‘Men Fear Us’: Kampala’s Market Women Unite against Harassment

Alice McCool

Some men are in the habit of touching women, says Nora Baguma, a vendor at Nakawa market, in Uganda’s capital Kampala. “We call them bayaye,” she says, sitting at her banana stall.
“We give men punishment for this. I take men to the office if they cause problems. They can suspend that man for a week or a month,” Baguma explains. “It makes them stop. They fear us.”
Baguma is the women’s representative of Nakawa market, one of Kampala’s largest, where about 7,000 workers sell their wares.
The work of a local organisation, the Institute for Social Transformation, has increased awareness about sexual harassment among women at Nakawa. A protocol for dealing with cases has now been established; before, women in the market could only hold perpetrators to account informally.
The market is divided into six zones, each with 40 departments. Every department has a women’s representative, and they are the first port of call for sexual harassment complaints. Next is the zone leader, and above that the market’s disciplinary committee.
As she puts handfuls of mukene (dried silver fish) in bags for customers, market vendor Catherine Nanzige explains how punishments vary depending on the severity of the crime. “You pay a fee of 50 to 100,000 Ugandan shillings (about £10–20) and if you pay that fee and do the same thing again, you are given a month suspension from the market. If you continue, they expel you.”
A Nakawa market committee member, Nanzige has been working there since she was a child, helping at her mother’s stall.
“They see me and they fear me, because they know if I see them touching someone I will say that one is not in order, pay 100,000 shillings,” she says.
Many, though, are still reluctant to speak out – particularly younger women and girls. “Waitresses serving lunch here are young, 12 or 13 years old. When they take food to customers, those men harass them,” says Susan Tafumba, another vendor and secretary of Nakawa’s groundnuts department.
“They can touch the breast, make some gesture, say something, before they will give them the money,” sighs Tafumba. “Young girls here don’t know they can get help, so they end up keeping quiet.”
Worldwide, women working in the informal sector have long fought sexual harassment at work. A recently adopted international treaty influenced by the #MeToo movement is designed to offer such women new protections.
The convention concerning the elimination of violence and harassment in the world of work has been praised for its focus on informal sector workers, who represent 61% of the world’s labour force and more than 80% of Uganda’s.
“It has redefined the world of work to go beyond the workplace itself, and provides for all kinds of employees,” explains Ophelia Kemigisha, a Ugandan human rights lawyer. The convention covers the formal and informal economy as well as public and private spaces, for example protecting the rights of women when commuting to and from work.
But whether the convention will be useful in Uganda depends on the government, argues Kemigisha. Uganda’s current sexual harassment legislation “was clearly made with women in the formal sector in mind”, she says. Regulations only require employers with more than 25 staff to have a sexual harassment policy, failing to cover women working in markets who also “often don’t have an ‘employer’ per se who would be held accountable”, she says.
At workplaces like Nakawa market women have “found spaces outside of the set legal systems to find redress for sexual harassment and abuse”, explains Kemigisha. The Ugandan government could do more to support these informal mechanisms, she says, “including providing them with more information on how to handle investigations, and sending labour officers to areas that have been neglected to guide them”.
Leah Eryenyu, a researcher at pan-African feminist organisation Akina Mama Wa Afrika, is optimistic that the convention will lead to improvements, despite Uganda leading a successful motion to remove a recommendation that LGBT people be included in a list of vulnerable groups to be protected.
Eryenyu hopes that the treaty can bring about change in Uganda, where she says the #MeToo movement is still small, even in the formal sector. For the informal sector, “the practice [harassment] has been normalised and accepted as a way of life,” she explains.
Eryenyu’s research on women who work on flower farms has found that sexual exploitation – sex in exchange for temporary work or higher wages – is rife. She says that while there are sexual harassment policies in place and women “can report to gender committees”, implementation by male-dominated leadership structures is often poor.
Eryenyu argues that to protect women working in the informal sector, better recognition of their contribution to the economy is needed.
“The informal sector contributes greatly to our GDP, but when it comes to issues of protection they are suddenly invisible,” she says. “The government should be made to realise this is an important part of the economy that deserves the same amount of respect and protection as anywhere else.”
Nakawa market chairperson Charles Okuni, whose background is in finance, understands the economic value women bring to the sector: they make up the majority of market vendors. Sitting in his office above the market, he says Nakawa is working to improve the capital of market women through access to bank loans and through the government’s Uganda women entrepreneurship programme, which funds small businesses.
Based on his observations at Nakawa, Okuni considers “women’s affairs highly because they are more responsible, more willing to do business”.
“Men nowadays, they don’t want to take their responsibilities,” says Baguma.
“They leave each and every thing to the woman, then the woman starts struggling, selling these things, buying food, paying rent, school fees, so their capital is lost,” she says.
“I counsel the women who come to me with these complaints. When you give power to that man, at the end of the day that man can kill you.”
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