3 things you should know about violence against women street vendors – and how to combat it

On December 7, 2020, StreetNet organized a live Facebook webinar about the importance of ratifying the Convention 190 of the International Labor Organization on Violence and Harassment. This landmark international instrument has rallied organizations of women workers all over the world through the hashtag #RatifyC190, but for many its relevance for women informal workers, and women street vendors in particular, is still vague.

Thankfully, the distinguished guests of the webinar Ratify ILO C190: Violence Against Women Street Vendors successfully articulated and explained the importance of this Convention for women informal economy workers and how the working lives of women street vendors are plagued by violence and harassment which we must urgently address.

The speakers of the webinar were Sally Roever, International Coordinator of WIEGO; Pat Horn, StreetNet Senior Advisor; Hilma Mote, ILO ACTRAV Officer; Naira Leal, Advisor to the Committees of Women and Youth Workers of TUCA; and Lorraine Sibanda, President of StreetNet. The webinar was moderated by StreetNet’s International Coordinator, Oksana Abboud.

Based on their insightful presentations, we managed to create this short summary of takeaways from the webinar which will assist both trade unionists and women’s rights activists to understand how gender-based violence and harassment at work intersect with the informal economy.

Here are 3 things you should know about violence against women street vendors – and how to combat it:

#1 – Women street vendors face violence and harassment on a daily basis and from a variety of sources

Violence against women and girls has been deemed a “shadow pandemic” by the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres. Indeed, reports collected by WIEGO have found that gender-based violence has increased among informal economy workers since the start of the pandemic in March.

However, although violence against women street vendors intensified during the lockdown measures imposed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Sally is quick to remind us that none of this is new. Studies conducted by WIEGO in preparation of the discussions for the elaboration of ILO Convention 190 uncovered not only that violence against women informal economy workers is systemic and pervasive, but that there is a wide range of sources of violence. As Sally explains, “First of all, the State, the national governments and local governments are common sources of violence; vested interests of intermediaries, money lenders, property owners, landlords, those sorts of actors are often times identified by workers in our network as sources of violence; criminal actors, even fellow workers, people’s own household and community, and also the general public. So, there is a whole range of sources of violence that affect informal workers”.

Both Lorraine and Hilma have personally experienced violence and harassment. While Lorraine remains an informal trader to this day, Hilma shared her story of being sexually harassed and beaten by a man when she was a child street trader in Namibia. As she recounts, “what has happened that day was that I was not only attacked, my dignity attacked, I was also sexually harassed as a young girl, we lost income as a family because we could not continue selling on that particular day, and this is really the story of many street traders across the world”.

Traumatic experiences such as these make women fearful, explained Lorraine. “That takes away their freedom of movement, their freedom of association, and freedom of conscience as well”. She added that the lack of gender-responsive public services, such as hygiene facilities for women, can also be considered as a human rights violation.

Pat stressed how the lives of street vendors are full of insecurity, and the environment is even more insecure for the women. Whether they are selling in the streets or working as informal cross-border traders, women often have to pay bribes or sexual favors for authorities to leave them alone. Plus, when selling spaces are limited, women are often the ones forced out. “It is quite a rough environment for women to work at in the first place” said Pat “But many, many women do because they basically do not have alternatives and they often are in charge of earning income for their families”.

Naíra, speaking on behalf of workers in the Americas region, also stressed that women informal economy “constitute the backbone of many economies in our region”. She added that although both men and women can suffer from violence and harassment at work, “unequal status and power relations in society and at work many times make the women more vulnerable”.

#2 – The stigma of informal economy work hurts women street vendors’ possibilities to achieve justice, but ILO C190 can be a powerful tool to fight against it

Although all women who suffer from gender-based violence face barriers to achieve justice and make perpetrators accountable, the stigma imposed on informal economy workers by society cause women street vendors to have even less recourse opportunities. As Hilma eloquently put it “Such people as street traders are not seen as human beings with aspirations, with dreams, but rather seen as people who can be abused at any point in time”.

Street vendors are often pushed to work in the informal economy due to financial necessity, but also because transition to formality as a vendor can be extremely difficult. According to Pat, “This lack of security in selling spaces is caused by difficulty in getting trading permits. And very often this is because people try to get trading permits but they get refused, or they just do not get responded to. Very often the requirements in order to make an application are discriminatory. They will discriminate against you because you are a foreigner, or because you are not part of the clique that happens to be controlling the system at the time.”

She added that badly administrative and inconsistent permit systems is most cities are a pervasive problem barring access to trading permits. As such, authorities will “often try to shift the blame unto the traders themselves and say that it is their fault because they can’t read, because they are ignorant, because they are all sorts of things that are not actually true”, says Pat.

