Why Women Enter Into The Informal Sector?
Much of the literature on the informal sector in general,
emphasizes on the utilization of the urban surplus labour, (ILO 1972: Shields
1980). According to this view people who migrate into the urban centres
searching for jobs in the formal sector find themselves being
jobless. In order to survive, they enter into the informal sector.
For them the informal sector is a transit station before securing gainful
employment in the formal sector. It is this group of people whom Gutkind
(1968, a-b; 1973; 1974) concentrated on and called them the
dispossessed. The proletarization process in Africa, which has
created urban squatters or spontaneous settlements, has created a reserve army
of labour. The forces behind such a move are more socio-economic than social.
Also, our educational system which does not relate with the available formal
jobs in the market, has added to the problem (Ishumi 1983; Shields 1980).
Other reasons why we have a surplus labour engaging in the
informal sector include the existing insecurity of jobs in the formal labour
market. New technologies that require skills and education of different sorts,
put some youths off the formal labour market because of lack of specialized
skills. In this group women are the majority since they generally constitute the
larger number of those who lack formal eduction and the required
skills. Shields (1980:47), in her study on labour migration in Tanzania,
concluded that the women are better represented in the non-formal sector of the
labour market than in the formal sector, partly because most jobs in this sector
do not require certification.
Looking at women in Uganda, Obbo (1982:122) has shown that even
those who migrated into the urban centres for non-economic reasons do engage in
informal business activities.
Even for women who had migrated for non-economic
reasons, economic factors became primary... Even in jobs requiring no great
skills the women found themselves competing with the men who regard them as a
With regard to women, it is a gender issue in relation to the
opportunity and freedom accorded to them at household level. There is abundant
literature showing how, in a patriarchal society, women are dominated by men in
the realms of decision making, economic control and management (Omari and Shayo
1990). It is, therefore, urged that womens participation in the formal
sector gives them the opportunity to manage and control the economic activities
and space on their own.
There are two aspects of this statement. There is the idea that
since many women are not in the formal sector due to lack of education and
skills as stated above, the informal sector gives them a chance to exercise
their managerial capacity regardless of whether the activities they are engaged
in are legal or illegal.
Studying womens struggle for economic independence in
Africa Obbo (1982:123) observed:
The self employed in the informal sector are often
illegal employed, either operating without trading licences, or stretching and
bending the laws a little.
And Arizpe (1977) concluded that women in developing countries
are the majority in this sector. Aboagye (1958:1) in the JASPA report to the
government of Tanzania says that the informal sector employs 40-60 percent of
the urban women labour force and contributes 3/4-1/4 of the total urban income.
Unfortunately the report does not address the rural sector, where 70-80 percent
of the labour force are women and contribute very significantly to the economy
of the country.
There is also an interesting idea that the domination over women
by men has worked positively among some women for it has enhanced their
creativity which, for a long time, has been suppressed through the social
structures and institutions created by men (Swantz 1985). Steady (1985:11)
presenting a less antagonist feminist view of the role of women in the society
says that in traditional African societies the sexual division of labour gave
women a great deal of autonomy and independence. She even praises
polygamous marriages, which, according to her, contributed to the self-reliant
ideology among women in traditional African societies. She says:
Ironically polygamy, viewed from some perspectives
as oppressive to women, in many ways contributed to the development of this
ideology... Patriarchal authority in polygamous families, unlike monogamous
families, could therefore be regarded as limited rather than
absolute; since it could not be exercised over all women on a continuous basis,
and men could be viewed as peripheral to each wife/child unit (Steady
The above quotation applies to the rural families where land is
still plenty and agricultural based economic activities are practised. The
question is: Can we adopt and apply the ideology of self-reliance as a factor
behind many women going into the informal sector? If so, can we relate it to the
culture of space and control?
Many reports and papers have shown that independence
and self-reliance are the reasons which, among others, force many
women to involve themselves in the informal sector (Omari and Koda 1989). In
order to show their real independence from men, women sometimes conceal their
incomes to their husbands. Nyagwaru (1990:81-82) studying the impact of
commercialization of food crops and how this affects the households in Ngara
District, has found that women do not only not tell their husbands about their
income, but they at times also keep their money with their neighbours.
Thirdly, it has been suggested that getting into the informal
sector signifies economic collapse in both the formal sector and the
agricultural sector. Livingstone (1986:76) writing about the Kenyan situation,
argues that whenever family farm acreage becomes small (hence reducing the
demand for family labour), the search for non-farm activities becomes
inevitable. Women, as managers and servants of the
household, cannot stay idle while the children and other members of their
households are starving or missing their basic needs. Traditionally, women
worked in the farm and kitchen to produce and prepare food for the families.
Women are expected to perform these traditional roles of producing food even
when things get rough in the money economy. Thus as an alternative strategy for
survival, they get into the informal sector to do what I have called
important and essential projects.
This kind of reasoning comes out clearly in many reports and
research results done in Tanzania. This implies that if we were economically
stronger, then the women would not have got involved in the informal sector. On
the contrary, a major premise of our discussion is that women will continue with
informal businesses whether the economy improves or not. To be sure, there may
be some changes in the categories of activities and intensity of business due to
the changes in economy, but as a part of the development of independence
and self-reliance ideology among the women (Steady 1981), the sector will
continue to flourish.
Fourthly, women have been integrated into the world economic
system (Steady 1981:11), where many of them cannot compete with men in the
formal sector, for education and skills are the key to opportunities (Fortman
1982). Furthermore due to the cultural heritage sustained by the existing
division of labour at household level and community at large (Omari and Shayo
1990), women may decide to enter into the informal sector so as to play their
respective roles as mothers, housewives and producers. This is also another way
of finding adequate jobs in the society. It is, therefore, not
surprising that this sector is regarded as a major source of future growth by
some scholars (Leys 1974).
The participation of women in the informal sector is an index of
the social changes now taking place at household and the community levels. It
shows the dynamism of the social unit and how its members can adapt to changes
either as a response to specific socio-economic situations or as a way of
adjusting to the family labour turnover and