and then started uttering sexual innuendos and commenting on their body shapes. When Qabas confronted him and decided to stop him, he protested and pretended to speak on the phone. The young ladies kept ignoring him as they considered it something that happens every day for ladies in public.

Things escalated after Qabas and her sister rode the bus, as the harasser came back and continued harassing them verbally in a filthy and consistent way in front of the people who were in the scene. None of the other passengers tried to intervene and stop the harasser to aid Qabas and her sister. Recalling that moment Qabas said “I felt embarrassed and humiliated by his behavior, at that moment I decided to end it and I got off the bus and started clashing with him. My sister joined me and another girl we don’t know also did the same and tried to prevent the harasser from attacking me. None of the people around us, not men or women, tried to stop it at the beginning. Until the harasser hit me and I blacked out for seconds, because he hit me very hard.

Throughout the situation, the other girl still tried to keep the harasser away from me and defended me”. That girl stood with Qabas and Shahd and didn’t give up on them. The audience preferred to end the situation and advised Qabas to get away from the scene.

Qabas and Shahd and the third girl went to take the bus again. Qabas was sitting on a seat near the window and the harasser came back again and started to provoke her. At that point Qabas told her sister Shahd to call the police, but couldn’t convince the people around to catch the harasser until the police came. One of them explained that it doesn’t affect him if they catch the harasser or not and another one told her to ignore the entire situation and never confront the culprit again. Qabas insisted on confronting the harasser and handing him to the police. When the harasser noticed the mention of the police, he started to move and went to Al-Sahafa neighborhood, but Qabas and Shahd followed him and told the guys in the neighborhood to catch him for harassing them. The young men caught him as he tried to run away and handed him to the police force which arrived in ten minutes.

The Trial of the Harasser

The police went to Al-sahafa police station and Qabas was asked to go to Ibrahim Malik hospital to get a medical document for the legal proceedings. A case was opened under Article 142 and later there were charges added under the Articles 151-1 (harassment) and 160 (abuse). A few days later, Qabas was told there will be a trial on the same day and the first hearing will be on Thursday of that week. The trial was delayed to Sunday as the management of the prison was not told 48 hours before the trial so they could not move the prisoner in time for the trial. On Sunday, all statements were heard and the court decided that the harasser would spend six months in jail and was charged with flogging 75 times and a 1000 Sudanese Pound fine, plus an additional 3 months in jail in case he did not pay the fine.

The Criminal Code for Harassment in the Sudanese Law

Article 151-1 in the criminal Sudanese law for the year 1991 goes as follows: “the person who commits a scandal is the one who does something unacceptable to someone else or does any type of sexual behavior which doesn’t reach to the level of sex , he/she will be punished with flogging 40 times maximum and it is allowed to put him/her in jail for no more than one year or a fine should be paid”. Article 151-2 “if the crime of the scandal was committed in a public place without the willingness of the victim it shall be punished with flogging not more than 80 times and it is allowed to put him in prison for no more than 2 years”. Article 151 was edited by adding a third item to it that says “the sexual harasser is the person who does or says or behaves in a certain way that seduces another person for an illegal act of sex, or comes with an unacceptable behavior or indecency that gives sexual hints which leads to harm the victim emotionally or gives him/her a feeling of insecurity, he/she shall be charged not more than 3 years in jail and shall be given a number of flogging”.


Qabas concludes: “I had to confront the harasser as I felt helpless from his behavior and his boldness and the fact the he will harass more girls, and people didn’t move to support us. The main reason why I am publishing my story is that I hope it will be an inspiration for other girls like me who were harassed in the most hideous ways. Not many of them can take their right because they are afraid of how the society will look at them or maybe they doubt the Sudanese judicial system”.


Obstetric Violence

“By slapping their laps, the patient will know that you truly care for her”

From a qualitative study on social norms and acceptability of the mistreatment of women during childbirth in Abuja, Nigeria.

For many women childbirth is a period associated with suffering, pain, humiliation, violation and even death. Yes, women get violated in labor rooms. It might be appalling, but it is happening. Obstetric violence is one of the various types of Violence against Women (VAW). Women in childbirth can be subjected to various types of violence, such as disrespect, verbal insults, and physical violence, discrimination based on race, socioeconomic status, age and others. Forced medical procedures (such as unnecessary caesarean section, episiotomy or vaginal examination) or detention in facilities for failure to pay, are forms of obstetric violence. Unfortunately, it is a neglected type of Violence against Women, and lack of information and awareness about the issue complicates it more and makes it harder to prevent and eradicate it.

Obstetric violence is an intersection between various factors. Social norms play an important role in the acceptance of Violence against Women, and usually women remain silent about the violence they face in hospitals because they consider it “normal”. This is because of the stereotype of how midwives are rude and violent, and getting screamed at or beaten by a midwife is normal and no one usually talks about it. In addition, women are ignorant about their rights as patients. On the other hand, women’s silence about their experiences and ignorance about their rights gives the medical staff, specially the midwives the chance to be abusive.

Similarly, women’s passive acceptance of mistreatment and violence by the health workers, may be amplified by the social norms in patriarchal societies i.e. women’s obedience of men in patriarchal societies may also influence their perceptions about their interactions with other people who are considered “superior” to them, such as health care providers, even if the provider was a female. And let us not forget that some doctors and other health care providers work in bad environments and overcrowded hospitals, with insufficient staff and this affects the patient-doctor relationship, where the doctor is not able to provide the patient with the care and the treatment they need.

Non-Governmental Organizations and initiatives should work on advocating, raising awareness, encouraging and promoting actions towards awareness and action within the society. Action upon obstetric violence should be according to the circumstances, taking into account local, cultural, religious and legal frameworks. NGOs and initiatives should also include, promote and raise awareness about sexual and reproductive health rights within schools, especially among young girls exposed to higher risks of early marriages. Raising awareness about obstetric violence and making it more noticeable is important to end it as one of the forms of Violence against Women. Understanding the underlying causes of obstetric violence is also essential to eradicating it from the roots.