How socialisation reinforces workplace sexual harassment in informal markets

Published on 26 March 2021

Marjoke Oosterom

Power and Popular Politics Cluster Lead

Most women working in markets in Uganda have no platforms for power and voice when it comes to participating in decisions concerning management of the markets. This has a real impact on their ability to address issues they face during their day-to-day life at work, including workplace sexual harassment.

Women in Uganda experience sexual harassment in all spheres of life, including at work. In cities, many women from relatively poorer backgrounds work in the informal economy, with vending being one of the options.  While food markets offer important livelihood opportunities to women, including during Covid-19 lockdowns, dynamics at markets are such that women are easily exposed to sexual harassment.

Disempowering market structures

Markets in Uganda have majorly male-dominated management structures that exclude women from leadership and key decision-making processes, and yet the women constitute more than 80% of the market population. This situation has been escalated by the outdated Market Act (introduced in 1942) that doesn’t encourage women to take up leadership positions.

In Uganda, markets are organised under a general structure that comprises men and women. The management structure includes: the chairman, vice chairman, secretary, treasurer and heads of stalls who are each in charge of stalls selling similar goods. For the lower leadership in most markets, vendors are organised on the basis of commodities that are sold in different sections of the market.

Many other markets in the country are outdoor makeshift markets (seasonal markets) that are set up during a particular period of time (on a weekly, bi-monthly or monthly basis); in these markets, the vendors arrange their goods on the ground, use makeshift tables and/or hawk them around the marketplace.

Most markets in Uganda operate in an informal setting where the employees are not given contracts; there is no business security and insurance, that is to say nearly all employees (a majority are young women) are paid on commission. This presents the employees with limited capacity to earn enough income for the many days ahead. The same young women, mostly, are illiterate or have low levels of education and cannot get employed in the formal sector where the situations would be different.

Sexual harassment as the norm

Forthcoming research on sexual harassment, conducted by the Institute for Social Transformation and Makerere School of Women and Gender in partnership with Institute for Development Studies, has revealed that market women’s ability to come out and speak against the structures based on the Market Act is very minimal. Thus, this has resulted into increased reported and unreported cases of sexual harassment on young market women.

One of the female leaders in Freedom Market in Kalerwe consulted by the project commented that some employers in the market have set up business rules that expose young women to being sexually harassed.

“For example, young women working in restaurants and many kiosks have to put on short skirts, have to endure the unwanted touches and verbal harassment since it is regarded as a form of customer care in this department. A number of the employers attach this reckless reasoning to that fact that the improper dress code attracts customers for their businesses which is the source of their livelihoods to keep standing,”

She added, “This way of conducting business in the market is normalised in many other business departments which gives men the power to harass the young women with no defense on their side as it’s their only income generating source.”

Kalerwe Market is positioned next to a police station but the some of the interviewed survivors didn’t regard this as the best mechanism to report incidents, because of fears of extortion and making statements in English.

The majority of the language used in the markets is vulgar and this has been considered by the market community as a norm to live with, for both the vendors and the customers that visit the market.  This language involves use of sexual words, sexual gestures and body shaming words from (mostly) men directed towards the young women in the market.

It’s time for leaders to act

Some survivors, however, noted that they a times spoke to the elder women in search for guidance and support when harassed. “In spite of our endeavors to seek guidance and support, the considered elder women in the market usually communicate in response that this ought to be normal and that we should prepare for more because we are girls,” said one of the survivors.

With all this, the young women at times keep blaming themselves for working in such a harsh environment but due to the responsibilities they must fulfill, they can do nothing but endure it in silence to keep surviving. Sexual harassment has also affected the young women psychologically and in the long run, their productivity at the various workplaces in the market noted to have reduced.

Intervention from local area leaders, market leaders, women SACCO (Savings and Credit Cooperative) leaders and the government is needed to overcome or reduce this vice so that the young women can work freely in an environment that respects them other than seeing them as prey for their fantasies.

Uganda has not yet ratified ILO Convention 190 concerning the elimination of all forms of violence and harassments in the world of work, including in informal work settings. It is clear that huge efforts are needed to tackle sexual harassment in Uganda. This needs legislation as well as support to women to speak out, and interventions addressing the social and gender norms that cause sexual harassment.

You can register here for our webinar on Tuesday 30th March, where Victoria Namuggala will discuss research on sexual harassment in the world of work, in the context of youth employment in Africa.

Abdul Ssewanya, Edgar Arinaitwe, Atuhaire Shinah, Namuyiga Jovia and Tuhaise Jesca are youth researchers working in Uganda on the IDS-led Gendered Price of Precarity project

The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.

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