So, What About The Women’s Cooperatives Union? An Interview With Yousria Mohammed Zakaria

According to the UN women 2018 report, women constitute over 80% of the informal labour in Sudan. Women in the informal sector in Sudan constitute a very huge segment of society, and are considered to be marginalized, due to their inaccessibility to social services, primarily, and among other factors associated with their activity nature, as well as factors relating to their identities, such as gender, race and ethnicity. 

With the Sudanese Government’s recent announcement of commencing a 3-weeks 24-hour lock-down, AMNA conducted an interview with one of the leading individuals working in preserving and protecting the rights of women in the informal sector. She provides us with a comprehensive review of their general status, her personal experience with community-based associations that represent informal workers, and a run through the COVID-19 situation in relation to informal women workers, whether they be tea sellers, food sellers or owners of unorganized businesses.

Kindly note: Throughout this interview the terms “informal” and “unorganized” sectors are used interchangeably, to refer to workers who are part of the informal economy

Introduction: (Name, age, address, occupation, social status, nature of work)

“My name is Yousria Mohammed Zakaria, I’m 32 years old, I live in Khartoum State, Locality of Jabal Awliyaa, Mayo. I’m married, I work as a cook on social occasions, and I’m the head of the Dalo Development association (one of the daughter associations of the Women’s cooperatives union).”

Tell us more about the work the Women’s cooperatives union carries out, and your role within it?

“ The cooperatives union has been established a long time ago, but the associations in the union only got activated earlier in 2013. 13 associations were formed in the union, and today there are 26 associations part of the union. Dalo is one of the daughter associations of the union, it has been initiated due to the assistance provided by the USAID, We developed our proposal to establish the center and were successful to have a permanent headquarter called “Dome”. Dome is an eco-friendly institution, different parties contributed in its development, those including University of Khartoum, grassroots Engineers from Darfur, as well as the women residents of Mayo themselves. They took part in the primary construction of the building, lifting cement, and mixing building materials.

With regards to our association, I was assigned as it’s head in 2014. Currently, the association owns a working space, a windmill, furnaces, but we only lack the financial support. In order for us to properly operate and utilize those assets, we have faced several challenges, primarily from the residents of the area themselves, in addition to the unavailability of specialized personnel, as well as the financial matter, which plays a great role. The association today holds a training program, we equip women with skills such as sewing, embroidering, preparing pastries and baked meals, in addition to hand-manufactured materials, such as vases, wallets, footwear for men and women, bags and accessories. Our association’s activity is not restricted to the periphery of Mayo, we hold those training programs in different areas in Omdurman and Khartoum, including Alkalakla, Alsalama and Abo Adam. Holding the position of the head, I’m directly involved in the planning and organization of those activities, I also work closely and supervise the media campaigns manager, who’s responsible for gaining publicity for our events. The way we usually attain this publicity is through offline means, such as reaching out to the resistance committees of the designated areas. We try to understand their needs better, communicate to them our goals, what we’re capable of providing and how that could be of benefit. I’m present almost daily, since I’m also one of the handicrafts trainers.’

How do you think the union has eased the situation for informal workers?

“In the past, we only worked in the sectors of food and tea making, it was known that our options were either this or that. The cooperatives union contributed in breaking that stereotype, and young girls started mastering skills such as carpentry and blacksmithing, those are things our grandmothers didn’t engage in. This was one of the initial activities the union conducted, with the contribution made by SIHA initiative. 

Dalo is based in Mayo, which is not only a densely populated area, but an area inhabited by people internally displaced due to conflict, as well as people facing life and economic hardships. Those segments generally reside in Mayo because there, one house can contain 6 families, we tried to gather the residents of this area in one place in order to provide some sort of aid for them through the union and its daughter associations. Since a lot of those women work in tea selling during the day, we helped them to work on designing and selling wallets in the evening, thus securing a second source of income. They even started teaching their kids the wallets work, as it’s easy to learn. 

Our association also supports homeless children, we usually find them in the market, and it’s a revelation to them when one of the Dalo workers approaches them, teaches them how to clean and tidy themselves, provides them with a clean nutritional meal, a safe place to sleep as well as teach them a skill through which they can receive financial returns.

