“The human rights of women in the informal economies in the Horn of Africa” 

Grassroots women’s rights organizations, under the umbrella of SIHA Network, came together in a ‘Regional consultation on the social and economic rights of women in the informal economy in the Horn of Africa.’ The consultative meeting took place from the 5th to 7th December, 2018 in Nairobi and provided a platform for activists, academia and practitioners to share the specific country contexts, challenges, opportunities and lessons learned in their work to improve the lives and livelihoods of women in the informal economy (dubbed the Invisible Laborers).

The discussions highlighted both the diversity of specific country contexts as well as shared challenges upon which common agendas can be built and put into action.  The presentations revealed and emphasized SIHA’s previous findings on the extreme socio-economic conditions and patterns of violence that masses of women are experiencing across the region.  Though the informal economy represents the livelihood of the majority of citizens from the region, the rights of the informal workers are not represented at an equal level in policy, legislation or support systems. The rapid increase in women street vendors and other informal work reflects the changing socio-economic situation prevailing in the different countries in the Horn of Africa and the survival efforts of the population, yet rather than supporting their citizens in their efforts to uplift their families, governments are often predatory or simply demonstrate a lack of empathy and understanding.

Multiple vulnerabilities of women in the informal economy were highlighted throughout the discussions, including the abandonment of women by their male partners, overburdening them with responsibility of caring for their families, and leaving exposed the next generation to various forms of social and economic exploitation.  Women Street vendors are confronted with layers of aggression and resentment from local authorities, police, shop-owners and other traders, which exposes them to gross human rights violations and other serious risks.  Spending hours a day on the streets of urban centers, women are exposed to harassment and sexual violence, as well as serious health risks from the often overlooked lack of free public infrastructure where women can relieve themselves hygienically and in safety.  With no access to financial services, there are few chances for women to raise themselves out of their situation or improve the chances of their children.

Key reflections carved out of the consultation centered on directing efforts towards creating networks and cooperative groups, building solidarity economies that rely on trust as an infrastructure for women to be able to consolidate their efforts towards self-help, policy change, mobilization of resources, and to demand their rights as key contributors to the economy and as crucial political actors.

Through a human rights lens, the consultation bore unanimous recommendations around how crucial it is for policymakers and human rights organizations across the Horn of Africa region to acknowledge and address the challenges faced by women in the informal sector, through a concerted approach of bringing together central government, local government authorities, civil society and the vendors themselves.

SIHA throughout the discourse further reiterated that although the regulation of the informal economy is primarily within the purview of the local government authorities, central governments should employ positive, gender-sensitive policy contribution and implementation around the prioritization of ending sexual and gender-based violence perpetuated against women in the informal setting.