Almost 90 percent of street vendors in Zimbabwe are completely dependent on street vending as their source of income. Many of them are women who risk violence and harassment when they work. Beauty (left) always buys ginger from a female street vendor (right) who does not want to give her name. Photo: Matilda Katsler.

FUF-correspondents, Report

Female street vendors fight for their place in Harare

In central Harare, street vending is an important part of the economy, especially for women who account for a large part of the informal workforce in the country. The women have to fight hard to take a place in the public space - en place that often has a high price in the form of violence and sexual harassment.  

In Zimbabwe's capital, Harare, the streets and squares are bustling with activity from morning to night. Sales are occasionally interrupted as municipal officials and police try to reclaim the city's public spaces by arresting the street vendors or destroying their wares. Harare's authorities have responded to the growth of street vending by taking tough measures: if unofficial sales take place in public places, the vendors' goods are confiscated and the vendors are jailed until someone can post bail for them. The reason is that the Harare City Council wants the city's public environments to achieve what they perceive as modern urban ideals.

About 95 percent of Zimbabwe's labor market is informal, according to a labor market survey by UNDP in 2014. Across Africa, street vending is estimated to make up between 15 and 25 percent of the informal labor market. At the same time, Harare faces complex challenges when it comes to the city centre, just like many other cities in emerging countries. According to a study from December 2023 modern urban ideals in Harare are prioritized higher than the part of the population that earns a living through street vending there. The result has been that street vendors do not have a place in central Harare and the commitment to remove them has been great. This in turn has resulted in further urban poverty and exclusion among the street vendors.  

The women at the center of exclusion

At the center of the conflict over urban space in Harare are the women, who, apart from those with disabilities, are the most vulnerable group among street vendors in the city. In addition to selling their goods under eight to twelve hours a day women are often responsible for childcare. At the same time, they struggle with patriarchal structures, and many of the women say that they are not "allowed" by the male sellers to sell certain goods that cost more or are considered to be higher in the hierarchy, for example technology gadgets. Instead, they are allowed to sell goods with a lower economic value, for example newspapers, fruit and vegetables. The restrictions make it difficult for the women to gather enough money in a day to survive. During the working day, they also have to keep an eye out so that no police or municipal officials are around and can arrest them or confiscate their goods. 

Many women are not allowed to sell expensive goods or goods that are considered high in the hierarchy. In the photo, a sister helps her brother dust off his tech stuff. She is not allowed to handle sales. Photo: Matilda Katsler.

Angelica, who is a 37-year-old street vendor in central Harare, believes that female street vendors are at a disadvantage compared to men, among other things because they are bound to sell in one and the same place.  

- It is difficult to be a traveling street vendor while carrying a baby on your back, she says.

Some women street vendors have developed strategies to avoid being targeted by police or municipal officials. One strategy is called "illusion", and it involves the women stuffing their goods on their backs to fool the official that the goods are their babies. Some officials are fooled, some choose to look the other way, while others undoubtedly punish women – with or without children – as harshly as any other street vendor.

Watson is a 35-year-old male seller who says that neither the police nor officials take the sellers' conditions into account.

- Whether someone is in a wheelchair or carrying a child, they don't care. They just say they are doing their job. Sometimes even the blind fall victim to these efforts, he says.

It is not uncommon for women to be subjected to sexual and physical harassment by municipal officials or police in exchange for protection from arrest or confiscation of their goods. One of the people who has fallen victim to sexual harassment is 36-year-old Mariat. She explains that female street vendors are easy targets for this harassment and that the perpetrators don't care if you are married or not.

- He will do whatever he wants, including taking your goods, because you may have refused to fall in love with him. They don't even care if someone is married, she says.

Selling using a cart can make it easier, especially if you sell goods that are difficult to carry on your head or back. In the picture we see a young girl selling with the help of a cart. She says that the cart, however, makes it difficult to move quickly if it looks like there will be a strike. Photo: Matilda Katsler.

Despite the constant uncertainty of becoming targets of sexual assault, many of these women have no choice but to continue working on the streets. For them, it is a struggle for survival and to be able to provide for their families. En forisk study highlights the need to consider the role of women street vendors in the economy in urban planning. A female street vendor who wishes to remain anonymous has herself reflected on the lack of municipal measures that support female vendors.

- We need support and respect from the city authorities to be able to continue our business in a way that respects our rights and dignity, says she.

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