From August to November 2021, under the leadership of Oksana Abboud, International Coordinator of StreetNet International, Senior Advisor Pat Horn and Organizer for West and Central Africa, Evelyn Benjamin-Sampson, facilitated a course for women negotiators members of our affiliate organization SLeTU, based in Sierra Leone. StreetNet has developed a curriculum for negotiation courses for a few years now.
The goal is to strengthen the capacity of our members and affiliates to interact with authorities and institutions. However, this was the first course aimed at women negotiators from Sierra Leone exclusively. It was delivered on WhatsApp, the instant messaging app, making it more accessible for women street vendors, who do not always have access to laptops and stable internet connection.
The importance of a negotiations course targeting women
Sierra Leone Traders’ Union (SLeTU) was formed on 24February, 2006 (16 years ago) as a union for informal economy workers in Sierra Leone. It has its offices in all regions and districts of Sierra Leone. It has more than 25000 members and 700,000 prospective members.
SLeTU leadership had undergone negotiations skills training in English 2018, and the purpose of this follow-up in 2021 with women leadership with interpretation into Krio, the language spoken by the majority of market women, was a women’s empowerment initiative to enable SLeTU to have more women leaders on their negotiating teams all around the country.
According to one of the participants, Fatmata Sia Tengbeh, Bo District Women’s Leader, having a course targeting women negotiators is crucial in Sierra Leone, as the majority of women are employed in the informal economy as street and market vendors. The general response of the participants has been very positive. Participants have highlighted the gender equality aspect of the course, and the importance of giving women vendors a voice to represent their sector and their demand, as their role is often overlooked.
Also, the instant messaging format has been highly appreciated. “I have never been to any negotiating team but with the knowledge acquired, I have now had what it takes to be one of the negotiators. Thanks to StreetNet and also to SLeTU whose affiliation has brought such a result about” said Mariama Korouma, another participant of the course. Kadiatou Saffie Jalloh added that the content of the course was “very easy to comprehend”.
The goals of the negotiations course
The aim was to equip participants with the necessary skills to conduct collective negotiations with relevant authorities for the rights of informal traders, such as: how to negotiate successfully, how to keep all members involved in the negotiations process, how to follow-up negotiations and how to enforce negotiated agreements. As such, participants should emerge with an understanding of all the steps which form part of negotiation processes. It was carried out through a participatory approach making it very practical and contextual.
The women Informal Traders, no matter their formal educational background, participated and contributed to the lively discussion. The course was held under leadership of the International Coordinator – Oksana Abboud, and facilitated by SNI Advisor Pat Horn, and coordinated by Evelyn Benjamin-Sampson (Organizer for West/Central Region) and Haja Balkisu Kamara (SLeTU Head of Women’s Committee) who also provided an excellent interpretation service alternating with another SLeTU women’s leader Esther Pendema. According to Evelyn Benjamin-Sampson, the virtual training was “exceptionally effective”. “For all of us this was a creative experiment that we had to invent as we went along. But the appreciation of the participants really made it worth it. Now we hope that as many of them as possible can get some opportunity to try out what they have learnt in live collective negotiations” added Pat Horn.
“We are so proud of StreetNet International about women that get empowered through their interventions; we are looking forward to putting lessons learned into action” declared Haja Balkisu Kamara.
Making workers’ education accessible to all
At first, the course was planned to be delivered through Zoom, the video conferencing program. However, connection problems meant that participants could not properly join through that platform. StreetNet had already conducted mentoring sessions with SLeTU through WhatsApp, therefore we decided to adapt the negotiations skills course to this methodology. Although WhatsApp does not allow for video conferences with many participants, WhatsApp messaging is extremely accessible for a variety of reasons. It allows users to send audio messages, which helps reach participants who might have literacy issues or simply do not have time to read long texts while they work. Whatsapp also does not require strong internet connection and does not consume a lot of bandwidth – making it usable from remote areas as well. A lot of different resources can be uploaded on the app (links, video, pictures) and stored on phones, so they do not get lost. The interface is easy and the use of the app is widespread enough: all these reasons make instant messaging a great tool to create and disseminate truly accessible content for workers all over the world.
“As an international organization, online education is a valuable resource to reach more organizations without budget constraints, however, there are important challenges for our street vendors sector to fully access the internet, computers, and also the use of digital tools.” concludes Maira Vannucchi, StreetNet’s head of workers education. “Therefore, we have taken on the task of developing creative ways to carry out online education, with the understanding that access to the courses of our associative base is made via smartphone. With that, we accepted the adventure of conducting a course through whatsapp audio messages, including interpretation into another language, thus managing to provide instruction, critical reflection and action strategies in the struggle for rights thus strengthening our affiliates within the reality in which they live.”