A cup of tea makes its way onto my table – just as I like it, piping hot with no sugar. Before I had started looking for biscuits, they were in front of me along with my psychiatry papers and lab coat. I wondered if the Sitashai (tea seller) realized how much easier my life was because of her efforts.
Looking around, I see many like her. The second Sitashai just outside Soba Hospital, the lady who sweeps our exam center and the street-food vendor on Madani Street nearby. They work hard to earn a meagre living, whilst their stories go largely unnoticed. I realize that these women never had a safe space to vent, discuss or express their opinions and hardships openly. These thoughts unsettle the air around me.
“Being an informal worker is hard, it’s like being behind curtains, you’re invisible, people benefit from you, but you are still unseen”
– Nawal Mustafa, an informal worker who sells sugar.
SUDAN FORCES THE REALITY OF INFORMAL WORK
Sudan’s conservative gender norms and economic situation kept these women uneducated and dependent on the men in their lives. In a country where hundreds of thousands of husbands are dead, missing or displaced, many Sudanese women are forced to informally work as tea and food sellers, domestic workers or petty traders. They struggle to secure their families’ future in a man-controlled economy.
Musa Bungudu, country coordinator for UNAIDS, said the female informal workers were part of the “vulnerable populations in Sudan” because of their lack of education and low income”
THERE’S NO SAFETY TO BE FOUND
Poverty, insecure working conditions as well as the unawareness of their rights leaves them prey to physical and verbal violence. The law provides practically no form of economic security or social safety nets that would help better working conditions for these women. .
WOMEN INFORMAL WORKERS’ STORIES ARE IGNORED
Not only are informal workers in the margins of Khartoum marketplaces and streets, they are in the margin of development priorities. They are denied spaces to conduct their trade and appropriate policies that protect them from extortion. An online search for numbers and statistics relating to the economic conditions of women in the informal sector comes to no avail. Women workers, their stories, and daily brawls are under-represented topics in Sudan’s economic discourse.
“Before I moved to Al Fatih I was living in Soba, but with continuous bulldozing by the government, and taking the land from us, we decided to come here. The government should have at least given us houses but they didn’t, we are still unable to build adequate houses to live in. Even though there is no Kasha* like there was in Soba, my income is very low, and my situation is deteriorating.”
– Howida, a divorced tea lady, living in Alfath with her eight children
With a global pandemic happening, the fate of unprotected informal workers is unknown. Women who depend on street selling will suffer from curfew and business closure laws that are being enforced throughout the country.
DEVELOPMENT AND EMPOWERMENT FOR WOMEN IN THE INFORMAL SECTOR PREVENTS FURTHER EXPLOITATION
While the women engaged in the informal sector feed the economic engine of our nation, their work and contributions largely go unrecognised. What working women like Howida need is recognition in a way that translates into consideration in urban and economic policies and plans – in the allocation of urban land, provision of basic infrastructure and transportation services, in regulations on public space and local economic development.
THEY NEED TO BE INCLUDED IN ECONOMIC DIALOGUE
Perhaps if we tried to engage with the struggles of working women outside of the economic elite, we would recognise the effort needed to empower them. Informally working women are not mere embellishments to the streets of Khartoum, they are a valid component of the economy deserving of legal protection and their stories to be told.
Kasha*: Sweeps carried about by locality authorities and public order police, targeting street sellers, petty traders and tea ladies. They confiscate their goods and tools, forcing them to pay high fines to be retrieved. Cooperatives allow these women to unite, and challenge these policies that negatively affect their livelihood.