As mentioned, the association works on tea and food making, in addition to different kinds of skills training. The reason why we started providing the training is to break the norm of the nature of work our members perform, as well as to widen their options in generating income. Whoever wants to work on tea and food can do so, and those who don’t work at all are enrolled in the training program. Even the women who retire and can no longer do long hours of food and tea making, are encouraged to join the training program, where they can work on whatever activity that is feasible for them.

In our association’s headquarters, we have a working space where design, sewing and décor activities take place, providing sources of income for the association’s members. We also have furnaces, which we used to provide bread for women in the previous crisis, we made sure that any woman who approaches us has enough bread to feed her children. But at the time, the flour’s prices weren’t as inflated as they are now, therefore, we are currently unable to provide this sort of service, due to the unavailability of subsidized flour. Another activity we carry out is that in Eid, all our members get to prepare their baked items in the association, no one bothers to look for bakeries outside.

Being part of the association requires you to cover monthly membership fees, and by the end of the year we find out the annual amount collected through these fees. We use the amount to provide support for our members during the Holy month of Ramadan, after undergoing legal auditing for our documents, we decide how the money will be distributed. This process is primarily reliant on the circumstances our members face, we allocate amounts for those with health conditions, those in a maternity period, those who have lost a family member, those who need to travel for emergency purposes, or those who weren’t able to work due to a reason or another.

With regards to food supplies or goods in general, we sometimes receive aid from donors, and under those situations we equally divide the supplies between us, while prioritizing orphans, widows and members with especially challenging economic conditions. If we get excess supplies, we usually give them out to the people in need within Mayo.

During the period when the former regime ruled, women informal workers thought about establishing small associations and bodies within the areas that they work in, in order to protect themselves from the raids government-led forces carried out. In that way, if 3 or 4 women are working using the same boiler for example, and word spreads that there’s a raid, they can more easily transfer the information and gather their belongings before  risking them being confiscated or damaged.

When it comes to the issue of insurance, we as an association are registered within the women’s cooperatives union for food and tea sellers. When the idea of securing health insurance for the members of the union came into discussion, I, along with a group of people were responsible for supervising this process. We paid a visit for the ministry of social welfare, and discussed how the informal workers were a marginalized social category when it comes to health insurance and other social services. We came to an agreement that the health insurance will be granted for the members of the union, in addition to the women informal worker getting registered as the breadwinner of the family, allowing her to secure the insurance for her husband and children. Subhanallah the idea was appealing to the present parties, and we were able to settle the insurance issue under the condition requested. This was something we were deprived from in our sector, today, we are able to access insured health services if we or our loved ones face a relevant circumstance.

It’s important to mention that this insurance is government-supported and was released officially under the name of the Women’s cooperative union.

Do you think the union has enough reach out i.e how many women are there in the union and from how many sectors within the informal sector, how do people become part of it, and how do you make sure people from different geographical locations are members.

The union is inclusive of any area within Khartoum state, and each neighborhood has its own independent association. Two years ago, the union’s membership for tea and food sellers consisted of 26,000 members. This is only in Khartoum, besides the other states, where we’re currently coordinating the process of extending the union’s activity and have well-established associations in the rest of the states.

The associations are distributed over Khartoum State, on a locality based arrangement, in each locality, there’s more than 10-15 associations. They form a mother association for their locality, and then daughter associations are formed and become part of the union as a whole. Local and international organizations helped in establishing official headquarters for those locality-based mother associations, you’ll find fixed headquarters for the union’s associations in Omdurman, Haj Yousif, Souq Sha’abi, and our own Dalo Association headquarter in Mayo.

The membership process in the union happens in two ways. Some women hear about the union as a body which provides protection, and so they approach us, telling us what they do and where they work. According to their geographical location, their contact and National ID information is taken to complete the registration, she’s then obliged to cover a membership fee and follows up with the union’s activities through regular meetings.

The second way the membership happens is that we ourselves encounter informal workers in different areas, we approach them and introduce the union, and the kind of services it provides for members. In most cases, women agree to join us seamlessly as they’re in a position where they’ve had a fair share of suffering due to the nature of this sector.

