International Demand

Women working in developing countries demand inclusion

Growing up in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, Lorraine Sibanda has always been proud of the work her family does. “My mother was a seamstress who also sold vegetables. She was a strong woman. My sisters and I learned many skills from her. We appreciated the fruit of our work, ”she said.

The hard work and loving support of her family allowed Sibanda to receive a good education. The experience also inspired her to become a teacher to help girls from disadvantaged backgrounds change their lives through education and skills development.

In Zimbabwe and across Africa, the majority of working women do not have formal jobs, which means they would largely have to earn a living and take care of unprotected childcare. legal, Sibanda told CGTN.

Now a leading advocate for informal workers and women’s rights, Sibanda has continued to work as a freelance shopkeeper and seamstress to support her daughters in school. But she refuses to remain silent about injustices.

“Women in public spaces, especially young women, face daily harassment, violence and abuse from overzealous authorities due to the lack of an appropriate system to protect them.” , she said.

“I grew up in an informal economy home. Ultimately, workers in the informal economy are normal people; their children need to go to school and be looked after.

African women sell food products in a local market. / CFP

African women sell food products in a local market. / CFP

At the bottom of the global economy

The informal sector was historically a Western concept referring to low-income activities among unskilled migrants and colonized natives. In today’s globalized world, the term encompasses the vast majority of the workforce at the base of the economic pyramid, according to Martha Chen, co-founder of the global network Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO) and lecturer in public policy at Harvard Kennedy School.

These include domestic and home workers, transport workers, street vendors and waste pickers, as well as those down the global supply chain. “It is the main source of employment and income for the majority of the workforce and population of the developing world,” Chen said.

In South and Southeast Asia, where some multinationals have outsourced low-paid labor, both homeworkers and women sewing clothes for fashion brands and assembling boxes for fast food chains are employed. informal and unprotected way, Chen told CGTN.

The Geneva-based International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that informal workers represent 61 percent of the global workforce, including 90 percent in developing countries. Globally, 58 percent of working women are engaged in informal employment, while in developing countries the number rises to 92 percent.

Women are disproportionately represented in the informal sector due to gender norms in many societies that prefer to invest in sons, but structural inequalities have put them at a disadvantage, Chen said.

A garment worker in South Asia. / CFP

A garment worker in South Asia. / CFP

The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically exacerbated many of the pre-existing inequalities. The resulting economic fallout has been devastating for the world’s working poor, forcing many people to choose between their health and their livelihoods.

The impact on informal workers was immediate because for many, staying home means “no work, no income and no food,” Chen said. “They are stuck in this hole of despair.”

The ILO estimates that 1.6 billion informal workers could see their livelihoods destroyed due to the continued decline in work in the aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis. Millions of homeworkers in the garment industry have seen their orders come to a halt as brands refuse to pay for work already done. At the same time, they had no safety net to fall back on.

A WIEGO study in 12 cities around the world found that by mid-2020, the average incomes of informal workers in all sectors had almost halved from pre-pandemic levels.

Having been largely excluded from government support, informal workers are also at risk of being left behind in the post-pandemic recovery, despite providing many essential services on the front lines of this crisis.

This is because most models of social security were developed in the northern industrialized world and are employee-driven, Chen said. “They don’t match the reality in most developing countries.”

Stimulus packages should focus on the base, not just the tip, of the economic pyramid, she said.


At the 109th session of the International Labor Conference (ILC), where representatives from 187 countries are currently discussing the issue of inequalities in the world of work, women leaders of global networks of informal workers are calling for greater inclusion in the recovery planning.

Representing StreetNet, an international network of street vendors, Sibanda said women’s leadership is needed in policymaking, and she called for solidarity among women in developing countries.

Lorraine Sibanda, President of StreetNet International, is elected National President of the Zimbabwe Chamber of Informal Economy Associations (ZCIEA) on October 23, 2021. / ZCIEA

Lorraine Sibanda, President of StreetNet International, is elected National President of the Zimbabwe Chamber of Informal Economy Associations (ZCIEA) on October 23, 2021. / ZCIEA

“When you are an outspoken woman who is strong enough to speak out for yourself, and ultimately others, the community will perceive you as cold and deviant,” she told CGTN. “People will ask, ‘Where is her husband? Is that why she is alone?'”

In December 2020, Sibanda’s husband died after contracting COVID-19. The personal loss was a reminder of the plight of millions of ordinary families caused by the virus. Today, this intrepid mother and activist urges governments to put the well-being of their people first.

“Women take care of the sick at home and they get minimal support from the government. We need personal protective equipment in public spaces. Health care should be a priority.

The lack of support often stems from a negative perception of the informal sector on the part of authorities and the public which has led to discrimination against workers, Chen said. “The dominant rhetoric is that the informal sector is a problem that is dragging the economy down.”

However, it is increasingly recognized that a large part of the informal economy today is integrally linked to the formal economy and contributes to the overall economy; and that supporting the working poor in the informal economy is a key way to reduce poverty and inequality, Chen said.

Recently, calls for universal social protection have multiplied. This year, thousands of street vendors in New York City pushed city council to lift the cap on street food permits in place since 1983. On November 17, the Ford Foundation announced a grant of $ 25 million to WIEGO to support informal worker organizations.

“This is the first time that the informal economy has been talked about in any meaningful way,” Chen said. As for countries without means, the public policy specialist believes that changes begin with compassion and a change in attitude.

“Don’t hurt,” she said. “A change of mind doesn’t need financial expenditure.”

(Cover photo: Lorraine Sibanda from Zimbabwe, a leading activist for informal workers and women’s rights.)