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Market women take new look at life

NGOs are shaping how women look at power, rights, money

Kampala, Uganda | PATRICIA AKANKWATSA | Kalerwe Market on the northern edges of Kampala city is a bustling open space; crowded, messy, and noisy.

Squashed in the junction of two busy city roads; the Gayaza-Kampala road and the Northern bypass plied by vehicles skirting the city centre to northern Uganda, South Sudan and the DR Congo, it is always packed with people.

The vegetables, fruit, and other produce right out of the farm are spread out on makeshift stalls and bare ground that is often soggy as the market sits in a reclaimed swamp on the edge of the Kalerwe River Tunnel. But patrons appear not to care. For buyers, the farm produce is fresh and cheap compared to other city markets and the traders appear to make money.

Amidst this hustle and bustle is Goretti Nanyonjo; a squat middle aged soft-spoken woman with a jolly laugh who almost every vendor in the market appears to know and like. She is the chairperson of the Kalerwe Bivamuntuyo Market Women Vendors Association. Nanyonjo’s rank is unusual because, although most vendors in Kalerwe Market are women, the leaders are men.

And male dominance in markets is the norm although, according to the UNDP, women comprise 53% of the economically active population in Uganda, with 55% of them involved in trade, according to the Uganda Bureau of Statistics. Many, like Nanyonjo, are single mothers fending for their families. Up to 48% of women are self-employed, compared to 38% men, and 51%of women are in so-called elementary occupations like market vending. In markets, up to 70% of vendors are women.

Despite their numbers, majority of these women endure high levels of intimidation and exclusion in the way the markets operate. Rarely are they involved in the market decision-making. But that is changing.

Women get a voice

Watching Nanyonjo going about her business, one sees a self-assured woman, knowledgeable, with a sense of purpose in each step. It is difficult to imagine that just a few years back she was timid, easily intimidated, and clueless about business.

“I used to work from 6am to 9am. I used to sell only onions. All I cared about was to get money to get us through the day. I didn’t mind about tomorrow,” Nanyonjo says. The money she got went to pay rent, school fees for her children, and care for her elderly parents.

“You would get harassed,” she recalls, “Even when a man made a move on you and you refused, that would be a problem.”

Now, she says, all that is history.

Today, she says, women in Kalerwe market know their rights and; through fellow women like her, have a voice.

At the root of the transformation is the Institute for Social Transformation (IST); an international NGO that strives to grow women into leaders and agents of their destiny through transformative learning. The process involves training women to constantly reflect on their everyday experiences and ask why things are the way they are.

The point is to pinpoint root causes of problems, propose solutions, take action, and reflect on the new situation and so on. It is a cyclical learning that IST is implementing in over 60 countries around the world. In the East African region IST operates in Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda. It is headquartered in Uganda.

The IST approach to transformative community development was developed in Kenya in the 1970s by Sally Timmel and Anne Hope whose handbook has been translated into French, Spanish, Thai, Sotho, Arabic, and printed in numerous editions.

The IST work among market women involves training in advocacy, organizational leadership, and rights and power. IST works in markets of Kalerwe and Nakawa in Kampala, Gulu main market, Celeremo market, Pader main market, and Arua main market.

The women push for action on everyday things like availability of bathrooms, sanitary and child-care facilities in the markets. IST also organises a learning events between market women from different countries.

Nanyonjo recalls her first experience of IST.

“I was in the market and I heard about IST,” she says, “I went for the meetings and learnt how to manage my business and adopt a saving culture.

“I used to sell onions only for a few hours but now I sell onions and tomatoes the whole day. I never realised how much I needed the money as long as I survived the day.”

While she could barely survive in the past, today she returns home with at least Shs15, 000 every day.

Over 800 market women aged 15-40 have been reached directly through IST’s leadership training and organised interfaces with the media, and other market stakeholders like city and municipal councils.

Money linked to power

Rita Atukwasa, the executive director IST, says their work with market women vendors was sparked by research that showed that although the women were interested in making money, they did not know that money issues are closely affected by the social, political, and economic environment.

“We discovered that they were not participating in leadership,” Atukwasa says, “There was high level of intimidation, exclusion in the way the markets operate. Women were on the sideline when it came to decisions that were made.”

Atukwasa says IST has helped women form cooperatives where they save to increase their capital and can borrow and lend using their power of numbers.

The IST is not the only organisation working to teach women about their rights and power. The Association of Women Lawyers (FIDA- Uganda) has worked with the Eastern African Sub region Support Initiative (EASSI) and National Association of Women Organizations Uganda (NAWOU) to implement similar women’s economic justice projects.

Their project helps women gain confidence to challenge the status quo of discrimination and marginalisation, end financial dependence, access information and know their rights and advocacy strategies.

“We want to see a woman empowered economically and accessing justice,” says Robinah Namatovu; a legal officer at FIDA-Uganda.

Nakigudde Edith, the senior development officer in charge of Gender Affairs, Luwero where the project is based says empowering women economically is urgent because women have been held back by social and cultural constraints.

“Women have been left out,” she says, “Even in our homes, it is very visible.”

Nanyonjo agrees.

“Before IST sensitized us, we had no voice in the way the market operated,” she says as she arranges her onions and tomatoes in Kalerwe Market, “We were marginalised. But now we have a say since we learnt about our rights.”

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