However, our members still suffer from the problem of having official identification documents. Under the former regime’s rule, a lot of women, myself included, used to maneuver this situation of ID information by resorting to our tribes’ mayor. In that way, if I don’t have parents, siblings or any indicated family members, I am able to produce my National ID number using the name of my tribe. After the fall of El-Bashir, we got the opportunity to communicate this concern to the ministry of social welfare, and are currently planning to implement measures that ensure all members of the union have legitimate ID documents.

Describe how the deteriorating economic situation has affected the work and income of informal workers.

“We have a principle that we at the union all abide by, which is quality in the service that we provide. Because we’re adamant to keep our quality intact, our customers do not complain when we slightly increase our prices, aligning with the increase in the prices of our supplies. That way, we rest assured that our customers are secured, and we only increase our prices in a moderate way.”

Being engaged with informal female workers, do you think they have enough awareness regarding coronavirus, and if yes, how do they usually obtain such information?

“I can rate the degree of awareness to be relatively good, and the way they understand and are most receptive to information is through direct field awareness.

What we did is that we delegated members in different areas to transfer the information to the women there. Those focal points also formed sub-groups of grassroots level women who communicate the information about the virus to the other members in their own environment and in their own language. Despite the existence of awareness campaigns through other media outlets like national television, those women are unresponsive to this kind of communication, as some of them are not even Arabic-speakers or are not able to read written content. By directly conveying the message, they understand more clearly and are able to spread the information even more in their own circles and using their local languages. The information they have might be enough, but the supplies they receive to apply the information is not enough. Two years ago the union had 26,000 members, but today we have over 43,000 members, only residing in Khartoum.

We have a large batch from the union who are part of neighborhood committees and worked in awareness through those bodies.”

Do you think women in the informal sector were able to effectively apply this information, how, and why?

“With regards to self-protection, they’re only now starting to follow the health precautions and instructions. Upon receiving the information, they were determined to protect themselves, however, their life hardships pressured them to act otherwise. They’re aware the virus could be a dangerous disease, but they’re also aware that if they don’t work, their kids might starve.

On the other hand, there are numbers of them who were able to implement safety measures in their work environment. This is evident in how they stopped handshaking, and were able to maintain social distancing between them and their customers, as well as organizing a seating arrangement for customers that ensures they’re at considerable distances from each other. They were also effective in being sanitary, you’ll find that tea-sellers use a sanitizer throughout their working day, every time they’re in direct contact with a possibly infected surface. Although this is good news, the availability of sanitizers that are distributed is scarce, which means not all workers have the accessibility for those kinds of supplies.”

How is the current curfew policy affecting the work of females in the informal sector?

“By referring to the informal workers in the cooperatives union and Dalo Association, our work has been greatly affected by the COVID-19 situation. Those women who work in tea and food, used to provide services for places where social occasions take place such as clubs, or work institutions, all who’s operation had halted due to this situation. This created huge instability in their ability to provide for their families, in most cases they do not even have an amount that enables them to sustain themselves for a week long period. 

Additionally, a lot of those tea-sellers work two shifts, day and night, so when the 6 pm curfew was imposed, the mostly affected ones were the ones who worked in the night shifts. But in the union we developed what we call the “security box”, what happens is that if one has two shifts during the day, she gives up one of them for her colleague who usually works at night. In that way, we are able to support each other, as we’re aware of each other’s circumstances.

Nevertheless, even during the day’s shift tea sellers have witnessed a great decline in the number of customers they receive, due to the public’s adherence to safety measures advising against gathering spots/areas.

Part of why this is specifically aggravating for those women, is the kind of family structures that they’re part of, a lot of them say that it’s been 10 or 14 years since they’ve last seen their husbands, some of them are raising their children as widows, and others don’t even have children but bear the responsibility for children from their extended families. This tells you that one working day holds great significance for them, since they are the income generators in the family, I constantly listen to them saying that if we find the support we need, we’ll stop working, and we’ll stop for the next 3 weeks 24-hour lock-down even if we don’t find the support.

The union recently received a letter from sovereign council member Miss Aisha Musa, requesting that we formulate a certain number for the informal workers in the union, in order for the government to allocate financial amounts, as well as food supplies for them.”

