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close this bookWomen in Informal Sector (Dar Es Salaam University Press, 1995, 46 p.)
View the documentA Historical Note
View the documentWhy Women Enter Into The Informal Sector?
Open this folder and view contentsWho Are the Women in the Informal Sector?

A Historical Note

The idea that the informal sector is the product of the formal sector failure to meet the demands of surplus labour in the urban areas (Leys 1974) cannot be accepted wholly since women’s participation in the sector has been in existence ever since communities began to organize themselves and assign roles and tasks to individuals in society according to sex and age (Omari 1989). Under the barter system, for example, women went to the markets to exchange their farm or non-farm products with other commodities. Normally, the value and price of the commodity was determined by mutual agreement between the seller and the buyer of the produces. For example, in traditional marketing system among the Pare and Shambala societies of North Eastern Tanzania, it was the task of the women to go to the market to do the transaction. Agricultural produces such as bananas, vegetables and milk, were controlled and sold in the market by women. In Mwanga District, handicraft products were the work of women who also dominated the pottery markets. Some of the men in Usangi became rich through the development of pottery business at household level (B. Omari 1975). They sold their produces not only in the local markets, but also to distant markets in Moshi and elsewhere.

However, as the cash economy penetrated the subsistence economy, women begun to develop mechanisms to cope with the changes. They had to find alternatives to enable them play their respective roles better at the household level. Fortman (1982:194) has suggested that:

while money making opportunities for men are expanding, women alternatives seem to be narrowing. Thus they are forced to respond in economic crisis by increasing their economic productivity along the traditional lives.

The traditional economic activities which women have been dealing with at household level can be put under three categories:

(i) Production of food and cash crop.
(ii) Household management, services and care.
(iii) Trade or business.

While the first two categories of activities have been normally carried out within the household compound or vicinity, the third category has involved travelling outside the household. The last category, in the wake of economic changes and stagnation, has involved non-traditional activities such as travelling to distant places for trading purposes. In an earlier research (Omari 1989), found that women in Mwanga, Kilimanjaro region, travelled to Taveta in Kenya, to get commodities for selling in the markets. This involved a trip of about two days, away from home. As a result, many women are overburdened with so many household activities, which, according to the division of labour based on sex, are within their expected roles.

During the period of mass mobilization and awareness creation among various groups of people for the support of the policy of ujamaa and self-reliance in the 1970s, a call was extended to the women to participate in the money economy. The famous statement; “Women do not sit in the economy” Wanawake msikalie uchumi in the late 1960s and early 1970s was a call by the government and Party officials to involve women more and more in the cash economy for they were already involved in numerous economic activities. The women’s power was invoked i order to involve them in the productive sector. It is doubtful, however, whether during this period in Tanzania political history, the leadership group had a clear picture of the role the informal sector was playing in the national economy. It is possible that they were concerned only with women getting more into the formal sector. Even those who joined formal employment, have ended up in the low paying jobs (Meghji 1977; Swantz 1985), primarily due to lack of eduction and skills.

Women’s participation in the informal sector has been closely related to the power structure and power relation in society. Such relations, for instance the call for the women “not to sit on the economy” referred to earlier, may be said to have a multi-dimensional meaning. In Ghana for example, women control the retail business in Kumasi market. One can miss a spare part in downtown stores, which is readily available in the Kumasi market. The late Kwame Nkrumar (then head of state of Ghana) recognized this power the women wielded and successfully used it for political organisation and mobilisation. Similarly the current head of State, Flight Lt. Rawlings has recognized this aspect of women’s power and used it for his populist ends. This is why he is popular among the ordinary people in rural and urban areas.

The call by the Tanzanian politicians that women should not sit on the economy, is also a recognition of the existence of women’s power in controlling the available resources and space. But one may be tempted to ask: was the call a way of giving women independence and freedom or was it merely a political gimmick? Discussing the role of the African women entrepreneur in the society, Simms (1981:160) has concluded that: “The African female entrepreneur holds a critical position in the internal production and distribution of goods and services to the consuming public.” Did the Tanzanian politicians recognize this? If one examines the attitudes of many male politicians towards women, the answer cannot be anything but skeptical.

The economic crisis of the 1980s has forced a number of women into informal businesses. Whether the call by Tanzanian politicians in late 1960s and early 1970s has added impetus to this move, is unclear. But what is clear is that the spontaneous social changes that are taking place in the country have forced women to utilize their creative potentials more positively, often going beyond their traditionally assigned place and role in society. For example, according to the 1978 census, out of a total of 5,223,863 people categorized as self-employed, 2,240,170 (42.88%) were women. Most of them (87.62%) are still involved in household subsistence related informal economic activities, and only 12.38% of the women were engaged in non-subsistence informal economic activities (Kasungu 1990:7).

In her situational analysis of the women in employment, Kasungu (1990:6) categorizes women in the informal sector in three groups. The first category includes women who are waged employment but are also involved in the informal business. The second category is that of “relatively rich women who are in their professions and are highly paid.” The third category includes less educated and poor unskilled women who cannot be employed in the formal sector. Kasungu’s categorization could be improved further to show the class character of the women who, are involved in the informal business as follows.

First, we have housewives and mothers who are at home but bring in income from their informal economic activities, which is twice or thrice that of their husbands/male partners. Secondly, there are employed women who are in the lower ranks and whose income from official employment is insufficient to meet the household minimum requirements. Third, there are the high salaried women who use their offices to run their informal business. These, like their male counterparts, spend most of their time outside the office doing their business. Although according to government regulations, these women are supposed to engage in such activities after office hours, it is difficult to control them because they have shrewdly divided their time between serving their employers and doing informal business. Normally this group of women use their offices as a contact place for their business. (Tripp (1990).

The resulting absenteeism from work places eventually work against women however. For example, it may allow their male bosses to assess them negatively, and hence become an impediment to their promotion (Tripp (1990).

Lastly, there are professional business women who conduct both the informal and formal businesses without experiencing any conflict.