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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?

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 threat

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 women’s 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 women’s 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 1981:16).

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 cycles.