Explain to us, whether you think some informal workers are affected more or less by this situation, and explain why.

“There are some women whose work is more expanded, those who work in tea-selling for an example, in addition to a second profitable activity. This gives them some kind of advantage over others who rely solely on tea-selling for example, they purchase their food items per day, and provide allowances for their kids per day as well. However, this supposedly advantaged group who have second sources of income constitute only 2000 or less out of 43,000 women in the union.

How do you think female informal workers have adapted with this situation?

“The first step in adapting with the situation was truly comprehending that this is indeed a dangerous disease, and that carrying out our normal flow of work can jeopardize both our lives and those of our loved ones.Secondly, the Women’s Cooperatives union was able to take measures that serve the members with the most challenging circumstances. They were able to allocate amounts for women who suffered from health conditions or were financially responsible for people with those kinds of conditions. We are currently seeking solutions and parties who can provide our basic essentials, most importantly healthcare needs, i.e. medicinal supplies.

In collaboration with the ministry of social welfare, we have provided them with the necessary National ID documents and prescriptions for the women in need, we are still waiting for the aid they promised, for both the food and medicinal supplies.

What has the union or co-operative that you’re part of contributed in helping the informal workers amid this pandemic?

“We worked on direct awareness with Miss Awadia Koko a month ago, we reached around 10,000 women and were able to distribute a good number of sanitizers, due to the financial assistance we received from Haggar Foundation. Those 10,000 are besides the members of the union, who have also been exposed to the health precautions instructions and were supplied with sanitizers.

Our efforts and supplies still remain insufficient in comparison with the magnitude of women this sector contains, the amount that we were able to get hold of for general supplies aid summed to 100,000 SDG, which was mostly prioritized for medicinal supplies, and still ran short to the actual need the women have. We were promised to receive mitigation food supplies that we can disperse in the union  by the ministry of social welfare, but so far nothing has happened. The situation is very challenging, every day, I get more than 500 women knocking on my door telling me how the situation is harder, now that they’re not working, and inquiring about the delivery of the promised supplies. They help each other out by sharing meals and what so, but their livelihood has deteriorated to an extent that you can never imagine.”

Do you know of any other stakeholders that have provided any kind of support for the female informal sector during this pandemic? If yes, who are they and how did they help them?

“I know of Qatar foundation, and of course, Miss Awadia Koko is quick to report all issues relevant to informal workers to higher authorities, like she did with the sovereign council. We received help from Haggar foundation when the coronavirus initially broke, and I’m also aware that Tetal soap company worked on awareness and the provision of washing soap for informal female workers.”

Currently, how do you think civil society or the government can help ease the situation for informal workers in Sudan amid the current events?

“There’s only two things, we’re a very huge social segment, and we’re in major need for food supplies. Merely getting the food supplies can relieve a lot of difficulties we face.”

What message would you like to send to society, and is there anything else you would like to add.

“I would firstly like to say that the women’s cooperatives union was going to be dissolved under the new government’s measures to dissolve such bodies. However, a letter was sent from the council of ministers requesting that the union gets excluded from this activity, as we constitute a very large segment from the society. They were also planning to establish a new governing committee, but Ostaza Awadia remained in position, due to us being a non-politically affiliated body. One of the basic principles the body stands for, is that it remains a politically neutral body, that doesn’t discriminate according to any kind of criteria, whether it be religion, race or political affiliation. As a member of the union you are free to exercise your own political activities, but in an independent manner.

I would also like to direct a message to any tea or food seller or any unorganized business owner, that you need to take into consideration your safety and your family’s safety. Stay aware that if you leave the house amid this pandemic, how many people you’re losing behind, you’re losing yourself, your children, your community and everyone in your environment. You’re viable to inflict harm in anywhere you go. Remember God, The Almighty is capable of making our lives easier, God says in Quran

“(51:56) And I did not create the jinn and mankind except to worship Me”.


If we stay home and pray, our sustenance will find it’s way to us, 3 weeks isn’t a lot, we were patient for more than 30 years, were patient during the sit-in in front of the military HQ, all we have to do now is to stay home and patient.”

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