“Basically, many people then end up having to trade without permits. Then they get called illegal traders, they get called all sorts of uncomplimentary names. And in fact, they are not illegal in the sense of being criminal. They just happen to be trading without a permit because it is so difficult to get one” she summarized.

One of the reasons why ILO C190 represents such a landmark for labor rights is precisely because it rejects the stigma against informal economy workers. “It is of utmost importance to mention that this international instrument is one of the first to consider the world of work so extensively, and how important that is for us” highlighted Naíra.

Article 2 of ILO C190 specifically states that “This Convention applies to all sectors, whether private or public, both in the formal and informal economy, and whether in urban or rural areas”. Article 8, on the other hands, recognizes the “the important role of public authorities in the case of informal economy workers”.

As Pat remembers, “When we were fighting for this Convention 190 at the International Labor Conference, we fought tooth and nail to have this form of violence against street traders and particularly women street traders to be mentioned very specifically instead of having another instrument which only focuses on workers in the informal economy.  And we were successful”.

Hilma stressed the crucial message that countries which have ratified the Convention are passing to their ow people – “their leaders are saying that our workers, irrespective of employment status or income status, matter and their dignity has to be preserved”.

#3 – Mobilization and coalitions are essential to combat violence and harassment

All speakers were unanimous in highlighting the importance, but also the limitations of ratification of ILO Convention 190. As Pat summarized, directing her warning to informal economy workers’ organizations, “Don’t think that because we have a nice Convention, that has nice clauses in it that we fought for, that things will change on the ground if you don’t lobby your governments and push”. She specifically encouraged street vendors’ organizations to join tripartite social dialogue structures in their own countries, either independently or through formalized trade unions.

As for Naíra, she emphasized the role of trade unions and wide coalitions to promote ratification and long-term change, especially in the Americas region. Indeed, Uruguay became the first country to ratify the Convention in June, 2020, and coalitions of trade unions, women’s organizations, NGOs and so on in other countries such as Chile and Argentine are also active in rallying support for ratification.

“As [trade] unions we can and should sensitize and educate our members and society in general. Promote awareness, that is fundamental: what is violence, what is harassment, when does it happen, what can we do about it. Preparation of guides for union representatives on how to support these victims. Build alliances.” As Naíra urged, “We need to take action”.

Sally, based on the research conducted by WIEGO, explained that successful approaches to combat violence and harassment against women informal economy workers were partly based on dismantling the enabling factors of such violence. These enabling factors include “city planning narratives that ignore people and the kind of works they do; urban policies that do not have any livelihood component; a general devaluing of informal work and especially women’s informal work”.

According to Sally, seizing upon the experiences of organized informal economy workers who have managed to push back against institutional violence and drawing on their lessons learned is also essential. She stated “I do believe there is an opportunity now, workers are coming together more than ever. Violence in the world of work affects absolutely everyone and no one is alone in this struggle. So, this is the moment for us to join hands and find those places to push back.”

Hilma, speaking on behalf of ILO ACTRAV, underlined their commitment to work together with trade unions and other workers’ organizations to promote ratification of ILO C190. However, she also repeated that ratification is not an end in itself and added: “We are calling on you to use the minimum standards to frame the development of policies and negotiations and recognize also that COVID-19, the pandemic in particular, and the economic crisis is increasing the risk of violence for informal workers, but also increasing the risk of gender-based violence and domestic violence, both in the workplace and also outside. We would like to continue working and help organizations to identify those cases and of course be able to report, so that we have a portfolio of evidence to be able to challenge the reports that come out of governments, for example, but also reports from employers”.

Lorraine, speaking as a street vendor herself, stated that “We have to lobby our governments to have and implement national policies which will protect women in the informal economy, as well as women street traders”. She also added how protecting informal economy workers is not only an obligation of the authorities, but also an essential step for sustainable development. “There is a need for local authorities to accommodate street traders as part of the citizenry of every country. And to create conducive environment for this class of workers to work so that they earn a living firstly, and they also work under conducive environment which protects their well-being as well as their human dignity. And then, through that, they will be able to contribute sustainably to the development of their individual countries”.

StreetNet is committed to the elimination of all forms of violence against women, particularly violence and harassment against women street vendors in the world of work. In the words of StreetNet’s International Coordinator, Oksana Abboud, “Silence is not our friend anymore. We should not be quiet, and we should start from ourselves, to be those models, those examples, to encourage others around us”.

To see a condensed version of the webinar, with subtitles available in English, French, Spanish, Russian and Hindi, see the video below: